Illustration: M.C.Escher, Man With Cuboid
EVERY SO OFTEN SOMETHING will break through the stimulus shield I hold up whenever I go online, which I do far too often these days, we all do, and for various reasons, one being, I'm sure, that the existence of the medium has created an unremitting low-intensity neural disquiet that we feel only the medium can allay — even though it cannot, never has. But it is an attribute of the Internet to activate in me, and maybe in all its users, a persistent sense of deferred expectancy, as if that thing that I might be looking for, that I couldn't name but would know if I saw, were at every moment a finger tap away. That is the root of the addiction right there — and it is an addiction, sure, if only a lower-case one. To bear all this, therefore, to proof myself against the unstanchable flow of unnecessary information and peripheral sensation, I make use of this shield, which is really just an attention-averting reflex, a way of filtering almost everything away, leaving just the barest bones of whatever I happen to be looking at, and these only in case some tell-tale name or expression requires me to peer a bit more closely.
I practice this defensive, exclusionary scanning not only with the incidental flotsam I encounter — the inescapable digests of happenings in the world, celebrity divorces, killer storms, and so on — but also, more and more, with texts about subjects that ostensibly concern me. A recent case in point — I have it handy now because I finally printed it out — is an article I found online at The Awl called "Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert" by Maria Bustillos (posted on May 17, 2011). It came to me via several clicks at one of the so-called "aggregate" sites I sometimes visit to keep myself "informed." I scan a great many articles in the course of my daily tours, but I am not avid. More often I scroll my eyes down the screen with a preemptive weariness — which is an angry and defensive posture, I agree — as if nothing truly worthy could ever be found online (I know this is not true), as if I will have conceded something to the opposition if I were to fully engage the Internet and profit from the engagement.
Reading online is, we know, a keyword-driven process, and the reader (this reader) has to exert near-constant mental counter-pressure — drive with his foot on the brakes, as it were — if he is to read words on screen in the way that he once, when younger and more assiduous, read words in books. The editors of Bustillos' article clearly understood this, and so, instead of engineering anything that would work as a speed-bump, they laid the piece out for us fast-lane drivers, with short paragraphs and a way of link-highlighting whatever sense-nuggets appeared, so that one could either click and delve, or hasten forward. For instance, a reference to the journal Naturedid not merely underline that one word, but also the phrase beside it — Nature stood by its methods and results — so that the eye almo...