by Bob Lee

An examination of various on-line forms of English makes us realize that the English that we have long considered “good English” is rapidly disappearing. Writers for a few publications such as The Economist still use lengthy, well-constructed sentences, putting forth complex theses and reasoned argument but, in general, sentence structure is evolving toward short bits of prose that attempt to contain the whole of an idea in a few words. The natural conclusion is that the writer is aware that our attention span has been shortened by the distractive nature of what we see on the screen, so shortened that an idea taking more than one simple sentence is unlikely to be read, and if read, not absorbed. The language of Samuel Johnson, of Thomas Jefferson, even of E. B. White, may soon be incomprehensible.

Many of the magazines and newspapers that have not succumbed to the demise of the printed word now run parallel forms, paper and electronic. On paper, the text absorbs the reader’s attention; on the screen, the text is subject to numerous interruptions from in-line links, sidebars with other text or videos, ads, distractions of multiple kinds. We are being trained to “multi-task”, but not to concentrate. What is this doing to our ability to appreciate depth of content? If presented with a lengthy, reasoned, well-formed argument, can we stay with it long enough to absorb the gist of it? That ability is shrinking, caused by another aspect of the Internet, the marvellous search facility, which is eliminating our need to remember. I recall a writer saying that we no longer need to remember; when we need a fact, Google will instantly provide it. That is true, and it’s a wonderful aid to us older folk with fine mental data bases, but a defective retrieval system; however, as current readers’ memories decay, so does their ability to think in depth. Thinking in depth requires organizing a complex set of facts, principles and relationships, balancing and assessing them. There’s an activity that requires short-term memory, not Google’s assistance.

Another skill that the Internet is destroying is the ability to spell. Spell checkers are unable to differentiate between principle and principal, for example, a critical factor in the meaning of a sentence such as “The company’s principles are to blame for its demise.” It may have been theft by its principals that did it in. A regular reader of popular blogs will see a word spelled in numerous ways, many of them wrong. Too much of that means that misspellings look just as good and familiar as correct ones, leading to uncertainty and, what is worse, uncaring use of the first combination of letters that seems to match the sound of the word. The same factors contribute to the flood of bad grammar exhibited on the screen.

We may hope that our educators will be able to counteract the Net’s worst effects, but current teaching methods are being adapted to short attention spans. A successful teacher must present the topic in the equivalent of a song-and-dance routine to retain the attention of those accustomed to a flood of sensory input from electronic devices. Of course, we need to incorporate technology in education, but the skills of focus and concentration will now need to be taught specifically, rather than being, as in the past, a by-product of study.

The Internet has vastly increased the amount of data available to us, but has it increased our knowledge? Perhaps, but it appears that the long-term effect will be to decrease our ability to absorb and critique the sea of data, such that we will be unable to extract true knowledge from it. Inevitably, the capacity for planning, communication and acquisition of true learning will be characteristics of only the rare few fortunate enough to be so trained by wise teachers and parents.