Monday, December 28, 2009

Digital Madness

I read TWO very interesting pieces in the Times today which seemed to confirm what I've been increasingly thinking over the past year/eighteen months: that it is easier to assimilate information from a paper, rather than a digital source.
In the course of my research I find myself reading many, many PDFs (mostly from JSTOR online digital journals) and a lot of Google Books (how I hate the way vital pages are always missing from the 'preview'). Ideally, I would print them (the PDFs, that is) all off to read at leisure, but because printer ink is unreasonably expensive and lots of documents are nigh-on forty pages long, I tend to print off only the ones that will definitely be useful. These I store in colour-coded files under relevant headings. Easy-peasy. However, the ones that aren't printed off, I save to my computer in a similarly logical fashion: PhD>PDFs>Linguistics; Socio-Historical; NT Texts etc., etc.
But I find it very hard to recall, at a distance from the initial reading, what relevant snippet of information I have read where amongst my digital resources, and when I attempt to scan through the documents to re-find it, I feel not only a rather unpleasant sensation of disorientation, but a real inability to absorb what it being relayed. In fact, sometimes when I do this, I often find myself thinking 'I really can't be bothered' which is quite disturbing, given that I am now actually being paid to do this! I far prefer to read stuff on paper, and the following speculative article from the Times seems to back this up.

Constant Digital Stupidity

When you're constantly scanning mobile phones and computer screens, your attention is so fragmented that you can't concentrate on one thing. That's known as constant partial attention. The next stage is that you'll start forgetting things, missing important pieces of information and making mistakes, and you'll never get round to quality thinking. This matters at work when you're scanning masses of fast-moving information, you're under pressure to react quickly and you're rushing. At home you have so many pass-words in your head that you forget your PIN and can't get money out, then you phone your bank and can't remember that password.
research will confirm that multitasking is a myth, we'll see phrases such as slow media emerge as people realise that if you read things on paper you are more relaxed, you register more, you reflect and see the big picture. This is why paper is not dead and why,while news will be mostly delivered online, serious comment and analysis and novels will largely stay on paper.

Vindicated! I knew it!
A second piece, from today's Times business section, states that 'print advertising is more than twice as effective as television advertising'. Research, carried out by Microsoft Advertising, confirms that ever £1 spent on print advertising yields £5, compared with £2.15 for television and £3.44 for online advertising. The study recommende that retailers increased online and print advertising budgets by 10% and decreased television advertising by that amount. Not surprisingly, an executive from a television marketing body didn't think much to the findings.

I have to say that I am actually oblivious when it comes to advertising. I tend to like the things I like and am not tempted to diversify. Household and grooming products are not things I ever spend any time thinking about - I do my shopping online because I hate wasting time in supermarkets. Buying white goods, carpeting or furniture is something that I delegate to the Husband. I'm not that bothered about what we end up with. I am not a great target for marketing! Advertising campaigns are just not on my event-horizon. Similarly, if I'm online I find it easy to ignore irrelevance, and our pop-up blocker screens out the majority of unwanted stuff.
That's not to say that I dislike shopping completely - but I am never persuaded to buy things that I wouldn't already be buying, and the stuff I like to buy (second-hand books, bags and deli food) aren't advertised anyway!

Another paragraph in the first article discusses the rather more worrying tendency towards 'digital isolation' where the world is ever-more connected but increasing remote from its fellow-man. Looking around this seems to be true. People look past you in the street as they talk on their mobile phones, are talking as they are served in shops, are isolated from their surroundings with a cocoon of head-phoned, non-stop music. Once upon a time you'd think a person was mad if they were walking along talking to themselves: now you just assume they're using their blue-tooth hands-free! Even in our house, everyone huddles over their own digital gadget. Everyone has a phone and an iPod of some sort; the Husband and I have a laptop each (his is a work one, admittedly) and there is a 'house' PC (pretty bloody temperamental) for general use.

Even in offices people don't communicate, they stare at screens all day. Lunchtime has gone, the dining room has gone, the family sitting around one television has gone.

The piece end with a pretty bleak prediction for the coming years:

Loneliness and depression will become even bigger issues.

Ah! digitalia! Where would we be without it?
Instant gratification, but no true satisfaction. Everywhere and everyone can be accessed, but never really reached. As the article notes, this is why Starbucks is so successful, it gives the isolated home-based laptopper somewhere to work, where they feel part of a (even if somewhat illusory) community. I've certainly taken advantage of their venti lattes over the years!
And this is why I have decided that this coming year our family will be following a partial defragmentation regime. Dinner will take place more regularly around the dining table (we've been slipping into on-knee mode lately), where mobiles will be banned. We will be attending Mass together on a regular basis (never mind about the Sunday morning sporting activities, we'll all make the effort to go to the Saturday night vigil, or the Sunday evening Mass).
Call these my New Year's resolutions....that, plus redoubling my commitment to my PhD (but that, dear reader, is another blog posting....)

Talking to my supervisor at our last meeting about the vast resources of information now available for scholars, I rather stupidly mused on how people managed before the advent of the internet.
He fixed me with a cool eye:
'We went to the library, of course, and met our friends, and then we went for coffee or a drink...'

And no doubt it was a far more sociable and pleasant experience than sitting hunched alone over a computer......

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