A week ago I (shamelessly!) reblogged a piece I’d posted on Opquam – my blog about video games and technology – in response to an article called “Conscious computing” by Oliver Burkeman, published in The Guardian. A week of reflection, reading and some news stories that appeared this week mean that find myself with some more comments to make. I ummed and aah’d a bit over whether this should be posted on Opquam or The Ashy Pint and have decided on the latter because these thoughts are less about technology and more about how our lives and minds are being affected. Please forgive me any confusion or indulgence.
In my open letter I touched upon the subject of how reading texts on a computer affects the experience of the reading itself with benefits and drawbacks for author, editor and reader alike. Over the last seven days there have been a number of new articles in the press about this topic and I have also been reading some of the older articles referred to in Burkeman’s piece. They are relevant in that they spoke of concerns that were apparent around six years ago which have now become more fully formed as the technology has evolved and, most importantly, become more pervasive in our societies. Only yesterday the BBC ran a story about how “Fewer young people are learning after 17″, offering evidence that a major contributor to this is the “digital divide” i.e. people with “regular access to the internet” are more likely to remain in some form of education or extended learning activity. My first reaction to this is that that is probably more an indicator of social and financial affluence, which we all know is a factor in whether or not people stay in education – increasingly so in these new days of university tuition fees, which I also suspect is a strong factor in the drop in people staying in education post-17. I am aware that most teenagers now have smartphones with internet access, but this is not the same as having a computer and/or tablet on which to read and learn more thoroughly.
Perhaps more worrying though was a report by Sean Coughlan published on 16 May, again by the BBC, which reported that “Young people prefer to read on screen” rather than on a printed page. Again, I expect all manner of social factors are at play here, such as the example and encouragement of parents and peers, as well as access to the technology that facilitates reading on a screen; the concerns about reading age and attainment are probably more to do with that than the manner of reading. But there is a concern about the effect of the internet on our ability to read, think and remember information. “Technology is central to the lives of these youngsters” says Coughlan, and I would certainly agree with that assessment. This worries me, because not only are we currently rearing a generation of “screenagers”, as he calls them, we do not know what the long-term effect will be. It certainly seems to me that some of this behaviour is addictive though. I have seen my own son become very angry very quickly when my wife has interrupted his game playing to retrieve her iPhone. Being absorbed in a creative and challenging game is no bad thing, but not when it’s to the exclusion of other activities. One of the articles referred to by Burkeman – “Is the web driving us mad?” by Tony Dokoupil – covers the recognition of addictive traits in web users and their detrimental effects on mental and physical health.
That children are adept with modern communications devices could not be in doubt. Give a three-year-old a smartphone and they will be able to access apps and play games (and, in cases of careless parents, rack up large in-app purchase bills!) without minimal-to-no instruction or guidance. This is a credit to the progress of the technology and the brilliance of the designers and manufacturers: to create interfaces that are so simple and intuitive that a toddler can use them effectively is a sign of progress indeed; that I am left breathless by their ingenuity is another sign of how far we have come. I would have sold my entire collection of Transformers toys to have had anything like an iPhone in 1985!
But what is it doing to reading? In my Opquam piece I wrote about the research I found in around 2003 that showed that people reading texts on a screen tended to skim-read and look for links in an almost neurotically acquisitive manner. Another article referred to by Burkeman – “Is Google making us stupid?” by Nicholas Carr, published by The Atlantic in July/August 2008 – in turn refers to a survey conducted by University College London which looked at online research habits. What they found was that people were “power browsers”, skimming texts horizontally to look for links to click. They would read only the first few paragraphs of a text before moving to another page, rarely returning to a page already visited; and if they saved a page for offline reading later, they never went back to it. The experience of the acquisition – the click – is the all. What’s odd here is that even if a reader is jumping from one text to another, all they are doing is reading – the mechanic is no different from one page to another. So what is going on here?
As already suggested, it could be the buzz of the click that gives the reader the satisfaction of active agency, of control over their experience – or a deliberate giving up of control, perhaps. It could be that the article wasn’t what they were after, or it was just dull. Quite possible: if I compare this with the study method that I used when a postgrad, I find a parallel. I would go to the library, spend ages at the index cards (yes, I’m that old!) or terminal, draw up a list of about a dozen books, then spend time wandering about looking for them, browsing what was on the shelves next to them, finding a place to sit, then reading around my subject. (All of it procrastination. Perhaps that is what net readers are doing.) And I would hog those books and check a few out of the library, never to read them – that’s the equivalent of the “save for later” click. So perhaps what modern readers are doing is not much different from haphazard students like me?
Another effect observed by Carr is more worrying, and that is that this sort of reading has no depth. The worrying trend here is that this sort of reading doesn’t dwell on a subject long enough for the meaning to sink in and unfold. Our ability to take in a sustained and complex argument and then have our own responses will be surely diminished by this. The result is that we, as a race, may become faster but less intelligent thinkers. This is where I get political, because I dare to suggest that our ruling elite probably don’t want too many intelligent people around because they might start asking difficult and challenging questions about what they’re up to. It certainly seems that the UK’s Secretary of State for Education – Michael Gove – is intent on creating a school system that simply conducts check-box exercises to churn out armies of data-crunching workers destined to become a legion of good little producer-consumers. The Goldstein to his Big Brother would probably be an unemployed doctoral graduate with a guerilla army of illiterate chavs. (NB I wouldn’t have been able to make that witty literary bon mot had I not once been able to read a whole book – more than once!)
If we add in the negative effects observed on memory as well as deep sustained thought, and the increasing ubiquitousness of screen-reading amongst children and young adults, then my fears for the future are quite clear: I dread a scenario like that depicted in the satirical film Idiocracy. Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf, who points out that the ability to read is not innate to humans in the same way that speech is: people have to be taught how to read – it is not something they can ever figure out for themselves. The path of least resistance will always be favoured as an expedient. That young people are also creating text like never before – phone text messages, Facebook statuses and comments, tweets etc – is a fact, but this is clearly a stunted, bastard form of writing in that it is all just packets of data with no sustained thought. We must not forget that literacy – by definition – is the ability to read and write: the two are intrinsically linked.
What of the effect on writers? I’ll admit that when reading magazine or newspaper articles, whether online or in print, my attention tends to wander after a few paragraphs. This may be my own eroded attention span at fault, but to be fair to myself I also think that journalistic writers now “front-load” their texts with their best content nearer to the start. A catchy title, an enticing strapline and then a few punchy opening sentences often give way quite soon to a litany of stats to back up their point (always a turn-off for me – as Vic Reeves once said, “87.4% of all statistics are made up on the spot” … or something like that) and then taper off to a sad little whimper of a conclusion. Where is the sense of gathering speed for a big finish? It gives them impression that they’ve had a good idea but, as they’re writing it up, they realise it’s not so good after all and run out of steam. It also reminds me of when the music-listening public had got used to CDs: artists (or record companies) put the best tracks at the start of an album, to help sell it on a listening post and also because people tend to start at the start when listening to music in the car; all the filler would be at the end.
This isn’t the case with this essay at all because I’m clearly really hotting up for a big finish now! The other day, during a quiet moment in the afternoon, I looked up from my book to survey the peaceful scene in my front room. It was peaceful because my son was playing a game on the Kindle, and both my wife and her father (visiting for the weekend) were tapping away and gazing into iPhone screens. This is what Norman Rockwell would have painted on a wall-hanging plate if he were to have depicted the Modern British Family At Rest. I had a moment’s angst, then realised that to disturb this scene would have meant effort and upset, so I let go and sank back into my book – which I have been reading for over six months because I can’t concentrate for more than a couple of pages at a time – and my degrees are in Literature and Philosophy.
So, what to do? For myself, I have begun to use Instapaper to manage my internet reading. It provides a simple and elegant way to read articles found online later and in a clutter-free pleasing manner. (Yes, actually read later!) And I have decided to follow a friend’s advice and try to read some poetry every day, because this focuses reading and thought on a single text and a sustained and developed theme. The thought of all the wonderful minds I knew in my youth becoming like Ginsberg’s “angel headed hipsters … destroyed by madness” is too sad to dwell on; and the thought of what could happen to our children almost too awful to bear … but not quite. Let us read them stories. From books – our own childhood books.