The Internet is making it harder to read books.
Might not surprise you. Didn’t surprise me, either, but let’s have a little think about what that means.
According to a slew of recent articles, the Internet is affecting our brain functions in ways that make our traditional off-line functioning more difficult. In particular, reading online is creating new circuits within the brain for skim reading – looking at a lot of words quickly to find the important bit or to get the general gist. With so many tabs open and links to follow, we really don’t have the time to fully ingest everything that we are trying to read.
So once we try to switch from this frenetic online reading to something more in-depth, like a physical book with many pages and no links, is that our brains find it harder to stay focused. Without the constant stimulation and new material that our brains are looking for, they trip over themselves and can’t get involved in the longer text.
Another effect of online reading mode is that we do not retain the information so well. When faced with a word or concept that we don’t know, there will often be a link to explain, or we can search for it ourselves. The same goes for any previous relevant information; it can always be searched for easily.
Before the Internet we read in a linear way, one page followed another. This gave us the remarkable ability to remember details of the text based on the layout; researchers say that we can recall where certain information is stored in a book based on the way the page of text looked. Our brains are plastic and continually change the way they function over our lifespan. There are no specific genes for reading like there are for vision and language, so reading is something that our brains learned to do, and they are simply adapting to the new process of reading information that the Internet promotes.
Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if we don’t have the same kind of effective memories because we just don’t really need them anymore – the same way that you don’t need to know how to milk a cow or use Morse code. Our society has moved beyond that knowledge.
I’m concerned about what we might lose from the in-depth relationship a reader can have with a long and involved piece of text, something that might take a week or a month to read. For a long time, novels have provided a guiding narrative for societies. Not necessarily in an obliquely moralising way, not to provide a guide for how one should or shouldn’t think or act, but as a representation of how life is.
A big problem with the switch in reading tendencies is that we do not learn about ourselves and the world in the same meaningful way. When reading through online mediums, we are only giving over part of our attention – compare this with what we experience when we give ourselves the space and time to digest something difficult or complicated.
It takes a long time to write a novel, usually years. That is a lot of time for somebody to think deeply about our world, what it means to them, how they feel about it, what they have to say. I believe that there is a certain, valuable kind of wisdom that comes out of the skilful observation and honest communication that writing a novel demands. In many ways, the novel is a gift of communication that has no equivalent.
This is in stark contrast to the communication of the Internet, which is all about speed. How quickly you can post a reaction to the TV event or political news of the moment. How many seconds ago that comment was liked. That fascinating transmogrification of the verb “to like” from something you do into something you’ve done is a perfect representation of the speed thing. Get it “liked” and move on to the next thing.
So much Internet content is about generating search hits to collect user clicks to sell to advertisers, so we get headlines of articles of the ludicrous “You won’t believe…” or “Jaw-dropping” kind, and it doesn’t really matter if the content is badly written or untrue because nobody is paying that much attention to it anyway.
The principal goal of any great work of fiction I’ve ever read is to show what is – to provide a reflection of our lives and the world around us. And I think that novels are a better reflection of the way our world is than what we mostly read on the Internet.
Our lives simply do not unfold with that kind of everything-at-once frequency. Our sense of self is not a Google search away.
And I’ll have to leave it there because, my editor tells me, people won’t read it if it’s too long…
(Ed’s note – we can’t lie, we did… #short=sweet)