Nick Carr made his deep thinker reputation with two ahead-of-the-curve books last decade. On the issue of hyperlinks in Web pages, however, he seems to have missed the bigger picture. On his blog earlier this week, Carr wrote that he now condemns the practice of embedding hyperlinks inside blog posts and other Web writings. While they are "wonderful conveniences," hyperlinks are also distractions. Click on them and "pretty soon we've forgotten what we'd started out to do or to read." Ignore them, and the hyperlinks continue to bedevil your eyes and brain, like "little textual gnats buzzing around your head."
"The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It's also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What's good about a link - its propulsive force - is also what's bad about it."
Carr goes on to say that he doesn't "want to overstate the cognitive penalty produced by the hyperlink" but then he proceeds to make a "This is your Brain on Hyperlinks" argument, blaming them for our "hurried, distracted, and superficial thinking online." Ahh, and I was going to blame LOLcats and TMZ for that.
Carr's blog, is timed with the release of a new book, entitled: The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains. It's a follow-up to two earlier books, in which he pronounced that IT didn't matter anymore (because it failed to deliver competitive advantage to most companies) and that cloud computing turn IT until a commodity utility, like electric power in developed countries.
Both of those books boldly divined coming trends. On the hyperlink issue, sadly, Carr comes off as an egghead Andy Rooney, his cautious, modifier-filled prose disguising what GigaOm blogger Matthew Ingram points out is essentially a curmudgeon's point-of-view: the Internet is dumbing us down.
I agree with Ingram that eschewing hyperlinks is actually a sign of intellectual arrogance by a writer who wants to pretend his ideas are wholly his own, that they "sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus's forehead," writes Ingram. In fact, as another writer pointed out two years earlier, fears around the dumbening effects of hyperlinks were around as early as 1997. Though, because Carr didn't link to them, you wouldn't have learned that.
My bigger objection to the argument of Carr and others is more practical. Eliminating hyperlinks would drain the Web of its greatest strength over a book or even e-book reader. Not only do hyperlinks let you easily link to new, ancillary ideas, they are key to making Web surfing on small mobile devices bearable.
I nearly chose an HTC Tilt 2 over my iPhone because of the former's relatively-luxurious 800x480 screen. Fortunately, surfing on my iPhone, despite its cramped 320x480 resolution, has been reasonably pleasurable, not only because of the iPhone's vaunted pinch-and-zoom, but also because of the ease with which I can navigate by clicking on embedded hyperlinks rather than having to clumsily type them myself.
Segregating hyperlinks to the end is problematic in its own way. By the time you get to them, chances are you'll forget what they were referring to in the first place. The context is gone. The alternative of swiping back and forth between the main text and the end-placed hyperlinks seems even more distracting.
Certainly, hyperlinks need to be used, not abused. But the proposed cures -- scrubbing-out or exiling links -- are worse than the illness. Fortunately for champions of the Web and mobility, I think Carr's view is a minority one.