Thursday, October 9, 2008

Do Hyperlinks Make Us Stupid?

We live in a world of hyperlinks -- you know, those underlined words or linked images on the Internet (like this).

In a contemporary sense hyperlinks did not really take off until the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, specifically with the advent of the Mosaic browser in 1993, meaning that a lot of teenagers have essentially grown up in a hyperlinked world.

But are hyperlinks good or bad? That is an overly simplistic question that also commits the fallacy of the false alternative. Hyperlinks can be good or bad, depending on how they are used and what they link to.

My contention, however, is that as a whole hyperlinks contribute to stupidity. If stupidity is defined as lacking intelligence and common sense, as well as an inability to think clearly, then it seems to me that in general, and as they currently tend to be used, hyperlinks are more detrimental than beneficial.

The reason for my take on hyperlinks is reason itself. Reasoning takes focused mental attention. Complex arguments require greater reasoning to follow. In turn, greater reasoning requires greater focused mental attention. But in the entertainment age of the sound bite and short attention spans, the ability to intelligently follow a carefully reasoned argument has diminished. Indeed, even the ability to craft a carefully reasoned argument has diminished.

Readers have always done what they wanted with printed text, much to the chagrin of writers. Readers might jump to the end of a book, read a portion out of context, or, being at the mercy of the author, misunderstand something that was not communicated clearly.

But individuals in a print-based culture are more likely to have a better grasp of logical reasoning and structure and with it the ability to follow carefully reasoned arguments. This is not to say that such abilities cannot be transferred to the Internet.

But online we need not be able to reason carefully, we need only to click. And click, and click, and click. But what are we clicking, why are we clicking it, and what does clicking do to our sensibilities?

In The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997), Douglas Groothuis comments: "One much-heralded technology, known as hypertext, is especially potent in its ability to fragment literary meaning and textual authority ... [hypertext] tends to encourage a swift skimming, surfing, or scanning of information according to nonlinear associations ... Instant access to all kinds of information may corrode a sense of coherence and meaning if the information is not put into an appropriate framework" (p. 65).

Are we losing the contiguous line of reasoning abilities that we once had in a print-based culture? Are hyperlinks contributing factors? Do hyperlinks make us stupid?


david said...

I agree completely; part of the problem is overuse and misuse of hyperlinks.

How important is this link in the context of what I'm reading now? Is there any summary of the link's content on the current page or am I forced to visit the link (and possibly other links from that link, ad infinitum) before I can continue reading content on the current page?

In my humble opinion, when these questions become a guessing game, the feeling of information overload increases and the critical reader's effectiveness decreases.

Instances of this abuse can be found on blogs that summarize and critique information from other blogs. You are given the link in the first sentence, but not a proper context from which to infer any useful information prior to diving in.

For instance, the article starts with "Today, I was reading an interesting article."

david said...

Just ran across another example of what I mean by "hyperlink abuse" in an EPS blog article that links to a review of Bill Maher's Religulous.

Quoting from the EPS article:
"Hazen's review can be read here:"

Why two links? Both links (review/here) point to the exact same URL, and thus the reader must at least hover the mouse over if not click them both to discover the redundancy.

Ok now I have digressed into venting; apologies fellow readers and Robert! :)

Robert Velarde said...

There's still a tendency to overuse hyperlinks, though not as much as in the early days of the Web. "Click here," linked of course, is no longer considered a good usability practice (people know to click).

One thing that makes the Web the Web is the ability to hyperlink, but overuse and poor use of this ability combined with a general detriment to reasoning is a bigger problem.

So I don't lose as much context, a lot of times I will right-click on a link and open it in a new browser tab, that way I can get back to where I was easily.

Next up - browsing with Flash and images turned off, which is actually my preferred way to browse. Flash ads drive me nuts.

Martin LaBar said...

I'm linking to your post in a post next week, God willing.

Sorry about that!

Thomas said...

I think what would help here is an *explanation* of why entertainment damages our ability to pay attention and come up with arguments.

Here is an argument why hyperlinks might make people more intelligent.

It does so by leading them to better ideas. Good ideas are interesting and hence they are also entertaining. Good blog posts, for example, tend to get linked to by other blog posts. This creates up a power law distribution of hits so that good material is easily singled out for reading by the web surfer.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for the comment, Thomas. The answer to the question, "Do Hyperlinks Make Us Stupid?" is indeed more nuanced. It is not a "yes" or "no" answer. My intention in one respect was to draw attention to poor or indiscriminate use of hyperlinks.

Yes, there are benefits to hyperlinks, but there are also detriments. The way they are primarily used is, in my assessment, often a detriment.

I did not say that entertainment always damages our ability to pay attention and come up with arguments.

My concern in reference to hyperlinks is more hermeneutical in nature, as well as intellectual. As a philosopher of technology, I question the value of any form of technology in an effort to assess it and what it does to our sensibilities.