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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence