What We Talk about When We Talk about the Future of Reading
The other week, the first Future of Reading conference took place at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It was a fantastic few days, very interesting, with a range of great speakers. Rather than summarize each panel or person, I want to try and explore a few of the topics that came up. A lot of these posts will be simply referencing and pulling together some of the ideas and/or articles/books that came up, but hopefully it’ll lead somewhere sorta interesting.
When academics and/or people in the book industry get together to talk about the “future of reading,” it seems to me that there are two or three main assumptions at work: that we’re talking about reading books (a.k.a. “long-form narrative), that the number of people reading books could decline precipitously in the not-so-distant future, and that this is due in large part to changes in technology. Different people take different approaches to this—from claiming that reading is just migrating to a new place and form, to claiming that technology can help improve close reading, to a belief that the belief in a constant decline in readership has been around since Gutenberg Day One and nothing has really changed—but all seem to address one or more of these elements.
I’m really not that old (although having iced my Achilles tendon the past few nights thanks to a baseball injury sure as hell makes me feel like it), but I suspect that this “death of reading” debate has been going on as long as discussions on the imminent “demise of publishing.” This has heated up in the past few years though, thanks to discouraging NEA studies (namely this Reading at Risk one), the belief that the Internet is siphoning off all available free time that used to be spent with a book, and the slow decline in sales of literary fiction (which Alane Mason of W.W. Norton referenced during our ALA panel on Saturday).
One of the interesting things about the current moment of this debate is the way in which people are speculating less about reading habits as a whole, and starting to look more at how technology is altering how our brains function.
This is the main focus of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which has been getting shitloads of press. (See here, here, and here just to name a few.) I haven’t read the entire book yet, but a couple of key studies he summarizes got a lot of attention at the Future of Reading conference the other week. (Specifically, N. Katherine Hayles—whose presentation blew me away, and which I’m sure I’ll reference several times over the next few posts—brought this up, raised a few criticisms, called for more studies, etc.)
One of the studies involved the way in which surfing the Internet for one hour a day for a week created specific neural pathways found in experienced web users. In other words, using the Internet—even casually—reconfigures your brain. As pointed out in this Wired article this reconfiguration results in an increase in brain activity, which initially sounds like a good thing . . .
However, according to Carr and others, this isn’t necessarily making us smarter:
What kind of brain is the Web giving us? That question will no doubt be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise—and the news is quite disturbing. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.
To me, the more interesting study involved having people read Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover.” This study is explained in full in the aforementioned Wired article, but in summary, if you read the story in normal book format (linear text, click “next” to move to the next page) you remember way way more than if there are hyperlinks embedded in the text. Even if you don’t have to click a single one. Which seems to imply that the very nature of how articles appear on the Internet has rewired our brains in such a way that our reading of these pieces is almost automatically cursory, hard to remember, etc.
This all seems pretty intuitive in a way. I know that my memory of articles I read online is total trash. I print out EVERYTHING. (Things that are important. That I want to recall later.) And placing this in a larger context makes even more sense. A lot of us live in a sea of over-stimulation. As I type this, I have nine other tabs open in my browser, including both of my e-mail accounts, my Facebook page, and my Twitter feed, and I’m flipping between these every so often. I’m also listening to music on my iPhone and my concentration on this post is punctuated by responding to text messages and occasionally making my move on Words with Friends. (Although seriously, how can I even compete with someone who played the word “barf”? I should just resign now.)
Written out like this, especially if I were to present it in a stream of consciousness format in which my concerns are flipping from one thing to another every minute, it all seems like too much. But to be honest, this is how I exist in the world almost 24/7.
Which isn’t all that unusual. And has very palpable, obvious effects. Around the same time all the Carr publicity was popping up, the New York Times ran a piece on distraction and gadgets. Centered around Kord Campbell’s excessive addiction to information and devices and whatever (this is a picture of his life), it discusses the mental impact of all this signal-noise sorting . . . Or I think it does. I totally started skimming when I realized the article was five screens long . . .
So, for a publisher—like many respectable publishers—who brings out long, complicated books that require a lot of concentration, and possibly some outside knowledge, this all raises a lot of questions and issues.
Letting go of the potential lure of the Internet to pull readers away from books (this has always been the fear w/r/t other forms of more immediate, accessible entertainment—books rarely hold the same visceral joy that a 3:23 song does), I’m more interested in how this knowledge about the way people read will impact both the production of literature and the study of it. Over the next few days, I want to get into this a bit more, but right now, a lot of buzz in the publishing world is about “enhanced ebooks,” creating a full multimedia experience for the reader, creating apps to attract person XYZ to book ABC, etc., etc. All stuff that plays to the way we’re awash in bits of information; all stuff that plays to the typical 21st-century reader’s tendency to bounce in and out of reading frames, from one site to a million.
I have no grand outline for these posts, just a lot of random thoughts from the RIT conference and other things I’ve been coming across lately. And as mentioned above, I’m no expert in this field (or really any field, for that matter), but as a lifelong reader who has noticed things shifting a bit, I’m curious . . .