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Reading in a connected age

There is no doubt that the internet has transformed our lives in multiple ways. Here I will focus on the ways in which it has transformed our cognitive environment. I’m writing these words in Australia; as soon as I press “publish” they will be available to readers all over the world. For an academic, the “tyranny of distance” is greatly reduced by the web: it doesn’t matter where I am or where the journal is; I can have immediate access and I can email the author queries as easily from Melbourne as from London. Notoriously, it has made information available in quantities many people report they find overwhelming. Many of the effects of the internet are beneficial; no doubt some are harmful (one might think of the economic effects of ecommerce, which has encouraged the growth of near monopolies and led to the closing of many retailers). I suspect, however, we are too quick to blame the internet for harms, without considering what would have happened without it. For instance, when internet communication leads to crime in the non-virtual life – a dating side assignation leading to rape, say – we blame the internet. The right question isn’t whether it is used for serious crime, but whether its use increases the level of serious crime.

Here I want to consider one potential negative effect of the internet. In a recent blog post, Tim Parks argues that the constant availability of the temptations of the internet has led to a decline in the capacity to focus for long periods, and therefore in the capacity to consume big serious books. Big serious books are still written and read, he notes, but “the texture of these books seems radically different from the serious fiction of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries”. Their prose has a “battering ram quality”, which enables readers to consume them through frequent interruptions.

But of course one would expect – fervently hope – that books written in the 21st century are radically different from those written 100 years ago. After all, if you want to read Dickens and Dostoevsky and the like, there is plentiful quality literature from that period surviving: why would a contemporary writer add to those stocks? Its worth noting, as Francesca Segal points out, that Dickens’ own work was originally published in serial form: that is, in the bite-size chunks that Parks think characterise the contemporary novel in an age of reduced concentration spans.

Perhaps there is something to Parks’ hypothesis that the way the novel has changed reflects changes in the capacities of contemporary readers, but making that claim is going to take careful study. You can’t make it from the armchair. Without proper data and proper controls, we are vulnerable to the confirmation bias, where we attend to evidence that supports our hypothesis and overlook evidence that doesn’t, and many other biases that make these kinds of anecdotal reports useless as evidence.

Here is what may be happening to Parks. He is finding himself aware of a loss of focus more than he used to be. But is that evidence that he is actually losing focus more often than previously? Perhaps prior to the internet he would not have noticed he was losing focus as often as he does now, but he would have lost focus just as often. There is evidence that people fail to detect their own mind wandering in a significant proportion of cases. Perhaps people fail to notice mind wandering more in a distraction free environment because alternative activities are not salient. If that’s right, he might not actually be having a harder time concentrating; he might just be aware of it to a greater extent than previously.

This is merely offered as a hypothesis. I can’t rule out Parks’ alternative hypothesis. And other hypotheses seem quite plausible too (maybe he isn’t actually noticing that he is losing focus more often; rather he is misremembering his prior capacity to focus. Memory is highly fallible, as an enormous amount of evidence shows). That’s the real point: without proper data, we’re all just speculating.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. A while ago I got interested in whether novels are getting longer, and I did some data-gathering that suggests that at least for science fiction this is true:

    But this might as Parks say, hide a structural difference. However, nobody can accuse Asimov for a dense Faulknerian prose in “Foundation”, yet some of the more recent winners seem to be far more poetic and dense (China Miéville’s ” The City & the City” certainly requires a sharp reader).

    No doubt we write and read differently now. The deeper question is whether we want to say or hear the same thing as before.

    1. While it is true that Asimov’s writing is not very demanding, the same is true of Dickens. When the discipline of English literature was founded at Oxford and Cambridge (in part to cater for women, who were then being admitted to the university but tended to have less background in classical languages), many people expressed outrage on the basis that writing in English was too accessible to count as educational.

      think we ought to discount our intuitions that things are going to hell, in the light of the fact that we’ve been thinking that they’ve been going to hell in precisely the same way. Here are some representative quotes (note how they emphasise the ‘modern’ incapacity to focus for an extended period of time):

      the hurry of the age have produced a craving for literary nips. The torpid brain … has grown too weak for sustained thought (1891)

      the daily papers […] give you a summary of the summary of all that has been written about everything. Those who are dipping into so many subjects and gathering information in a summary and superficial form lose the habit of settling down to great works (1894)

      the mania for stimulants [produces] diseases of the mind are almost as numerous as the diseases of the body… This intellectual condition is characterized by a brain incapable of normal working … in a large measure due to the hurry and excitement of modern life (1895)

      These quotes are taken from this great XKCD cartoon.

  2. I’ve always thought there are two strands to this – one is that technology changes and individuals tend to grow older embedded in the technological context of their youth/young adulthood (their music, fashion, cultural and political tastes often show the same sorts of stickiness, in my armchair opinion). So the availability of information to people younger than us looks daunting, since people younger than us are more adept at sorting signal from noise via technologies that we can’t quite handle. And the second thing is that we generally get better at concentrating as we age from (say) 20 to 50. When you add these together you get overwhelmed by the information available to people (especially young people) while at the same time growing skeptical (in a grumpy old person sort of way) about their ability to process it with the respect it deserves.

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