The title of this post is the title of an article by Nicholas Carr in the July/August 2008 The Atlantic that discusses how the way humans read on the internet affects the future of reading and thinking, i.e. being able to concentrate deeply and think deeply for an extended period of time. Carr begins the article with a memorable scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey — HAL’s breakdown at the end as Dave Bowman disconnects its memory circuits. Carr continues with a description of his own experiences with changes in his concentration and proceeds with an examination of reading on the internet, why marketers and websites want people to keep clicking, and Friedrich Nietzsche, his typewriter and how it changed his writing style, which reflected how it changed his thought process. Machine changes human. In short, the more time spent clicking away on the internet, reading in snippets, skimming, digesting information on the run around the Web ultimately can affect how one reads and processes offline. That is, it’s harder to dive into the depths of text and ideas rather than skim the surface like an internet skier. Machine changes human but for the better or no?
As I read this article, I thought of how strict I am about my own time on the internet and what I do online. I thought of future scenarios that involved computers connected directly to the brain and carried in one’s pocket with continuous access to the internet (at no cost, of course) and the death of the book along with any kind of face-to-face social life. The drug of our brave new world will be technology, not a pharmaceutical. I wondered if I needed to include such scenarios in my Perceval novels since they are set in the near future. An entire generation has never known a time when the personal computer didn’t exist, or Google, or ipods, or cell phones. Technology has already changed the way people live their lives.
My concern here is about humans reading books — the kind one holds open in one’s hands with pages and printed text. Will there come a day, soon (?), when people will prefer to read text on e-readers or computers? I get a headache when I spend too much time reading a computer monitor. And what about the energy usage of computers and other gadgets? The heat they generate? The reliability of energy sources? Aren’t we supposed to be conserving energy? The printed book is cool, elegant, portable, light and the perfect entertainment on a hot summer day (when a swimming pool isn’t available).
Or perhaps it’s not the survival of books that is the concern, but the survival of human intelligence. Carr writes in his article about how neural pathways and connections are formed specific to certain activities, like reading, and how that can affect those activities in adulthood. So children who read primarily on the internet, in the hopping around and quick way of clicking, create brain structures that cannot sustain attention for deep reading and concentration. The mind searches for other things, drifts away, finally decides to go do something else. Won’t we need people who have the ability to sustain their attention, think deeply, concentrate for long periods of time? I would like an audience for my stories….
On the other hand, last week as I sat in a waiting area, I heard a young boy reading aloud to his brothers from a magazine while his father watched. The boys weren’t playing with a computer game or wearing earbuds. They were listening to their brother read to them….