A dragonfly skimming water surface

Concerned I am.

From my own adventures in this thing people call blogging, certain advice given I was.

  • Write compelling headlines (because people can’t be bothered to read anything more)
  • Use lists (because people can’t be bothered to read anything more)
  • Use images to break up text (because people can’t be bothered to read anything more)

I’ve read of students multitasking, of students surfing the Internet, doing homework for other classes, uploading pictures to Facebook, and doing shopping at eBay, all during lecture time. Sure the professor may really be boring, but still, have they done anything at all? Were they that pressed for time?


There was a time in the past when informercials just came out, and I saw this speed reading package and thought, “How cool is that!”. After some deliberation, I bought it. I read through the instructions, I listened to the audio, and some time thereafter, decided that being able to boast to my friends that I could read at cheetah speeds was not worth it.

I’m a visual person. When I read, I conjure up images, scenes and even sounds to accompany the words. The product promised that I could still read at lower speeds for leisure, but that’s not the point. Even for deep reading and thinking stuff, such as study material, I need that imagery. It’s how I learn and recall. Sprinting through words rob me of that.

That student situation was supposedly a normal occurrence in America. People talk of information overload, and not just in America. There seems to be pressure to keep up with what’s going on. In the world, on the streets, about your friends. There’s the feeling of being left out if you’re not connected to the Internet somehow. This video of the Twitter Whore (her words, not mine) exemplifies this extreme case.

Concerned I am. Are people losing the ability to slow down, ponder and think deep?

Don’t need to think

I came across this article by Nicholas Carr: Is Google Making Us Stupid? He talked of the Internet and search engines combining to provide instant gratification. Instant answers, quick news bites, skim, click, easily distracted, skim, click.

The search engine had given rise to a problem in programming forums. People couldn’t find the code to their problem with search engines, so they turned to programming forums. The thing was, they asked their questions in exactly the same way. They posted their question and expected an answer with no effort on their part.

Code answers can only be copied and pasted up to a certain extent. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to come up with something unique. On your own.

Yes, you can piece something together from different parts (which is part of what this site’s about). But you have to come up with that idea that pieces together separate code solutions into a solution for your problem. That idea has to come from you.

The Internet is a vast repository of information. Search engines provide an easy way to sift through that and come up with something, hopefully the answer. But the information comes from people, not computers. People who’ve thought, researched, analysed and then published that information.

Being able to “plug in” to the Internet’s wealth of knowledge can be empowering, akin to maybe the hive mind of bees. Perhaps some individuals find their own lives minuscule, and possibly unbearable. And only when they’re awash in the presence of, and illusionary omniscience of the Internet, do they find peace.

Which reminds me of a scene in the latest Indiana Jones movie, the one with the crystal skull. That agent of the Soviet Union, Irina Spalko, wanted to know everything. Her wish was granted. I find the part where she was begging “please, no more!” just a little amusing. Knowledge has to be acquired through one’s efforts (thinking, experimenting), and not just given.

Carr also said it’s unsettling about Google’s

easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence

People complain about their jobs being outsourced to other countries, but they don’t find anything wrong with the idea of their thinking being outsourced?

Words and imagery

I’ve also read about print advertisements, and how they still work better than television advertisements. Print ads, such as those in newspapers and magazines, consist primarily of words. Print ads, surrounded by the context in which they’re read, require readers to come up with images, sounds and feelings to accompany those words. In contrast, television ads already came up with the imagery for the viewer.

Of course, print ads require more effort to capture the attention of the reader, but the effect is more lasting, because the reader comes up with his own version of how the product can make his life better. Television ads require little imagination from the viewer, less engagement from the viewer, and hence less attention. In the words of Carr,

In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

The dragonfly

The Chinese have this phrase, “qing ting dian shui“. It literally translates to “dragonfly touch water”. The full description should probably be “dragonfly skimming over water surface and lightly touching it (from time to time)”. Sometimes, I’m amazed at how Chinese characters squeeze so much meaning into them.

It’s usually in reference to a martial artist, being so skilful in his art, that he can lighten his body to the point where he can run on water, gently touching the surface on each step. Like a dragonfly.

Are people becoming dragonflies? Do they think skimming material, lightly grabbing news bites, flitting from hyperlink to hyperlink, of being hyper-connected, will help them in coping with information overload, of being in the information age? Are we losing the ability to do deep reading and thinking, to contemplate and reflect?

Concerned I am. Because dragonflies, in their adult stage, live only up to about 4 months.

  1. Jameel

    Wow nice post , i have noticed the very same thing on a lot of blogs recently where people end up commenting and have not even read the entire blog post. The other place that this happens alot is in forums , where people dont bother to read what has been discussed before in the thread before they comment.This ends up in a flame war and a lot of angry people.

    BTW like the dragon fly analogy 🙂

  2. Vincent Tan

    Hi Jameel, I think those “dragonflies” wanted to be everywhere at once. They leave traces everywhere, participate everywhere, and in the end, few people even noticed their presence. Or as you mentioned, people noticed them in a bad way…

    Thank you for visiting, and have a nice time here.

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