Having trouble concentrating? US writer Nicholas Carr thinks you are. He's the man behind "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" – an article in The Atlantic in July 2008 criticising the internet's effects on our cognition. It was in the vein of Marshall McLuhan's influential Understanding Media from 1964, and is now being followed by Carr's book, The Shallows, published in the US next month.
In it, Carr argues that the compulsive skimming, linking and multi-tasking of internet browsing undermines the deep, immersive focus that has traditionally defined book culture and long-form journalism.
Still with us? Maybe you're up- dating your Twitter feed. If not, then cast a cursory eye over this offer from British publisher Little, Brown: an iPhone app is to accompany the paperback release of Iain Banks's book Transition – space opera riffs in a contemporary context – on 1 July.
The application's authors claim it is the first app to go "beyond the story", offering exclusive extra content in the manner of a DVD. Not directors' commentaries, as such, but unseen chapters, character biographies, even Banks's original notes and planning. For a writer whose science fiction, at least, is never short of catholic in its influences, this is something of a choice titbit. Banks says the new know-how of his own app "pleases as much as seeing my first novel in print".
"It's a way of enabling authors to reach out to fans," says Jen Porter, co-founder of TradeMobile, the company that has overseen the app's production. "We wanted to put people who love books in touch with their creators. People enjoy reading a printed page, and many have smart phones to investigate information online or keep in touch with friends. What we're doing is using a digital device as a gateway to a companion to a novel."
The app is activated by scanning in a two-dimensional barcode at the back of the book, using the iPhone's camera. This unlocks a secret area within a prepossessing programme – videos of the author discussing the work, notes, links to different books proffering up sample chapters – along with a live news feed taken directly from Banks's website.
The future, says Porter, could mean typing in words from specific chapters and being served up further info on those sections of text as you wade through the prose. But what does this mean for reading? Will it not be easier to be distracted from Banks's text as you go to the app to scrutinise his research?
In 2008, people consumed three times as much information as they did in 1960. Research published last month by the University of California indicates that heavy multi-taskers perform about 10 to 20 per cent worse on most tests than light multi-taskers. If modern neuroscience says adult brains are more plastic than was previously thought, should we bid farewell to teenagers' valiant attempts to tackle more than 15 pages of Russian literature? "I think it will influence not only the way people read novels, but also the way they are written," says Porter. "If writers know that their notes might be seen, it could affect the way the they research. But we obviously aren't trying to replace books. We are trying to add to the enjoyment of the physical book."
The 30-year-old author Jennie Rooney, whose debut novel Inside the Whale was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award – and whose second novel, The Opposite of Falling, is winning great reviews across the board – represents the future of writing. What is her view? "I think as a reader it sounds really interesting," she says. "A DVD commentary can be revealing if it allows you to see a scene in a different way and appreciate what each scene leads towards.
"As a writer, in my book I found a lot of the research I did on travel agent Thomas Cook and the letters he wrote fascinating. But I had to leave it out. It would be nice to have had footnotes, but maybe this would have taken away from the reading process." She recalls how fellow fiction writer Peter Carey once stated that he could say where every sentence in one of his books came from. "And if you were studying literature, or were particularly obsessive, it might be quite interesting," she adds.
Much of the criticism of modern reading habits is nay-saying. For every hour of restlessness incurred by the internet come several hours saved in research. We can share information quickly these days, and speeding up this process engages our cognitive cogs more swiftly. Indeed, we have more text at our fingertips than at any time in history.
But that data – when in traditional books – might just become harder for us to consume.Reuse content