By Robin Nagle.
There’s something to be said for deep engagement. I agree with Wolfgang Iser, the literary theorist and co-founder of the sub-discipline of literary anthropology, who argued passionately that focused engagement with a text can truly transform the reader (see The Act of Reading). Although Iser was mostly concerned with works of literature, his theory makes sense with many different kinds of texts. Ten years ago, spending a week with Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life changed me; things just made sense differently when I had finished reading it. Granted, at that time I had a quiet place to read and a room of my own, and I gave Durkheim’s seminal work the time and attention it deserved.
If you buy into Nicholas Carr’s argument in his Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” you might be tempted to believe that the type of textual immersion I am describing, this form of focused reading, is rapidly disappearing. Lately, I am seeing that several social thinkers are paying increased attention to what Carr argues is a significant cultural, cognitive, (and even physiological) shift occuring within the human population, a shift as momentous as the introduction of large clocks in many public squares throughout Europe in the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment:
“I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone or something has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book used to be easy…now my concentration starts to drift after 2 or 3 pages, I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do…the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” (Carr)
The key here is that Carr, like many of us, spends long stretches of time on the internet. In his article, he quotes Bruce Friedman, a popular blogger who claims, “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.” People are skimming now, performing a type of reading akin to jet-skiing, clicking around from site to site, answering incoming emails, browsing and bouncing. How we read is changing. I contend that we have found ourselves in the beginning phase of a new age of ephemerality.
Aaron Lake Smith, in the December Utne Reader, puts it another way:
“I’ve been having a hard time reading books and finishing movies. I click through websites, vacantly aware that things are going on in the world, accustomed to the placid, oceanic motion of clicking, scanning, and window re-sizing. I browse Wikipedia entries, looking through section headers to get an idea of something I know nothing about. I’ve gotten so caught up in the romance of the news cycle, in the infinite ability to have infinite access to infinite information that the cache of my mind dumps out, leaving me empty headed and forgetful.” His words stayed with me for days after I had finished the article: “The urge for mindless drift is irresistible.”
Carr (and many others) think we are undergoing a cultural and cognitive sea-change as people increasingly learn to merely “skim” articles and to bounce from site to site as they engage in new kinds of reading, new kinds of thinking, new senses of self, as our ability to truly engage, to read deeply, to interpret, becomes increasingly challenged.
British essayist, Pico Iyer, writing in the New York Times at the end of 2011, tells us that the average American spends 8 ½ hours a day in front of a screen. In his article, “The Joy of Quiet: Trying to escape the constant stream of too much information,” he describes an inn in Big Sur that charges $2285 a night partly for the privilege of having no TV or internet in the room. This is one of many “black hole resorts” becoming popular among those who can afford such luxury. He also writes about internet rescue camps in China that save kids who are addicted to screens.
It might seem strange that I am blogging about this and that you are reading it on the internet. The “seduction of the instantaneous” as Aaron Lake Smith calls it, demands more than a micro-second of our attention. In a world overcome by the hurried, the disposable, the instantaneous, it is still important to take time out for deep engagement; there’s no substitute.