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.

Nick Harkaway
Thursday 10 May 2012 16:03 BST

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Louise Thomas

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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

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