Quite fittingly, just after I wrote about software that shields users from interruptions like email, instant messaging, and online networks, I was distracted by an article in Wired, June 2010 at 116. The article compellingly argues that the cognitive effects of information overload and interruption from the Internet cause significant problems in concentration, retention and processing.
The author clobbers hypertext reading. Many studies show that we read hypertext material (blog posts?) more slowly and with less absorption than straight text. He shows that our small working memories cannot handle the “cognitive load” dumped on us by constant messages from inboxes, popups, the allures of Facebook, and the incessant din of Twitter. We read differently online, more skimming and less thought. We bounce rapidly between screens, which imposes “switching costs” as we gear up for one task and then power down and gear up for another. The Internet showers us with candy for the brain, but leaves us under-nourished for thoughtfulness.
“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive.” Multi-tasking is but one of the deleterious effects (See my post of Aug. 26, 2009: trying to do too many things at once with 8 references and 1 metapost.).
As law departments make available for clients online material, their lawyers should recognize the impoverishment of attention that may result. As those same lawyers themselves spend more and more time on the Internet – “the answer to everything is online, just a Google away” – they may not recognize how it eats away at their ability to learn and think. The Internet and its acolytes are invaluable, but they play with our brains.