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In My Opinion

What’s that I just read?


“So, Doc, I do have this one issue I’m struggling with …,” is what I’m going to tell my therapist at our next session. “I’ve been a reader my whole life and a writer my entire working career, but lately I can’t remember things I’ve just read.

“I read a paragraph and have to re-read it. I start the first few pages of a new book, set it down, then the next day have to start all over again to refresh my memory. So, what do you think, Doc? Is it early onset dementia or late onset attention deficit disorder?”

I already know her answer.

“I call it digital overload disorder; the research has been documenting it for over four years,” she’ll say. “Take a look at Martin Kutscher’s piece in Psychology Today or the summary of Nicholas Carr’s work in The Atlantic. If it’s any comfort to you, everybody’s getting it.”

She’s right. Read the literature – re-read it if you must – and you’ll understand that the world today is in the midst of what Carr calls a “sea change in the way we read and think” due to the platform on which we receive more and more of our information: The internet. In his 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” Carr relates a telephone conversation with Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at the University of Michigan Medical School regarding how the internet had altered his mental habits.

“I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” Friedman told Carr, describing his thinking as having taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Ongoing neurological and psychological studies will provide a more definitive picture of how internet use affects cognition, but we already know we have to teach our minds to read, unlike speech, which is genetically gifted. The means by which we learn to read or the variations we make in how we read – specifically, online media – shape the brain’s neural circuits, including those that govern such cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli.

 “We can expect,” Carr said, citing the work of Tufts University developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, that, “the [neural] circuits woven by our use of the net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.”

This column in no way is meant to suggest that online technology is the evil of modern society. Far from it. My concern comes from the apparent effect that online reading has on our minds’ ability to engage in what these scientists call “deep reading” and how we are being re-programmed by the computers.

I wonder, in this bottom-line-efficient, data-driven world, if the absence of contemplation, thoughtful pondering and critical analysis that comes from deep reading, could be the reason we’re so regretfully divided in society today. Deep reading allows deeper understanding – of issues and people. Deep reading challenges us to consider the viewpoints of others with whom we may disagree, it has the capacity to build an empathy that might lead to greater understanding, civil discourse and a view of others as being not so different from ourselves.

The shallow reading of online communication also has altered once-revered traditions and philosophies. Public libraries, for instance, were once the repositories of all great literature, be it classic, modern or even Star Wars science fiction. Today, the library is far more than books: It’s alive with computers, videos and DVD checkouts. It has become a meeting place for gamers, musicians and adult activity classes.

That’s all wonderful because it means public libraries have continued to be relevant in their communities. But, when libraries are built or renovated today, designers adamantly advise not to build too many book shelves – lest all the empty space suggest the library was designed too big for the tax initiatives passed to build or update them.

Society’s results-only focus also has changed our mindset on college. There was once a day when a liberal arts education was considered the foundation of a well-rounded and full life. The pursuit of the arts, languages and culture formed the basis of an essential and lifelong skill, “learning how to learn.”

I’m very much in favor of and enthused by the current focus on job training and I’m personally aware of the deplorable costs of a traditional college education. But my concern comes from apparently having thrown overboard the respect for – and pursuit of – a deeper knowledge that once came from an academically disciplined liberal arts education.

My question is, after people have jobs, after they’re finally engaged in the careers for which they trained, what will enrich their lives? Will they have an appreciation for great literature? Will they value the great music of the ages? Will they have the desire to know other people, languages and cultures? Will they deep read?

Online access also has eroded the once-great tradition of being able to listen. Where do people today hear the spoken word delivered in a public setting and in a way that allows for thought, personal reflection and subsequent engagement? Church sermons and homilies still exist, but church attendance around the world continues to fall. Lectures are still part of college and high school instruction, but one high school teacher pointed out to me recently that, if students are to be engaged in a lesson, they first have to be “tricked” into hearing it by some kind of entertaining introduction.

To be sure, even the internet promotes the spoken word through “TED Talks” and podcasts, but why are they not more popular? Why are they not being discussed? I even worry about live theater. Unless it’s a high school play or a small community performance, the audience for community theaters around America tends to be older adults. Where is the next generation of theater patrons?

Obviously, there is no going back, the Algorithm Monster is on the loose. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has even talked about the company’s desire to one day wire its search engine directly to our brains. In a 2004 interview with Newsweek magazine, Brin said, “Certainly, if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” That, Carr said, suggests a growing belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process and not a place that allows for contemplation.

Some small, beginning steps of defense are available right now in Barry County. As it does every year, Hastings Public Library is offering its community meeting room as a closed-circuit television site for the highly-acclaimed January Series lectures hosted by Calvin University. Fourteen lectures by world-leading thinkers in fields ranging from education to hunger to sports are viewable here from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. each day. For those unable to attend, most lectures are archived and available on the Calvin University website – a positive use of the internet, by the way.

 “It provides us with an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a number of issues,” Kristi Potter, January Series director, said, “and it also challenges us to consider viewpoints that may be different than the ones we hold.”

Potter is personally most excited by the presentation Tuesday, Jan. 14, by Cathy O’Neil, a Harvard University math Ph.D., who’ll speak on “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.”

The January Series is keeping alive deep-thinking; it promotes deep-reading with the interest that lectures create to learn more about the subjects presented.

And best yet,  the lectures are free – far cheaper than a therapist trying to help someone who can’t remember what he just read.



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