Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social
By STEVEN JOHNSON
Published: June 19, 2010
“THE point of books is to combat loneliness,” David Foster Wallace observes near the beginning of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” David Lipsky’s recently published, book-length interview with him.
If you happen to be reading the book on the Kindle from Amazon, Mr. Wallace’s observation has an extra emphasis: a dotted underline running below the phrase. Not because Mr. Wallace or Mr. Lipsky felt that the point was worth stressing, but because a dozen or so other readers have highlighted the passage on their Kindles, making it one of the more “popular” passages in the book.
Amazon calls this new feature “popular highlights.” It may sound innocuous enough, but it augurs even bigger changes to come.
Though the feature can be disabled by the user, “popular highlights” will no doubt alarm Nicholas Carr, whose new book, “The Shallows,” argues that the compulsive skimming, linking and multitasking of our screen reading is undermining the deep, immersive focus that has defined book culture for centuries.
With “popular highlights,” even when we manage to turn off Twitter and the television and sit down to read a good book, there will a chorus of readers turning the pages along with us, pointing out the good bits. Before long, we’ll probably be able to meet those fellow readers, share stories with them. Combating loneliness? David Foster Wallace saw only the half of it.
Mr. Carr’s argument is that these distractions come with a heavy cost, and his book’s publication coincides with articles in various publications — including The New York Times — that report on scientific studies showing how multitasking harms our concentration.
Thus far, the neuroscience of multitasking has tended to follow a predictable pattern. Scientists take a handful of test subjects out of their offices and make them watch colored squares dance on a screen in a lab somewhere. Then they determine that multitasking makes you slightly less able to focus. A study reported on early this month found that heavy multitaskers performed about 10 to 20 percent worse on most tests than light multitaskers.
These studies are undoubtedly onto something — no one honestly believes he is better at focusing when he switches back and forth between multiple activities — but they are meaningless as a cultural indicator without measuring what we gain from multitasking.
Thanks to e-mail, Twitter and the blogosphere, I regularly exchange information with hundreds of people in a single day: scheduling meetings, sharing political gossip, trading edits on a book chapter, planning a family vacation, reading tech punditry. How many of those exchanges could happen were I limited exclusively to the technologies of the phone, the post office and the face-to-face meeting? I suspect that the number would be a small fraction of my current rate.
I have no doubt that I am slightly less focused in these interactions, but, frankly, most of what we do during the day doesn’t require our full powers of concentration. Even rocket scientists don’t do rocket science all day long.
To his credit, Mr. Carr readily concedes this efficiency argument. His concern is what happens to high-level thinking when the culture migrates from the page to the screen. To the extent that his argument is a reminder to all of us to step away from the screen sometimes, and think in a more sedate environment, it’s a valuable contribution.
But Mr. Carr’s argument is more ambitious than that: the “linear, literary mind” that has been at “the center of art, science and society” threatens to become “yesterday’s mind,” with dire consequences for our culture. Here, too, I think the concerns are overstated, though for slightly different reasons.
Presumably, the first casualties of “shallow” thinking should have appeared on the front lines of the technology world, where the participants have spent the most time in the hyperconnected space of the screen. And yet the sophistication and nuance of media commentary has grown dramatically over the last 15 years. Mr. Carr’s original essay, published in The Atlantic — along with Clay Shirky’s more optimistic account, which led to the book “Cognitive Surplus” — were intensely discussed throughout the Web when they first appeared as articles, and both books appear to be generating the same level of analysis and engagement in long form.
The intellectual tools for assessing the media, once the province of academics and professional critics, are now far more accessible to the masses. The number of people who have written a thoughtful response to Mr. Carr’s essay — and, even better, published it online — surely dwarfs the number of people who wrote in public about “Understanding Media,” by Marshall McLuhan, in 1964.
Mr. Carr spends a great deal of his book’s opening section convincing us that new forms of media alter the way the brain works, which I suspect most of his readers have long ago accepted as an obvious truth. The question is not whether our brains are being changed. (Of course new experiences change your brain — that’s what experience is, on some basic level.) The question is whether the rewards of the change are worth the liabilities.
The problem with Mr. Carr’s model is its unquestioned reverence for the slow contemplation of deep reading. For society to advance as it has since Gutenberg, he argues, we need the quiet, solitary space of the book. Yet many great ideas that have advanced culture over the past centuries have emerged from a more connective space, in the collision of different worldviews and sensibilities, different metaphors and fields of expertise. (Gutenberg himself borrowed his printing press from the screw presses of Rhineland vintners, as Mr. Carr notes.)
It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the last millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers. The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently. One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.
Quiet contemplation has led to its fair share of important thoughts. But it cannot be denied that good ideas also emerge in networks.
Yes, we are a little less focused, thanks to the electric stimulus of the screen. Yes, we are reading slightly fewer long-form narratives and arguments than we did 50 years ago, though the Kindle and the iPad may well change that. Those are costs, to be sure. But what of the other side of the ledger? We are reading more text, writing far more often, than we were in the heyday of television.
And the speed with which we can follow the trail of an idea, or discover new perspectives on a problem, has increased by several orders of magnitude. We are marginally less focused, and exponentially more connected. That’s a bargain all of us should be happy to make.
Steven Johnson is an author and entrepreneur. His new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” will be published in October.