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The Internet

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Have you ever wondered what computers (in general) and the Internet (specifically) are doing to your brain?

I know I have — more and more lately.

The effects on us in general are, of course, innumerable — positive and negative. In this post, would like to mention a couple of the negative effects because these are what I’ve been thinking about recently.

The first — and probably most obvious — thing it’s done is to deal a serious blow to punctuation. What used to be as natural as breathing is now something I have to consciously mull over. I’m not the only one. Why else would a rant on punctuation become a huge bestseller? I doubt that’s happened before.

Well, now that I say that, I can think of a dozen reasons for it selling so well. Including the fact that it’s a fast and somewhat easy way for people to work up some self-righteous indignation and offers a pseudo-intellectual excuse for scoffing at your fellow man and woman. But that’s being cynical. I’ve been known to write to newspapers and magazines for various punctuation and where’s-the-proofreader-type offenses myself. Incredibley, they always take the time to write back. It’s great fun. (No, I’m not an eighty-year-old, retired school teacher… I’ve been doing this sort of thing since I was a teenager.)

(And no, I’m not counting that other huge bestseller Elements of Style because it’s also about, well… style!)

But I digress…

To me, punctuation is as vital to writing as timing is for a comedian, as breathing is for a singer. Punctuation controls exactly those things in a written text. It gives emphasis to certain words or phrases, gives sentences rhythm, shape and style. Punctuation by itself can change meaning, add suspense, make us laugh. It helps us hear the intonations and personality in the voice of the writer.

So when someone sends me an email with no visible effort at punctuation, or I read an comma-free newspaper article, I just want to scream and stick my head in a salad spinner.

Another thing that concerns me is how the Internet affects my reading, thinking and writing. It does, I can feel it and see it. Interestingly, there’s an excellent article in the Atlantic on exactly this subject.

Thankfully, for myself, I find the effects are not permanent; when I break the trance, stand up and walk away, I slowly begin to regain my normal faculties. (It helps if you shake your head in the manner of a water-soaked dog.) But what about society and culture as a whole? What about people who grew up with the Internet? Can the media actually become even shallower? Will this have a detrimental effect on books and writing? Is this already happening? Hard to imagine shallower, more simplified ways of thinking being a good thing for humanity.

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