What Is The Internet’s Effect on Deep Reading?

iStock_000010264645XSmallHere’s a challenge: can you read this whole post without getting distracted?  Can you resist the urge to skim each paragraph for the “gist of it”, and instead read each sentence carefully, reflecting on its meaning, even thinking about how it might apply to your life?

Chances are this might take some work: if you are accustomed to reading on the web, you’ve likely also grown accustomed to the online reading style known as the “F-shaped pattern“, where when you open a webpage, you read in an F-shape quickly from left to right across the top, and then scan the middle until you get to the bottom, absorbing a few main ideas but not truly engaging with any of them.  It’s a quick and easy way to catch the major points, enabling you to get an overview of everything presented, perhaps giving you the sense of comprehension.  But as the research shows, it’s likely that you are absorbing very little.

And when you’re websurfing, reading for entertainment, or perusing blogs, maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re just skimming. But as the internet is increasingly the source for all our content – the news we read, the research we do for work and school, the entertainment we enjoy– we must ask the question: how is the internet changing the way we read, and the depth with which we take in information? What are the implications for society if the deep, reflective thinking associated with reading is replaced by the “web-page graze”?

In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” writer Nicholas Carr raised many of these same questions.  In it, he explored the idea that websurfing is restructuring the way we process information, conditioning us to take in a lot of information at once, but not in much depth. Carr opens his article talking about how he believes the internet has reprogrammed his attention span:

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he says. “I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now, my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

He elaborates,

“…What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface life a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr interviews a fellow writer who says this type of reading has generalized to reading books as well:

“I can’t read War and Peace anymore” he says.”I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

I’ve noticed that many students report the same problem.  After becoming accustomed to reading quick bits of information online, it has become harder to stay focused on long reading assignments that require sustained focus. Students are more and more foregoing reading long articles and books and instead look for quick summaries on sites like Wikipedia and Sparknotes– sites which allow them to get an overview of the content quickly, but don’t require the same type of reflection and commitment that reading a book requires.  If people, and in particular, students, are reading less thoroughly and getting more “summarized content”, how will this affect the type of thinking they engage in?  What will be the impact of online reading on the depth with which people immerse themselves in the subjects they are reading about?

Is How We Read Important To Who We Are?

Sven Birkerts, in his essay, “The Owl Has Flown” (printed in the anthology Making Sense), presciently addressed the internet’s potential impact on our intellectual ethic, and would likely be worried for the fate of student scholarship in the age of online reading.  Birkerts echoes Carr’s observations about reading behavior, and then reflects more philosophically on the implication that this type of reading style has for the virtues of depth and wisdom, believing that reading online leads not only to a lack of depth in what we read, but a lack of depth we cultivate as human beings:

The reading act is necessarily different than it was in its earliest days…the reader (now) tends to move across surfaces, skimming, hastening from one site to the next without allowing the words to resonate inwardly.  The inscription is light but it covers vast territories: quantity is elevated over quality.  The possibility of maximum focus is undercut by the awareness of the unread texts that await.  The result is that we know countless more “bits” of information…(but) we know them without a stable sense of context.

Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. The computer, our high-speed, accessing, storing, and sorting tool, appears as a godsend. It increasingly determines what kind of information we are willing to traffic in; if something cannot be written in code and transmitted, it cannot be important.

(But in this paradigm) there is no chance that any piece of information can unfold its potential significance… Where electronic impulse rules, and where the psyche is conditioned to work with data, the experience of deep time is impossible. No deep time, no resonance; no resonance, no wisdom.”

Carr states similar views in his article:

“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading…is indistinguishable from deep thinking. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in ourselves but in our culture.”

I think it’s interesting when Carr says, “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds.”   I wonder if material garnered online– given the sheer amount of content, and the skimming-type reading style that we often employ when reading it– resonates with the reader as much as content read in actual books, magazines, and newspapers, and can set off those “intellectual vibrations” in the same way reading a book does.  Is there something about reading on a computer , constantly distracted by advertisements, wanting to check e-mail, and the impulse to read other websites, that keeps information from “unfolding its significance”, the way it can in a book?

Also, I think Carr is right that “deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”  I wonder, how is reading online affecting student scholarship? Are students becoming conditioned to expect shorter, quicker versions of content, and losing the capacity to engage in deeper thinking as a result?  Is information being retrieved but not retained? If so, does this support the idea that Birkerts puts forth that as a result of losing depth in reading, we are also losing our capacity for deep thought as human beings?


How has the internet changed the way you read?  Do you find it more difficult to engage in “deep reading” of long books and articles because you are accustomed to reading quick bits of information and skimming for “overviews” online?

Do you agree with Birkerts and Carr that, as a result of being “information retrievers” on the web, we will experience a loss of depth and wisdom as a society?

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

64 Responses to “What Is The Internet’s Effect on Deep Reading?”

  1. marinahoward13 says:

    The internet has vastly altered the manner in which I retain information. Before I became a frequent online user, I used to enjoy reading books and getting wrapped up in “vertical reading” of literature. Now, I view reading long articles and novels as a horrible task to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, I agree with both Birkerts and Carr in their claims that one of the main reasons we have lost “depth and wisdom” as a society is because of the availability of quick facts and summaries online. However, I believe that this loss of depth can also be attributed to the way in which we learn material. In school, we are forced to read volumes of pages of literature, participate in extra-curricular activities, and finish all other school work while maintaining a high GPA. Our lives are so fast paced, that we simply do not have time to read deliberately and vertically, and therefore we do not have time to read critically and obtain a deep understanding of the text. Therefore, it is not the Internet that has changed our values as a society, but our values that have allowed the Internet to flourish. And, as a result of our change in values, the Internet was simply created to help us access information quickly in our fast-paced lives and sped-up the change in thinking and reading that had already begun as our value system evolved from one that valued deep thought to one that values quick tidbits of information.

  2. Nicole Guzman says:

    My complete reliance on the internet has made it nearly impossible for me to read extensive essays and articles in depth. With all the information I want accessible with the click of a little button, why would I choose to look for it myself? It saves valuable time that I could use to find out even more information, doesn’t it? The sad truth is, this mentality is growing more and more prominent with the constant advancements in technology, especially with my generation. Another interesting point I found in this article was that reading online is made harder with advertisements and the availability of other distractions, such as Facebook (which is currently opened in a tab on my computer…) or e-mail. I do agree with Birkerts and Carr in their ideas that we are losing a sense of depth and wisdom as a society. However, I feel like their thoughts are expressed with a negative connotation, which I don’t think they should. It’s not necessarily bad, just the way our society is evolving.

  3. Kelly Mckenna says:

    As I was reading this article online, I found it to be pretty spot on with what I personally think. It was hard for me to even make it through an article online that I had an interest in. I find it very frustrating. To me, reading has become a task. I only think of reading something when I have homework. It never use to be like this though; before I started using the internet a bunch, i could enjoy a book and focus on it, but now since everything can be found online, I don’t read books anymore. The light from the computer and the flashing advertisements and pictures around my room make it hard for me to concentrate. When I read books, I became a part of its world, I had no idea what would be happening around me. The internet has made everything faster, even how we think. We dont have time to vertically process information we find on the computer because there is such a vast supply of it all. Everything flashes by. In the Owl Has Flown, Birkerts explained not only how reading has changed over generations, but how our thinking process is different. I definitely agree with this too. Before, the only way people would know about a distant place would be by word of mouth or by traveling there and learning from experience. Now, people can watch TV or look on the internet and take virtual tours of dream vacation places. Overall I agree with both of the article that I read in that today people do not read the same as they did before.

  4. Ryan Cashen says:

    The internet today is our fastest way of acquiring information, however, we often don’t scratch the surface of the densest reading material. The internet has changed the way w e read with its’ ability to access us to any information instantly. After reading,Birkert’s “The Owl has Flown,” I realized how much information I miss when I skim a text. This article makes the point to dissect each sentence to find context and meaning, rather than finding the main ideas.
    It is harder to engage in deep reading in an online environment because of all the distractions one can find on the computer. I feel if I sit down and read a book I am way more productive than reading the article online. The internet is a valuable resource when we use it to its fullest.

  5. Charles Hall says:

    The other day while having a casual conversation with a friend we began to talk about Woodstock. Going into the conversation I felt somewhat knowledgeable on the subject because I had recently read the entire eleven-page wikipedia entry. My friend however had recently read a book on Woodstock and offered to lend it to me. I graciously accepted. The first thing I noticed about the book was how it was water damaged and smelled horribly until it was aired out for a few days. The other observation I made was how thick the book was. If had been content with just reading the online story then I would have been deprived of information only available through more dense mediums and that I would never have been able to read the book if it was online. My eyes get tired easily when reading on screens. The point I’m trying to get to is that the information available on the internet was not enough for me and only trough old fashion methods of communication like talking with friends was I able to find another old fashion way to satisfy my need.

  6. Ryan Cashen says:

    “The Owl has Flown” by Birkerts
    The internet today is our fastest way of acquiring information, however, we often don’t scratch the surface of the densest reading material. When I first read this article I skimmed it over and was the opposite of Birkert’s ideal reader. The internet has changed the way we read with its’ ability to access us to any information instantly. After reading,Birkert’s “The Owl has Flown,” I realized how much information I miss when I skim a text. This article makes the point to dissect each sentence to find context and meaning, rather than finding the main ideas.
    It is harder to engage in deep reading in an online environment because of all the distractions one can find on the computer. The many distractions include sites like face book and aim. Birkert wants us to sit down and soak in the words and live them instead of brushing them aside. I feel if I sit down and read a book I am way more productive than reading the article online. However, in this time and age the internet will be the most superior resource that we will use in time to come. Who knows how long books will be around.

  7. spencer.waddell@gmail.com says:

    Truthfully, I do not believe that there are any vertical readers anymore, because there are just too many things to read. If you make yourself a vertical reader, you shelter yourself to only a limited amount of knowledge. Having a social life and discussing issues with friends might be difficult. Being a vertical reader to me is easier to understand if I use a metaphor. Vertical reading is like taking the same class every year for five years, it does not make any sense. You will obviously be an expert in whatever subject you are studying, but the human brain can absorb so much more than one type of learning. Why should a person limit themselves to one or two books in a lifetime. The internet also provides many pieces of information that are not always relevant to what we want to know. Also, in the words of Brooks from the movie Shawshank Redemption “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” This is true, and now everyone is always trying to get somewhere and get something new, instead of taking a stroll through the park. This is evident in the movies of old compared to the movies of today.

  8. Meghan Horowitz says:

    While reading this article I was on facebook, texting, an my roommate was watching tv. Needless to say, I was a bit distracted. With the internet being used more and more in schools kinds have become accustomed to just simply grasping the main points of online readings. I have found it slightly more difficult to fully immerse myself when reading a book because I have become used to doing 5 things at once while reading online.

  9. will patterson says:

    Deep reading, as defined in the above article, is synonymous with deep thinking. The author strives to make the point that as the Internet evolves to contain an ever increasing amount of information, concurrently, our means of interpreting evolves into mere “skimming…without allowing the words to resonate inwardly.” In my personal opinion, I agree with the author’s argument: Wisdom can only result from the resonance of information; resonance can only result from deep reading. Being a child of the digital age, I believe I read differently than people did a thousand years ago. This obviously is a resultant of several factors but mainly because I have extremely easy access to copious amounts of information. And it is this crucial change that causes our society to turn their back on novels and philosophical thinking to tabloids and summaries.

  10. sumiresandy says:

    I have never thought about how the internet has affected my ability to read. Now that I think about it, I used to read all the books assigned in middle school but in high school, to be honest, I had never finished a book assigned in class. The massive amount of internet reading I do every day surely have changed the way I read. I really agreed with the line “in a swiftly moving stream of particles. ” Sometimes I have to read a sentence twice because the first time I read it, I was just saying out the words and not actually putting the words into my mind. I agree with Birkerts and Carr that we will experience a loss of depth and wisdom as a society. However, this is a result of what we have built up; we just have to accept it. To say the truth, I don’t really care. I think my indifference is a result of my drease in deep reading also. People back then did not have much entertainment, so they engaged in philosophy and deep reading, but our world now is a busy place; we don’t have time to ponder on subjects or read a book more than once. I agree that the humanity will become more apathetic because of this new habit of reading, but that is just the way it works in a modern society.

  11. kaiyen says:

    In response to another comment, I think it’s fair to say that most of us read differently today than people did 1000 years ago. I do not mean that in a mocking manner – the fact is that our reading styles and, more generally, I think, information assimilation methods change over time, as different technologies and media present themselves.

    However, I think it’s ridiculous to say that the Internet has somehow limited our ability to do deep reading or thinking. Before the age of mass digital media and certainly for decades before that, readers had to decide what was important and what was not. They read to a depth according to the relative importance. At the risk of offending those that have commented that they do feel their reading methods have changed because of the internet, my opinion is that if one feels that he or she is less capable of deep reading and deep thinking, then it’s because they are not trying hard enough to be disciplined readers.

    I certainly skim internet articles when I do not feel they are of essential importance to my life or breadth of knowledge (which would be two distinct reasons, I think). There is a reason why RSS readers are so popular – they aggregate headlines and provide not more than 1000 characters of the post to grab our attention. But when something does come up that is particularly interesting, I do read in depth, and I certainly reflect upon what is said, whether I agree with it or not, and sometimes even blog about it myself.

    It is not as if everyone paid 100% attention to every single thing in front of them – letters, books, music, speeches, etc – before the digital age. Choices had to be made, priorities assigned, and deep thinking done on an appropriate basis.

  12. StephieDav says:

    I can REALLY relate to the sentiments expressed in this entry. I have so much difficulty when reading things on the web. I try to print things out when I can spare the paper, but for the most part I can’t afford the luxury of doing so. I often find myself clicking open facebook, or youtube distracting myself from the readings that i’m supposed to be doing online. I find it hard to focus on the screen both because it hurts my eyes, and I get frustrated with the extra bulk of the laptop. Another thing i’ve noticed, is that the same distractions I experience online tend to transfer to my normal physical readings. I try to skim the vast amounts of readings that are assigned, and find that I often don’t retain very much of anything that I read. While the internet provides a lot of useful information very quickly, it does also provide a lot of opportunity for mistakes to occur, because different people can often influence the content that is available to everyone, and books don’t exactly have the same effect. Books are generally founded in truth, at least the ones that provide information that is used for academic purposes.

  13. Jason says:

    I’ll never know if the internet has impacted the way I read. I, along with thousands of others from my generation, grew up learning to read and learning to use the internet at the same time. I’ve (mostly) always associated reading a book to be boring. I remember hating books I read in high school where the author would elaborate on a scene or description for pages on end in what could have easily been described in a paragraph. I’ve never considered this to be due to my internet use, but now that I reflect on it I believe it to be true. The internet is design to deliver bits and pieces of relevant data. We tend to skim because the “filler” is not important and we simply don’t have the time to waste reading it. When you read a book like you read a blog, as Carr states, you lose the “deep” reading and thinking. You lose the author’s tone, and any sentiments that might resonate with you. These things may not have great significance when reading an online article because we read those articles for news and updates, not critical reflection. When we do this day in and day out, I agree that we carry the same behaviors to reading a book. I wonder if the introduction of e-readers like the Kindle or iPad to mainstream society will change even further deep reading. Will our eyes be so accustomed to screens that it will be hard to focus and basic paper and ink? Will we consider physical books to be antique based on their inability to find words and phrases with CTRL+F?

  14. Dil Khadka says:

    An internet is an electronic communication network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world. It has made our life easy, comfortable, pleasurable and luxurious. People used internet as a fast and easy way of communication whether the result is decent or immoral. Online communication research extends that uses of internet leads to undesirable psychological outcomes such as depression and loneliness. Internet is a negative influence for the people.
    One reason for the negative influence of internet is that internet is varying the people way of living. Internet has weakened the people’s concentration. Consequences people faced by getting on the internet are that they less able to discriminate between what is and is not real and they are unable to test reality in the virtual world. Internet has perpetuated our culture’s tendency to seek instant gratification. Internet is playing negative role in people’s way of living, doing things, thinking, reading, etc.
    Nowadays, people are going crazier about internet. They usually try to obtain more information with the uses of computer, and they proceed too. The more they use Web, the more they got a difficult in reading.
    Regular uses of internet negatively change the people way of thinking. As people use an internet their memory slowly decrease working, their concentration starts to drift after reading two or three pages.Most of the people in world use internet as a good source of communication. Developed countries depend upon net for their business procedure. Although computer has the potential to enhance the equality of human life; it is, at the same time, the cause of many society’s problems. Computer addiction has resulted in changing our lifestyles and social value. Health risks increased as the overuse of computers. Computer has influenced every aspect of people’s lives. It can directly affect our life, our behavior and our thinking in a very negative way.

    It is clear that internet has serious destructive effects on students. For one thing, students are so vulnerable to becoming addicted to internet. Additionally, they do their homework not with their own efforts but with the entire dependence on internet resources.Rises of the digital media has increased access to pornography. Recently, researcher suggests that viewing pornography releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls an individual’s reward and pleasure sensation. In doing this, similar to drug addiction, individuals need more and more extreme pornography to get the same level of arousal. Resulting, many students are becoming addicted to the internet. They spend more and more time playing computer games or just surfing the net without any particular reason. Accordingly, the time they spend on studying is automatically reduces, which in turn cause lower academic achievement. Moreover, some of them go to extreme, becoming serious internet addicts, and they even refuse to go to school as they cannot escape from the trap of the internet. Regular uses of internet can also harm the person sight.

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