Reading In All Media

by Ben Steele edited by O Society August 12, 2019

There is no end to people complaining about technology and new media. It isn’t limited to luddites and other varieties of reactionaries. One hears all kinds of views why the world is going down the crapper, from high-minded critiques from academics to your mother’s nagging about her grandchildren. Recently, Michael Harris wrote about this on a personal level:

“For good reason. It’s embarrassing. Especially for someone like me. I’m supposed to be an author – words are kind of my job. Without reading, I’m not sure who I am. So, it’s been unnerving to realize: I have forgotten how to read – really read – and I’ve been refusing to talk about it out of pride. […]

“For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was. […]

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“For many writers, this is the new wisdom. A cynical style of reading gives way to a cynical style of writing. I’ve watched my own books become “useful” as they made their way into public conversation. I never meant them to be useful – in a self-help sense – but that was how they were often read. I say this with less reproach than surprise: Almost every interviewer has asked me for tips and practical life advice, despite the fact my books offer neither.

“Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get” (I have forgotten how to read).

There is some truth to it. I can’t deny that. But I can’t fully agree either, at least not for me personally. My brain doesn’t operate normally, something I know because I have the official tests from when I was diagnosed as learning disabled in childhood to when I was sent off to a psychiatric ward in my early 20s. I’m fully documented as ‘special’.

I don’t give a flying fuck if a book is written and presented in a linear manner. I never have been prone to linear thought, much less linear reading. It’s long been my habit to read dozens of books simultaneously. I skim books and I flit around them like a drunken butterfly. I often read the conclusion first and impressively will then proceed to read the text backwards, paragraph by paragraph. No linear cultural expectation is going to keep me confined. Fuck that!

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All of that was true for me long before the internet. It’s why I hated formal education, to such an extent that I learned to read late, almost flunked out of 7th grade, only graduated high school by cheating on tests, and dropped out of college twice. Schools don’t teach the way my mind works. I remember when I first started spending much time on the world wide web. It was mind-blowing! For the first time in my freaking life, I was experiencing something in the larger society that operated the same way as my ‘abnormal’ brain. If I was abnormal, then all of the internet was abnormal and it was my kind of crazy.

I still love to read. And I feel little conflict or competition between literary media as a physical book and electronic media as the internet. I simply have different contexts in which I immerse myself in any given media. It’s all good.

I like to go for long walks in the morning and that is when I find the best time for concentrated reading. My reading-while-walking habit also began long before the internet, maybe back when I was in high school. I typically walk out to my parents’ house at the edge of town and it takes about an hour-and-half, allowing me to read a couple of short stories or maybe a few chapters of a book. I also like to snatch some time to read while riding in a car/bus or sitting around waiting for something, including free moments at work. I always keep a physical book nearby for any occasion with my ever present backpack usually containing many choices of reading material.

There are hundreds of books I’ve read that I never would have discovered if not for the internet. I’ve probably spent thousands of hours reading book reviews and perusing Google Books. On the other hand, I admit that social media can be addictive and pointlessly distracting. I had to learn to avoid much of social media or at least avoid the worst elements of it. I don’t have any doubt that I’m being subtly influenced in ways that I’m unaware. But I seem to have a certain amount of immunity that others lack, as it doesn’t feel unnatural or foreign to me. I love all the vast info available on the internet, as I love books. Media whore that I am, I love it all. I devour all forms of media. And after a while, they all blend together in my mind and experience.

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Bring it on! Let the world be transformed by media. It will be a fun social experiment. Anyway, physical books are more likely to survive climate change than is the human species. For the last remaining humans huddled around fires as civilization collapses, there will still be plenty of physical books left in old decaying libraries. The survivors will have plenty of time to read, in between fighting off packs of mutants and evading zombie hordes. But until then, may media bloom like a thousand flowers.

This is Your Brain on Cognitive Offloading

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound.

One thought on “Reading In All Media

  1. I checked out the two posts you linked at the end. I see with the first one that I had already read it and commented there. My comments, in fact, were not that different than what I wrote in this piece of mine you re-posted.

    I realize I’m unique. The younger generation will grow up never knowing little else other than the new technological media. And even most older people will lose much of whatever capacity they had for book immersion and appreciation, not that the average adult ever had much capacity in this regard. It sucks for them. Society might lose something essential in the process, at least temporarily until we collectively adapt and develop new skills.

    But for me, it’s entirely different. Cognitive offloading is awesome! My learning disability, as I shared in the comments of that other post, has to do with word recall and hence info recall. When younger, I slowly figured out how to get around this cognitive deficit. I learned to make connections and the more personal the better. Isolated factoids simply do not hold in my brain. My memory actually improved because of the internet, which apparently is the opposite for most people.

    This is why the internet was an amazing discovery and enlightening experience. It really did operate like my mind. Connections upon connections. You can see that in how I blog or even how I often comment by throwing out tons of links, making ever more connections, often to an obsessive degree. It is part of my reading comprehension, how I learn and remember, how I gain greater grasp and understanding, more depth and insight.

    I don’t think I had previously seen the second post you linked to. In it, the author writes that, “We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.”

    That sounds great to me. I don’t have any fear that we will eventually learn how to combine new and old forms of media. It’s not as if the invention of written text caused people to lose the oral ability to speak face-to-face. Sure, it probably altered speech behavior in significant ways. But people didn’t stop speaking or enjoying conversation. We are going through a transitional phase when everything is disrupted and thrown up into the air. As a society, we will come to a new equilibrium. Media moral panics come and go, as has been seen for centuries and millennia.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/02/27/technological-fears-and-media-panics/

    http://www.frankfuredi.com/article/the_medias_first_moral_panic

    “When cultural commentators lament the decline of the habit of reading books, it is difficult to imagine that back in the 18th century many prominent voices were concerned about the threat posed by people reading too much. A dangerous disease appeared to afflict the young, which some diagnosed as reading addiction and others as reading rage, reading fever, reading mania or reading lust. Throughout Europe reports circulated about the outbreak of what was described as an epidemic of reading. The behaviours associated with this supposedly insidious contagion were sensation-seeking and morally dissolute and promiscuous behaviour. Even acts of self-destruction were associated with this new craze for the reading of novels.

    “What some described as a craze was actually a rise in the 18th century of an ideal: the ‘love of reading’. The emergence of this new phenomenon was largely due to the growing popularity of a new literary genre: the novel. The emergence of commercial publishing in the 18th century and the growth of an ever-widening constituency of readers was not welcomed by everyone. Many cultural commentators were apprehensive about the impact of this new medium on individual behaviour and on society’s moral order.

    “With the growing popularity of novel reading, the age of the mass media had arrived. Novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) became literary sensations that gripped the imagination of their European readers. What was described as ‘Pamela-fever’ indicated the powerful influence novels could exercise on the imagination of the reading public. Public deliberation on these ‘fevers’ focused on what was a potentially dangerous development, which was the forging of an intense and intimate interaction between the reader and literary characters. The consensus that emerged was that unrestrained exposure to fiction led readers to lose touch with reality and identify with the novel’s romantic characters to the point of adopting their behaviour. The passionate enthusiasm with which European youth responded to the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) appeared to confirm this consensus. […]

    “What our exploration of the narrative of Werther fever suggests is that it acquired a life of its own to the point that it mutated into a taken-for-granted rhetorical idiom, which accounted for the moral problems facing society. Warnings about an epidemic of suicide said more about the anxieties of their authors than the behaviour of the readers of the novels. An inspection of the literature circulating these warnings indicates a striking absence of empirical evidence. The constant allusion to Miss. G., to nameless victims and to similarly framed death scenes suggests that these reports had little factual content to draw on. Stories about an epidemic of suicide were as fictional as the demise of Werther in Goethe’s novel.

    “It is, however, likely that readers of Werther were influenced by the controversy surrounding the novel. Goethe himself was affected by it and in his autobiography lamented that so many of his readers felt called upon to ‘re-enact the novel, and possibly shoot themselves’. Yet, despite the sanctimonious scaremongering, it continued to attract a large readership. While there is no evidence that Werther was responsible for the promotion of a wave of copycat suicides, it evidently succeeded in inspiring a generation of young readers. The emergence of what today would be described as a cult of fans with some of the trappings of a youth subculture is testimony to the novel’s powerful appeal.

    “The association of the novel with the disorganisation of the moral order represented an early example of a media panic. The formidable, sensational and often improbable effects attributed to the consequences of reading in the 18th century provided the cultural resources on which subsequent reactions to the cinema, television or the Internet would draw on. In that sense Werther fever anticipated the media panics of the future.

    “Curiously, the passage of time has not entirely undermined the association of Werther fever with an epidemic of suicide. In 1974 the American sociologist Dave Phillips coined the term, the ‘Werther Effect’ to describe mediastimulated imitation of suicidal behaviour. But the durability of the Werther myth notwithstanding, contemporary media panics are rarely focused on novels. In the 21st century the simplistic cause and effect model of the ‘Werther Effect is more likely to be expressed through moral anxieties about the danger of cybersuicide, copycat online suicide.”

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