The Effect of the Internet on Reading

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Category: Legal Education, Legal Practice, Legal Writing, Public
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“Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Nicholas Carr

While preparing for this fall semester, I came across the citation for an article from The Atlantic.  In mid-2008, writer Nicholas Carr asked, “Is Google making us stupid?”

Carr, a writer and former deep reader, noticed that after a decade of using the internet, he cannot engage with reading like he used to. “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. . . . The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” His article suggested that the way the internet works not only changes what we read, but how we read, and perhaps even changes the very way we think.

I’ve addressed the internet’s effect on our lives before, but here I want to address what the internet has done to our ability to read and to engage deeply with text. What Carr says about reading is, I notice, true. After spending more than a decade with volumes of information at my fingertips and with the ability to, in seconds, move from one bit of information to another to yet another, it’s much harder now to engage deeply with any single text.

For me, if I have to scroll down two or three or—gasp!—four times to completely read an article online, well, I’m going to be hard-pressed to do it in a single, uninterrupted session. I’m off, after that first screen’s worth of text, to see what’s trending on msn.com, to peek at the headlines on cnn.com, to check my email again, to maybe order that shirt that I like (that I’ve looked at online five times already).  And this is a process I’m likely to repeat not 15 minutes later while trying to read the second or third screen’s worth of text, even though it’s likely that nothing has changed since I last checked those same sites. I’ve come to expect (and maybe at some level, require) my information in convenient bite-sized chunks; in this way, perhaps, I feel I can manage all the information that I will receive during the course of the day. If there’s something long that I must read—or really want to read—I’ll often print it out and save it for a later time, usually when I’ve removed myself from the computer, and even then, I’m still distracted.

Like Carr, I don’t think my experience is unusual. In fact, people’s lack of capacity for deep reading is probably more prevalent today than it was in 2008, when Carr published his article. But this is not how I prefer it. From time to time, I am still capable of losing myself in a book, oblivious to the outside world, but those times are becoming more and more scarce. And it worries me to think about what this lack of capacity for deep reading means.

In the last several years we have begun training lawyers-to-be who have never not known or used the internet. Today’s law students, on average born in the late 1980s or very early 1990s, were mere elementary school students when the internet blossomed. By the time they reached high school and college, they were using computers regularly to complete their school research and school projects, and to stay ever-so-connected with their friends. Their desire for—or entitlement to, perhaps, in their view—computers is one of the things that makes the debate about banning laptops in the classroom so vexing. The computer is not, as for some of us from older generations, an instrument that allows us to expand and express our thinking; for them, it seems to have become part of the thinking process itself.

For if it is true that there is a lack of depth and focus in reading, this is problematic for law students and lawyers because reading and engaging deeply with text are crucial skills for lawyers. Law is so rooted in the written word. By one estimate, law students will read 2,500 pages in their casebooks alone by the end of their first semester in law school.

To study the law is to dive deeply into text that is unlike any other you’ve read (especially if you’re reading cases from the 19th and early 20th centuries) and to carefully parse through it to divine meaning. It’s really difficult to do that if you find yourself constantly distracted and you’ve barely finished reading the facts of a case.

Further complicating things is that much of what one reads in law school was meant to be read in a print reporter or a text, not on a computer screen or tablet device. Trying to read these documents online can be challenging, awkward, and especially tiring; not only is there the issue of losing concentration with the length and depth of the reading, but also the formatting appears awkward, and the lure of more interesting information is just a click away from that screen. You think you’ll take a “quick” break from the tedium of reading, but the next thing you know, it’s 30, 45, 60 minutes later, and you’re now just returning to focus on that case.

I say all this not meaning to suggest that we forgo the internet. The internet is wonderful and incredibly useful. For example, I had to type in only “is goo” in Google’s search bar before the rest of the title to Carr’s article filled itself in. I hit enter, and viola! Carr’s article was the first result in the list. It took all of, oh, five seconds. Fifteen years ago—maybe even slightly less—tracking down Carr’s article would have required a trip to a library that would have been large enough to have had The Atlantic archives on site, or else I would have had to wait for my request to be filled, which might have been another day or two after I finally made it to the library (and which would mean a second trip to the library to retrieve the article).

Nonetheless, it’s worth thinking about how we use the technology we have and to remember to use (or know we should learn) pre-internet skills of digging deeply into what we read. Clearly not all things we read require deep thought. In fact, it’s quite pleasant to have those mindless kinds of reads available from time to time. But as law students and lawyers, we find ourselves more times than not confronted with texts with which we should take time and effort to scuba dive, rather than jet ski.

I am grateful to Ruth Ann McKinney, whose second edition of Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert pointed me to Carr’s article and to thinking (deeply) about this subject.

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7 Responses to “The Effect of the Internet on Reading”

  1. Great article Lisa. I wonder then, since deep reading is critical to so many positions in life, what then does texting do to the personal contact required of equally as many positions. If there is a lack of depth and a lack of human contact, what will our outcome be.

  2. Ellen Henak Says:

    I would not place laptops and tablets in the same category when speaking about their effect on deep reading. Like you, I find that laptops are not conducive to deep reading. Yet I have gone to reading much of my legal information on my ipad and find neither the format nor the available distractions to be any problem at all. I actually find reading the ipad to be less physically tiring and easier to focus my eyes on. It therefore facilitates deep reading for me.

  3. Tom Shriner Says:

    Good insights. I have also noticed that many law students find it nearly impossible to answer a question during class without shifting their eyes to the laptop. Understandable if the question is about a fact in the case that the student has forgotten, but if the question is one beginning with “why” or “what do you think,” the answer isn’t in the damned computer, but many students can’t break the habit of consulting the source of all their knowledge before they would even think of trying to answer. Your suggestion that the way we use the internet is changing the very way we think is on the money.

  4. Mitchell Scott Says:

    Good points here. Yes I did scroll down to see how long this article was going to be – decided it was of reasonable length and read in its entirety. On a related note, another factor that will be worth paying attention to will be how, mid – long term, internet reading and the side effects of fostering something akin to ADHD or the encouraging of instant gratification on thought processes will have on how juries and judges process and ultimately decide cases. If deep reading is no longer a default mental activity and our MO is now “zipping along the surface” how is nuance, context and the large expanse of grey area fully explored.

  5. I think this is a great article. I’ve only begun learning how to seriously read and write at the age of 26. I do think that this is a serious problem, that for now seems to go unanswered. Even for people who are not law students it is an issue that all should be concerned about. Illiteracy seems to be the norm in this 21st century.

  6. Melissa Greipp Says:

    Lisa–a few thoughts: First, I heard a presenter on public radio a couple of years ago say that children growing up in the age of digital media are developing their neural pathways differently from the way people did before the digital age. This must affect learning.

    Second, I wondered if I would enjoy reading a book on the Kindle more or less than I enjoy reading a paper copy. I find that I read the material more quickly and enjoy it about the same. I wondered if I would lose anything by reading on the Kindle, but so far, I haven’t noticed any deficiency in taking in the material or retaining it.

    Finally, I find that when I read a blog I’ve written as I’m about to post it, the way I experience the writing is different from when I read my draft in Word. I think the difference comes from the narrower blog format. (This is the same with certain brief formats.) I’m convinced that the difference in the length of the lines affects how the sentences read. I sometimes edit a sentence I’ve written for a blog because the visual form of the sentence no longer works. I guess this is similar to concerns over typeface–the way a person visually experiences writing is important.

  7. A number of studies have shown that we do read differently when we read texts on our laptops, tablets, e-readers, or smart phones. These studies show that when we read on a screen, we tend to skip around and read less intensively. This surely impacts our ability to read deeply. In fact, one study found that people still prefer print for their serious reading. I definitely have found this to be true. I have had a Kindle for several years. When I got it, I thought it would make my reading so much easier. Instead of schlepping around the three or four books or lengthy law review articles that I usually carry back and forth from work, I could get them all on the Kindle. I discovered, though, that for my work reading, I needed print. I needed to physically manipulate the pages, highlight, make notes, dog-ear pages. Yes, I can highlight on the Kindle. But I discovered that I couldn’t work as easily with the text as I could when it was in print. So now I use my Kindle for all my non-work, for-fun reading.

    Also, for experienced legal readers, who know the context of what they’re reading and know what they’re looking at and for, reading on a screen is probably no different than reading in print. But, in my view, new legal readers need that context and need to understand what they’re seeing and know how legal texts are typically formatted before they can comfortably read digital text.

    For useful follow up about reading in print or on a screen, see James Surowiecki, E-Book or P-Book, The New Yorker, July 29, 2013, at http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2013/07/29/130729ta_talk_surowiecki and Kirsten Davis, “The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated”: Reading and Writing Objective Legal Memoranda in a Mobile Computing Age, forthcoming in the Oregon Law Review, but a working copy is available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2281252.

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