Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The end of reading? Part 2

To begin my second post on Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows (read Part 1 here), I would like to return to E.B. White's essay on the future of reading, to a particular section where he acknowledges reading as a solitary interaction between reader and writer. He points out, "Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading - the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequaled by any other form of communication."

In The Shallows, Carr looks at how reading online changes the act of reading and that this has made an impact on us. Reading online requires a different set of skills and has an altogether different character from the one described by E.B.White above. Reading therefore moves away from linear text towards shared, interactive reading rather than "deep" reading as a personal, solitary activity.

More specifically, what Carr writes about next is something I find particularly fascinating: how changes in reading style bring about changes in writing style. On the whole, the style of the internet tends towards the informal and accessible over the literary. Because information on the net is constantly updated and refreshed, writing becomes impermanent and can undergo countless revisions. Carr suggests that the pressure to achieve perfection will diminish as a result, "Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence."

The diminishing of reading as a practice of deep, solitary engagement with text raises some interesting questions: Will reading like this (or as E.B. White calls it in his essay: the Last Reader) become part of a small, elite group, a kind of "reading class"? Will reading be seen as holding a rare form of cultural capital or will it be seen as indulging in an arcane hobby? This might seem absurd, however this becomes less so when one considers how often people say they don't have time to read a book - the internet satisfies the need to read instantly and in bite-sized, manageable chunks that can be squeezed in between other activities.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that the world around us is constantly in flux and this ever-changing context requires new skills, which result in the loss of old ones. So, should we then mourn the loss of the literary mind or should we move with the intellectual and social trends that parallel the fast-moving, kaleidoscopic diversions that characterise modern life? Life really does seem too busy for solitary, extended reading (just ask a student) and Carr states, "In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler."

So what does it mean to "cast our lot with the juggler"? What is the "juggler's brain" as Carr calls it? He returns to the notion that the internet changes our brains and points out that what we're not doing also has neurological consequences. He writes,
"Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don't fire together don't wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart.The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones."
This becomes a problem when we consider how memory works. Carr goes into the differences between long term and working memory and how information is processed by our working memory which allows it to be stored in our long term memory. Our long term memory is virtually infinite, but our working memory has a limited capacity, so the more information it is bombarded with the less likely it is that this information will proceed to long term memory.

In opposition to the mass of information and distractions we face on the internet, reading a book provides a "steady drip" of information that can then be transferred to long term memory. As already expressed, information on the internet is the opposite: it is a flush of information, too much to adequately process, so only a small drop of this is transferred to long term memory. The internet often offers us a jumbled instead of a continuous, coherent stream of information from one source. Carr explains the impact of this, "The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our 'cognitive load'. When the load exceeds our mind's ability to store and process the information - when the water overflows the thimble - we're unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can't translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow."

This is the crux of Carr's argument: that the way we read information on the internet leads to shallow understanding and that we lose the ability to engage deeply and extensively with information. A loss or a necessary adaptation? I guess it remains to be seen, but I definitely think that rushing headlong into the internet without looking back is something we might regret.

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