Over-connectivity and the death throes of the book

Richard Jackson retains hope that our digital connectivity dependence won’t spell the end of the humble book. #booksschmooks where are those lolz cat videos…? #oops

I have recently found myself unable to concentrate on a book. I can’t find the sustained period of focus or mediation that is needed to read.

Last night, after Skyping my brother, I watched Vine videos until 2:30 in the morning. I couldn’t face the idea of picking up my book. This was easier…I just sat there and zoned out, clicking on whatever took my fancy.

David L. Ulin in his book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time hits the nail on the head:

“What I am struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there which merits my attention, when in fact it is mostly a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.”

I don’t own a smart phone.  I have a retro Samsung that ‘does the job’ (as you say when you can’t afford a better one), but I recently realised I could get the fantastically antiquated mobile Internet and my Gmail account on my phone.

Now I find myself constantly checking my emails, just to fill time. It’s alarming how quickly I moved from not having the option of doing something and not caring, to it suddenly becoming a constant in my daily life…I even get frustrated at its slow loading speed.

Good Technology published a set of survey statistics on how often Americans check their email. Here are some choice points:

  • 68 percent of people check their work emails before 8 a.m.
  • The workday is growing – 40 percent still do work email after 10 p.m.
  • 57 percent check work emails on family outings

Sound familiar?

It is not just over-connectivity that is proving a problem, it’s also the ease of access that the Internet provides. The realisation that you can avoid the frustration of boredom for hours by sliding down the digital spiral until you have reached the base level of your cognitive functions.

We all do it. We log on, intending to send a single email. We bring up our account. The mind wanders. Starting with something innocuous: “I should check Facebook as well.” Next thought: “Ah my friend’s friend Kate Ford is in India.” You look through her photos and your mind drifts into a perennial fudge, and your Googling displays your thought pattern: “Kate Ford … Ford cars … Harrison Ford … fedora hats … Pharrell Williams … Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” … where can I buy a Daft Punk helmet?” What began as a simple task has now progressed into an hour’s worth of procrastination.

According to a study conducted at The University of Columbia, the Internet is actually changing the way we recall information. The study showed that the participants were developing transactive memories. Now that we rely on the Internet, we learn where and how to locate information instead of simple memorisation.

Author and journalist Will Self wrote an extensive article on digital media signaling the death of the serious novel:

“There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”

I think Will Self is being slightly dramatic. I don’t think we are facing a dystopian, bookless future of flickering screens and cat memes; many people still value the permanence of physical books. We like to have something tangible – something we can hold, smell and see. This alone will be a great contributing factor to the continued existence of the serious book…I believe (hope) there will be enough snobs left in the world.

People have been debating the future of the book for years. In a response to Will Self, Daniel D’Addario compiled a list of statements literary figures have made, the earliest being Jules Verne in 1902:

“ will be supplanted altogether by the daily newspaper… Newspaper writers have learned to colour everyday events so well that to read them will give posterity a truer picture than the historic or descriptive novel could do.”

The thrust of Self’s argument is correct, however, I have faith in others (if not myself). He mentions moving to a typewriter in order to force himself away from the flickering distractions. He says:

“With broadband it became seamless: one second you were struggling over a sentence, the next you were buying oven gloves. Worse, if, as a writer, you reached an impasse where you couldn’t imagine what something looked or sounded like, the web was there to provide instant literalism: the work of the imagination, which needs must be fanciful, was at a few keystrokes reduced to factualism.”

Work forces this connectivity on us and we do nothing to resist. We bring more upon ourselves by living our lives on social media, by contributing to this downward spiral of dumbness where we never have to earn knowledge. It’s only a few not-even-carefully-assembled words away…somewhere on the internet.

Share via