I had a recent computer crash that just about convinced me I’m an Internet addict. Two whole days without my fix and I started to get restless and anxious. I thought I’d been dropped into an information desert. The Internet has become my instant connection to world news, family, my faith. I’ve been amazed at the power it’s given to smaller faith and political groups to promote their beliefs, for good or for evil, and disproportionate to the actual size of their membership. Media advertising always could skew results in this way, but ads cost money – you can’t be a lone nut job and spend big money on advertising.
But back to the point. The power of the Internet has made growth in one’s personal and cultural potential far beyond anything seen in recent human history. Somebody at Time Warner probably makes these decisions, but in my opinion, it has been the most culturally transformative technology since the printing press. Personally, it’s changed the way I write and the structure and style of the stories I present. Without it, I would simply never be able to put together the articles for this blog. I’d like to think my writing is better, more precise, more relevant. It’s certainly faster, but it is different.
This isn’t a novel idea, but two recent articles by Nicholas Carr at The Atlantic and James Bowman at The New Atlantis point out research and impressions both scientists and serious writers have begun to take notice of. The premise is that overwhelming and almost instantaneous amounts of compact, bulleted, and organized on-line information is decreasing our reading ability, concentration levels and overall mental capacity. The Internet is actually changing the way we think and the way we think about things we read – we are becoming “high-speed data-processing machines” more useful at pulling out bits and pieces of information than actually making meaningful and deep connections with the printed word. (You still with me here? Only three more paragraphs and you can jump back to E-Bay or Yahoo.)
I still love my books and consistently buy more each month than I can finish in three, but I know I’m not speaking for the declining readership of great literature and trash novels alike. I’m sure the Internet hasn’t been the sole cause of this decline, but works in combination with other modern time-killers. The leisure time to read must compete with mindless TV watching, video gaming, extended work hours, family commitments, commuting and general busy-ness. I went for a long time when my kids were both under the age of four reading no more than poetry, very short stories and baby/parenting mags. Whatever I could fit into a five minute bathroom break before someone started banging on the door. And weird as it sounds, you can take a pee, read a magazine and nurse a baby all at the same time. You just can’t multi-task in the same way reading Dostyevsky.
It’s very sad to see the decline of reading in my own family. My sons, six and eight, are not avid readers. Fortunately they do not use the Internet much, the Disney Channel or National Geographic are about it, and I’m not encouraging them for now. Book reading is limited to bedtime stories and the tortuous practice of teacher-imposed reading calendars. Thirty minutes of daily homework reading is not a happy time. It’s usually interrupted by frequent shouts from upstairs about how many minutes are left on the timer or trips to get a drink of water. I must be a dinosaur – a relic of times before cable TV and video games (though I was about 11 when we got a primitive Pong game and hooked it up to our big console TV). Books could not have been any more important to me than breathing air. My kids suck that air from video games and The Cartoon Channel.
Carr’s article ironically points out that our daily amount of reading has actually increased – it’s the quality of the reading that has gone down. On-line screen reading bombards us with just as many words, just in tiny screen-sized chunks and headers. I hope both these authors are wrong and the doom and gloom about reading is not going to come true in the futuristic way they’ve presented it. People have been saying books are a dying medium for a long time. There isn’t any denying the fact that reading and cultural literacy have declined. However, I don’t think that books will ever be obsolete. To hold a book is a visual and tactile experience you can never get from on-line texts, a Kindle, an E-book or any hand-held device. Maybe a buckyball kind of paper might be used one day to download “books” onto, but it will have flexible, bound pages in a book format. The format is not going to go away. We just have to keep exercising our minds long enough. Maybe I’ll try and write a blog piece using the old-fashioned way – I’ll go to the library and search the stacks. You should be seeing that piece hot off my notepad in about two months.