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Cognitive Load and Other Loads

September 3, 2010

Cognitive load is a nice, science-y term. It almost sounds like a real physical phenomenon, something we might observe or even measure in a laboratory. Of course it’s not. It’s nonsense jargon made up to describe the “pause” some people experience when they read text with links embedded in it. It does make me wonder though what else might cause “cognitive load”? Pictures in the text? Listening to music? …breathing? Are all these people doing absolutely anything other than concentrating — with all their might and focus — on each and every word of the text “shallow” reading?

It’s difficult to take the latest “Google made me stupid!” nonsense from Carr seriously. We’re supposed to believe that links are a “distraction”. A distraction from what? From the author’s message? But unless you’re reading Viagra spam the links were added by the author for the very purpose of increasing your understanding of her message. They contribute to the “meaning” of the text just as much, perhaps even more, as any other literary artifacts like punctuation and composition. Carr plays a transparent, naturalist game by trying to draw some deep, inherent distinction between the text and the links when no such distinction is meaningful. This leads to such silliness as putting links at the end of his blog posts so as to not distract his dear readers. (No, seriously, he does this — see the first link.) This ripping of the links out of the text is as reasonable as ripping out punctuation, capital letters, or paragraph breaks. So why stop at links? Perhaps Carr’s quest for pure, focused text will lead him to haiku. What’s next on the man’s hitlist? Does he even have a reliable process for identifying those artifacts that contribute to “cognitive load”?

Links have obvious benefits. Anybody who’s ever researched a topic on Wikipedia understands that links contribute significantly to a deeper understanding of the matter at hand by allowing the reader to place the idea in a context, to see how it’s connected with other ideas and events, to see not only the static, serialized form of the idea but grasp where it came from, how it moves and lives in its environment. Anybody who’s read a blog (like this one) quickly grasps how links can expose readers to contrarian viewpoints as well as introduce evidence that makes the argument stronger or weaker. And anybody who’s ever, say, browsed the web understands that links can be a powerful mechanism for discovery and exploration. Links are an extraordinary force for creating understanding, spreading knowledge, and learning new things. (See: the world wide web). And yet Carr suggests that links via the mechanism of cognitive load “impede comprehension and learning.”

What’s really going on here?

The cardinal sin of links is they make the reader think. Their crime is that they indicate a universe larger than the text. For people like Carr this is a real problem; reading is no longer a one-way transmission of wisdom, no longer a matter of a dumb receiver picking up a broadcast. With links the authority of the text is inherently compromised and the text is no longer, literally and figuratively, an end in and of itself. This is a pretty dangerous turn of events, particularly if you’re in the broadcasting business.

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One Comment
  1. Jared Stein permalink

    Actually, the reason the phrase “cognitive load” sounds “science-y” is because that’s exactly what it is: an established theory of cognition based on (and supported by) cross-disciplinary research in fields of psychology, neurology, education, etc.

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