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From thinkers to clickers
the world wide web and the transformation of the essence of being human

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue May, May 1 - May 31, 2003 | BY M. O. Thirunarayanan 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Tick-tock, time clicking away


Tick-tock, time clicking away

(Please do not click on any links until you finish reading this paper)

The statement, "We think, therefore we are," has long served as a definition of the essence of being human. Our human ability for sustained thought is to a large extent responsible for the advances and progress that we have experienced in the areas of mathematics, natural and physical sciences, engineering, technology, law, literature, humanities, social sciences and the arts. The ability to think is one of the few abilities that makes our human lives different from that of the lives of the other species that also inhabit Earth. The growing popularity of the World Wide Web is slowly but surely transforming the lives of human beings who are beginning to make the sad transition from being thinkers to becoming "clickers."

Pecking Pigeons and Clicking Human Beings
Just as the psychologist Skinner was able to strengthen the pecking behavior among his experimental pigeons, the Web is making clickers out of its human users. Every day, human beings access the Web and spend enormous amounts of their time clicking on a seemingly endless number of hyperlinks and often meaninglessly wandering through the vastness of cyberspace.

Random positive reinforcements in the form of useful nuggets of information that people receive when they click on hyperlinks strengthen such clicking behavior. Such reinforcements are indeed random, since anyone can publish their pages on the Web. No one can guarantee the quality of the Web pages that are published every day. I agree that the Web has a lot of useful information to offer, but the proportion of the Web that holds information that is useful, reliable and accurate is quite small when compared to the more pedestrian and less useful information that is also available on the Web.

The Book, the Web and Thinking

The simple printed book is much more conducive to promoting thinking than the sophisticated Web. If a book does not provide all the information that one needs, some of the information has to be deduced and some of it has to be imagined. When people do not get answers to their questions by reading one book, they have to read a second or third book to find the answers. The book is also a slow medium. By the time a person buys, borrows or finds another book that has the answer to a question, he or she also has had the time to think about it more thoroughly and perhaps even refine the question. The time spent in thought will in many instances enable a person to generate an answer to the question that aroused his or her curiosity in the first place.

On the Web, it is an entirely different story, one where clicking dominates thinking. When someone reads a report and has a question related to what was just read, the answer is usually just a click away. The instantaneous nature of the Web makes it less conducive as a tool to facilitate thinking. Why should a person take the time to think when he or she can click his or her way to an instantaneous answer to a question that might otherwise have necessitated some thinking on the part of the person to get an answer.

In other cases, when the answer is not just a click away, people have to spend inordinate amounts of time clicking one link after the other as they navigate through cyberspace, hoping to find an answer to their question. As they click on one hyperlink after another, they often forget the initial question to which they were trying to find an answer. This is because the Web offers many distractions to its users in the form of ever changing content, links that are either obsolete or lead to completely new and different Web sites, and pop-ups and banners that advertise goods and services. Often times, as people aimlessly click their way through cyberspace, hyperclick hysteria sets in, and people lose their bearings in cyberspace and have to click their way back to more familiar cyber territories.

The Automatic Nature of Clicking Behavior
Clicking is becoming as automatic as blinking and almost as involuntary. One report stated that if a Web page does not load within three seconds, people click their way to another Web page or site. Clicking is fast becoming a substitute for thinking. Clicking requires less effort than thinking and is in some instances less painful than thinking.

The act of clicking instills in human beings a sense of being in control. Clicking on a link gives a person who is doing the clicking the feeling that he or she is in charge of the situation. Clickers feel that they are the masters of their domains. On the other hand, there is uncertainty and a sense of lack of control when a person initially starts thinking about something. It should therefore come as no surprise that when a Web user's eye perceives a link, his or her fingers start clicking almost instantaneously.

The Wanderers Within and the Vast Cyberspace

Long before human beings established a settled way of life, we were wanderers. Deep inside, human beings are still wanderers. The Web provides human beings an opportunity to fulfill their desire for wandering by thoughtlessly clicking and roaming the cyber wilderness. Since new Web pages are created everyday, the Web continuously offers wanderers new territory to explore. As interactions with the Web increase, the clicking and wandering behavior gets more deeply entrenched among human beings. Such aimless cyber wandering eventually becomes a substitute for meaningful thinking.

Clicking: The Repetitive Task of the Cyber Age
In the industrial age, factory workers spent hours each workday performing repetitive tasks such as turning screws. In this advanced cyber age, cyber workers are spending hundreds of thousands of hours creating millions of links. The unwritten and unsaid motto of Web designers and Web developers seems to be "If we link it, they will click it." The "click-happy" masses of the advanced cyber age are already entrapped in a vicious cyber cycle of meaningless "clickery". While many are already doomed to live a life dominated by clicking behavior, a crash course in thinking will help liberate thousands from such meaningless existence.

Conclusion
In the age of the Web the essence of being human has been redefined. The essence of being human can now be best defined by the statement, "We click therefore we are." I for one would like to move away from being described by the statement "I click, therefore I am," and get back to being described by the statement "I think, therefore I am."

If you have finished reading this brief paper, please feel free to express your need to click your way out of this Web page. I hope that the information in this paper did not in any way result in further reinforcing your clicking behavior.

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