Here are some meandering and, yes, unlinked thoughts on how I use information and the power of hyperlinks.
Hyperlinks and web pages correspond very well with how I think people’s brains work – at least my brain, anyway. My thoughts don’t move in a straight path, following one subject or argument. I constantly skip around to many different subjects, and when one thing reminds me of another I think I form a mental connection, no matter how distant or different the things themselves might be. Some more traditionally straight-line or less interactive forms of media can be incredible experiences or works of art (like novels, music and films), but think of how little your thoughts during a typical day really resemble a movie, and how much more they resemble surfing around on a bunch of sites at once, shifting focus among dozens of topics, narrowing or broadening that focus constantly.
For example think of how Joyce, in trying to represent Leopold Bloom’s thoughts in Ulysses, didn’t tell a sequential story but rather assembled a constantly shifting mix of quotations, digressions, repetitions, and allusions. So hyperlinked information isn’t just something we look at or read, it’s a kind of parallel process in many ways to how we process, sift, and mull over information inside our skulls. One conclusion from this could be that hyperlinked information would then tend to be more likely to be useful for learning than more passive media, and I personally believe that’s the case.
So hyperlinks correspond to my own model of thinking and learning, as well as to a large extent to my ideas on teaching. To use a slightly over-familiar term, I believe every moment is a “teachable moment” to the extent that a teacher should be able to make connections from any subject or discussion to the course content at hand. Forging those mental connections is how I learn, and how I hope many students learn, and I would much rather teach a hyperlink-style class that ranges over a variety of topics than a class where students memorize lists of things.
The hyperlinked world of information at our fingertips also corresponds strongly with another interest of mine, which is video games. In a game, you usually have to navigate to different locations somehow to acquire more skills, advance, unlock further paths, etc. Unlike when, for example, watching a film, in most video games you have at least the illusion of choice about where to go next and for me this active, personalizing element of choice also often makes hyperlinked research a more engaging and memorable experience.
I’m something of an introvert and when I get the choice I would rather gather information in a way that requires less face-to-face communication. Hyperlinked information has made this possible during my lifetime in a way that would have been difficult for previous generations. I can do in-depth research, study Japanese, buy music and order a pizza all without interacting with anything more lively than a slab of plastic on my lap. However, I wonder what kind of person I would have turned into if I’d grown up in a world without hyperlinks. Would I have still found a way to connect to a world of stored information by becoming some kind of librarian or archivist, or would I have taken a completely different path? It has certainly affected my ability to organize things – the very day Gmail made it possible to effectively search through old e-mails was the precise moment I stopped cleaning out my in-box.
I’m almost always a tech optimist – I think the things we create usually make life more interesting and better overall – but I have been noticing that I almost never watch an entire movie, listen to an entire music album, or read or write uninterruptedly for hours any more. I am not that disturbed by finding that I get less pleasure in sustained media consumption – after all, this sort of appreciation is probably a generational thing; my grandparents never sat through a 4-hour Wagner opera to my knowledge, and I’m guessing even Wagner would have fallen asleep during a bardic recitation of Beowulf – but, as above, I wonder. Have 15 years or so of web surfing changed my brain? What aspects of those changes might lead me to a life that’s less contemplative, less meditative, or less thoughtful? I don’t believe, like many, that we’re losing our ability to focus, or that no one can remember anything any more, or anything that alarmist – but I do think there’s an opportunity for some degree of loss whenever there’s rapid change. I guess another aspect of this is that I need to be aware of the “generation gap” in that sense between me and my students. Just because I enjoy (or used to enjoy) watching the entire “Star Wars” trilogy doesn’t mean they necessarily will, but that wouldn’t mean necessarily that they’re impaired in any important way, just that they’ve grown up in a more hyperlinked world than I did.