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Drowning in Information?

On Memory, the Internet, and Reading Comprehension

by ALAN FARAGO

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about memory. I’m sensitized by family members in their 90s. Each are in flagging health and suffering memory deficits; from dementia, Alzheimers, to simple cognitive decline.

It’s sad and I do worry about the road ahead, but I’m also troubled by the road I’m on.

On the way to writing this post, I went online for a New York Times OPED that had interested me; how reliance on the internet has diminished the ability of consumers to fully process what we are reading. I’ve noticed that when I read a newspaper online, my retention of information is qualitatively different from when I read a printed newspaper in my hands. It’s an unscientific result reached after many years of reading and writing to earn readers’ attention.

Before I could find what I was looking for in the Times, my attention was diverted by an interesting story on a public hearing about fish eggs and nuclear permitting on the Hudson River. When I couldn’t find on my laptop the OPED I meant to bring to your attentio, I reached into my backpack for my iPad and logged on to see if the OPED was in the history bar.

There, open in my browser I had a yoga schedule, a Sun Sentinel article on Jeb Bush’s legacy (taking a huge hit!), a weather site (to rain or not to rain), a Miami Herald report (even now can’t remember what it was about), an article from the UK Guardian on climate change in Miami (drowning!), a coffee vendor website (have to order now), a friend’s blog (have to read now), another NY Times OPED (not the one I was looking for), an article on restaurants in Paris, 40 Genius Travel Tips That Will Change Your Life Forever, and Trouble Shooting Your Cable TV Connection.

I never did find what I was looking for — my memory was hazy, which doesn’t help when using search words — , but when I find it I will share the news: comprehension skills have declined with our reliance on the internet.

That we are drowning in information is hardly news. We are all in a turbulent current where brains don’t multi-task so much as substitute breadth of capacity for depth of understanding. Then, too, some evolutionary part of us believes that attention to lots of different pieces of information, as many as we can hold, will make life safer; the digital equivalent of sniffing the wind for signs of danger.

Take the daily blog I write (eyeonmiami.blogspot.com) and reader comments, for example. We get the most comments from short posts. We know (as paid newspaper editors do, too) that readers’ attention spans are foreshortened by so much freely available information. Blogs that cost nothing but a glance. It doesn’t mean our readers aren’t interested or don’t fully appreciate our longer reports, or for that matter longer investigative pieces in newspapers or magazines.

Who can absorb it all? And if we are not using the information we receive from the internet to become more educated, better humans, improving our condition, our health and welfare, and that of our family, friends, and communities; what in the world are we doing?

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net