Sunday, June 17, 2012

No, No, No


I'm still struggling with the whole Blogger-Google+ balance thing. Lately I've posted short bits only on Google+, but I'm not happy with that. I like my blog here and I don't want to feel I'm abandoning it. Google+ is great for short texts, and the blog good for longer stuff. In fact, this post was meant to be just a short note, nothing more, but somehow it grew into this. Might not be a good thing, overall, as I'm too wordy as it is. If there was a way to synchronise G+ and Blogger better I'd be happier about the split.

Anyway, Mainichi had another one of those "The Internet is Destroying our Society!"-style crap pieces, conveniently in English for me to link to. They argue that the internet is destroying critical thinking and killing the attention span. It's the usual mix of "the printed word is fundamentally better than the screen", "Stuff that was difficult for us should be difficult for young people too" and so on. Then liberally sprinkled with authoritative-sounding, but completely meaningless statistics:

According to a 2010 national survey conducted by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute on people's daily lives, the average amount of time men in their 20s spend online on weekdays apart from the workplace was 1 hour and 8 minutes a day, while that for women in the same age group was 41 minutes. The survey showed a 39-minute and 25-minute increase, respectively, from the previous survey conducted in 2005. The average result for male and female respondents in their 50s and 60s, on the other hand, was no more than 10 minutes.

Take a quick look  at that paragraph and tell me: 1) is this a lot or a little; 2) what activities did the internet use displace; 3) how does this compare to, say, television or presumably "appropriate" activities such as reading or listening to music; 4) how does this compare to other countries? There is no context to get any meaning from these numbers. Data without context is just noise.

Oh, and  5) what does "internet use" even mean — reading long-form essays is very different from gaming is different from shopping is different from email and chat is different from wikipedia is different from Youtube couch-surfing is different from… Should we compare this to "paper use" time, including cardboard boxes and toilet paper?

Then add a liberal amount of talking heads with an axe to grind expressing personal opinions; don't forget to prominently mention their degrees to increase the impact, but conveniently don't mention that it is just opinions unmoored from any actual research. This, by the way, is a particular pet peeve of mine: it is disgraceful to use an academic degree or professional job title to bolster a personal opinion that has nothing to do with that degree or title. More often than not it's the writer that is guilty of it, not the interviewee, of course.

For instance, if you look up Masahiko Fujiwara, quoted as professor in the article, you'll find that he's a mathematician. A fine, upstanding profession to be sure. But not one, I would hazard, that makes you particularly competent at analysing the cultural impact of technological advances. So why is he prominently labeled "Professor emeritus", not "widely read essayist" — which is apparently also true, and rather more relevant to the subject at hand.

And then I stumbled on a bit of research showing that no, no, attention spans are not getting shorter. See how easy that was? If you are an article writer, the net makes it really easy for you to fact-check things. It's so easy to take a quick look at actual research that actually, really tries to find out if what you are writing is true or not.

Whenever you read a piece like this, remember that if it consists only of 1) statistics without context, presented to alarm you rather than inform; 2) short quotes from people presented as experts, but whose expertise has little or no connection to the subject;  3) a string of opinions presented as fact but without a single link to studies or data backing it up, then you should probably shrug and skip to the next story. Do take note of the author, though; more often than not they specialize in this kind of sensationalism and you'll soon learn who you can ignore altogether.


  1. Fully agree with your points here, nothing much to add. Just wanted to applaud you on your "paper use time" analog - very clever :)

  2. Thanks! I did debate shortly with myself just how graphic I should make the analogy ^_^

  3. It is spot on! There are certainly activities online that are rather equivalent to wiping your behind :)

  4. It's particularly ironic given that the article is "printed" on the Mainichi which was one of the first English shimbuns to ditch its, er, printed edition in favour of digital (that means online). So, the writer is arguing folk who read his article online (the only place it can be read) shouldn't read his article online because their critical faculties will be impaired by reading online. Gee, maybe he's right. I will abstain from reading him.

  5. @Ourmani, I missed that - good observation.

    In general, I find that grouches like these always add an implied qualifier to their opinions: "X is detrimental to society!" - "…except when I and people like me X."

  6. Religious spam... At least spam for pharmaceuticals and fake watches is trying to sell you something that exists.


Comment away. Be nice. I no longer allow anonymous posts to reduce the spam.