The Essay: Will reading in the digital era erode our ability to understand the world?

Quite the opposite, so long as we grasp the fresh routes to knowledge, and connection, that technological change brings, says Nick Harkaway.

Reading, rumour has it, is under threat - and not just from TV and computer games. The supposed risk comes from the nature of digital text, which has links and distractions. Each requires you to make a split-second decision - to follow or not to follow? - thereby kicking your brain out of the smooth function of reading and into a judgmental mode which is cognitively different. Reading in this environment, you allegedly lose the ability - it's an acquired skill, which needs to be practised - to read properly at all.

And it's not just reading which is in jeopardy; so too are family, society, even thinking. The digital age, we are told, is corrupting everything from interpersonal contact and child development to public order and the human brain. There's a panicky feel to our relationship with technology today, even though quite often it's just the bearer of bad news, rather than the cause.

Recently, researchers established a connection between a particular pattern of Facebook behaviour and socially aggressive narcissism. The study very specifically does not say that Facebook causes narcissism. It would seem equally possible that the site is the canary in our social coalmine, flagging the rise of a dysfunction in the children of the 1980s: the inheritors of that decade-long festival of self-indulgence. But that idea was buried; the scare story was irresistible.The dogwhistle subtext: Your child is being infected with narcissism by the evil internet! O, Albion! To Arms!

These are old, old fears in a new form. In ancient Greece, Socrates reportedly didn't fancy a literate society. He felt that people would lose the capacity to think for themselves, simply adopting the perspective of a handy written opinion, and that they would cease to remember what could be written down. To an extent, he was right. We do indeed take on and regurgitate information, sometimes without sufficient analysis, and we do use notes as an aide memoire - though even now, when our brains have begun to assume the ability to Google information, studies show we can still memorise facts perfectly well if we know we will need to. But Socrates was also wrong: literacy isn't a catastrophe for knowledge, but a huge boon. It allows us to gain an understanding of the work of lifetimes in short order, preparing the way for research into topics we might otherwise never reach. It also creates a record of our thinking which we can trace and examine.

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, coined the term "information overload" in the 1970s. In the 1990s, Anthony Giddens described how we all felt the world was spinning out of control. Giddens - still writing in the pre-email age - was kind enough to explain the origin of the sensation: the unravelling of our traditional way of living, the slow decline of the church, family and the nation-state as points of reference holding our map of the self in place. Meanwhile, the rise of mass transit meant that we no longer live our entire lives within a short distance from where we were born.

In the 20th century we also saw the demise of the job-for-life and the demolition of conventional gender roles (though the rubble is still razor-sharp in places). Finally, we were made aware of the somewhat bitter truths of empire and its commercial successors: our consumer goods come at a price to other nations which is in some cases appalling. It has become a commonplace now to talk of blood diamonds, but in fact there are hundreds of items which match that description, from the laptop on which I'm typing this article to the wedding ring on my finger.

A large part of this so-called overload is information we'd rather not hear, but which our minds will not let us completely ignore. It isn't that digital technology is ruining the time we spend by the hearth; it's that the world we inhabit is increasingly calling time on our delusions. Our comfy hearth depends in some measure on bad things far away. The way to deal with that isn't to complain that the medium through which we learn it is ruining the mood, but to do something about the way we live.

In a social context, digital technology introduces you to neighbours of the mind - people who are separated by distance, but close to you in thought and interest. Just as Margaret Thatcher was announcing that there was no such thing as society, communications media were being developed which allow us to reconnect with others.

The picture of a nation in collapse painted by those who see the UK riots of August 2011 as an outbreak of "pure criminality" coordinated though social media is flawed. Studies after the fact - largely ignored, alas, by a news narrative which promulgated alarming visions of Twitter Thugs - show that most riot-related communication was in the form of people helping one another avoid the worst and then getting together to do spontaneous clean-ups. And while the Arab Spring uprisings were not "Twitter Revolutions" but the upshot of years of strife, protest and organisation, the flowering of that effort was given space and prominence by social media, and became truly (if briefly) democratic through them.

In the mental health arena, there's at least as much evidence to suggest that social media helps with some conditions as there is to say it is implicated in them. Depressed subjects can be positively affected by internet use. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual does not unequivocally acknowledge "Internet Addiction", saying instead that it is more likely a symptom of pre-existing issues. It would be idle to propose that no one can become obsessed with life online - just as vulnerable people can form bad relationships with food, exercise, alcohol, gambling and even drinking water. That emphatically does not mean that Twitter is the cognitive equivalent of smoking crack.

The idea that people you know online are not real friends doesn't stand up to scrutiny, either. There is nothing unwholesome about digital meetings as opposed to physical ones. It's true that interacting through text means no eyelines, no facial expressions, no tone of voice. That can be an advantage, helping us to consider content rather than eloquence, import rather than source. And text communication is not devoid of subtext or semiotics; they are differently conveyed, just as good poetry conveys impressions differently from, but just as powerfully as, a photograph.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about digital technology is that it is a tool rather than an identity. It is not suited to every situation. Some things, however, it does very well. We need to learn to choose when to apply it to our advantage.

The internet has the capacity to extend to us genuine choice, and that is not without risk. Real power does entail real responsibility. As social media make it easier to find like-minded people and exert pressure to a given end, we have to sk ourselves whether what we're asking for - demanding, even - is genuinely in our interest. A brief glance at the finances of the state of California will tell you why. If we are willful rather than wise, we'll bankrupt ourselves, and probably worse. Good decision-making is the crucial skill of the digital age, and one which requires information.

When I was at school we had one text book per subject. Our point of view was the one in the book, because that was how you passed exams. Our teachers cautiously allowed some deviation, but our entire understanding was framed by this one source. When you read deeply, you take on the author's worldview to some extent. There's a powerful authority in print: the right to set the terms of the engagement.

Finding a narrative on the internet is rather different. Take the revolution in Egypt: as events unfolded, I sat in front of a television screen and a computer, following tweets as well as news broadcasts, synthesising an understanding from a multitude of sources. No single voice defined my understanding. No one else's path through the moment was exactly like mine. This wasn't reading in the old style, but an attempt to create a broad picture for myself. This is the true modern Gutenberg moment: the decentralisation of narrative authority. If I want to know what's going on, I'm going to have to find out rather than simply adopt a position from someone else. Somewhere, Socrates is laughing.

Are we losing our power to read? No. Is our environment changing us - and how we read - within reversible limits? Absolutely. Is our society shifting under the stresses of changes wrought over hundreds of years? Yes - and not all of those changes are comfortable. We already know, at heart, that the way we live is not sustainable and must change. Digital technology is responsible for only a tiny part of what we are living through, and is at least as much cure as disease. Perhaps for the first time, we can see the changes as they happen, and advance into them or retreat from them with an understanding of what is taking place.

Nick Harkaway's 'The Blind Giant: being human in a digital world' is published by John Murray. An ebook is also available. Find out more at www.blindgiant.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot