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Cognitive impact

Giorgio Buccellati – April 2021

The challenge

the brain
the structural impact
focus / memory (see UCLA study on memory)

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Surface and deep structure


The approach to either the construction or the fruition of a wbsite may be described in terms surface and deep structure – borrowing the general concept from linguistics. We may say that surface structure corresponds to the electronic dimension, and deep structure to the properly digital dimension of the website structure.

The surface structure is the one we access normally through the current “user’s” mode. The text is conceived and used in a non-linear mode, in the specific sense that it consists of segments joined only by a thin thread. There is only the veneer of an argument: it hovers on the surface over the pieces, but a proper discussion, if any is ebem envisdaged, is relegated to the background. The cohesiveness of the segments lies in the degree to which they share similar informational content.

The deep structure is the one that finds its formalizaztion in the notion of digital discourse. It presupposes in the first place the existence of parallel arguments (which is not a factor of surface structure), and it further presupposes a digital configuration that allows for a dynamic interlacing of these arguments among themselves and with the data. Deep structure is, in other words, the formalization of digital thought.

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The shallows

The surface structure approach is the one that has come to cause alarm on the part of a number of authors as being the cause for a decline in cognitive faculties: this manifests itself not only psychologically, but even neurologically in the way in which the brain adapts itself to simlpy dwelling in the “shallows.” The argument I am developing in this website aims to show how the these “shallows” are a function of an inadequate use of the medium. These shallows were in fact inhabited even before digitality, but the impact was less devastating because had not spread s far and wide as they as a result of a misuse of digitality.

What happens is that a digital text is seen exclusivly as segmented and is accessed in a non-linear mode, surfing and jumping without a sense of structure.

segmented non-linear

This approach is not limited to electronic texts, and is present any type of reading, whether online or on paper, and was in fact well present even before digitality. However, it was not the prevalent mode of reading a text, and it would occur when either a text was in fact devoid of any structural depth, or the reader would intentionally just skim a text without intending to probe its depth when present.

Wolf 2018 Reader

There remains a real fundamental difference between a digital and a paper publication, because in the latter the sense of the whole is always a given, whereas in this early period of website publishing there is no concern for concstructing, and consequently accessing, a structural whole. When a website is structuraly seen as a juxtaposition of segments, there is no proper development of an argument. And when segmentation devoid of a sense of whole is at the core of a structure, one cannot expect but a non-linear and purely surface approach.

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The deeps

segmented reading in tandem with/synergy with sequential reading
linear reading applies to both unilinear and multilinear
the “deeps” – in contrast with Carr’s “shallows”
segmented reading compatible with sequential reading
browsing as a positive term

segmented multi-linear

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CAR 12.6.7
Birkerts, Carr, Lynch, Wolf

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