August 30, 2018 By Joseph P. Farrell

Mr. V.T. sent this along, and it's another of those studies that are calling into question the neurological effects of our new digital age, where people are reading e-books, texting, emailing, and so on, rather than writing letters and reading actual books. Regular readers here probably are  well aware of my various "rants" against Amairikuhn edgykayshun, the deleterious effects of listening to what I call "one dimensional music" - melody propped up by pillars of chords, with a jungle drum beat pounding away through the subwoofers lulling everyone into a somnambulistic state of quasi-trance - the numbing effect of e-books, not to mention the fact that e-books allow the potential for the  "publishing industry" literally to change the formatting and content of the book at the push of a button, so that authors no longer have any control over their own canon, and voila! one has almost total control over information and "free speech." For that reason I have consistently warned my readers that I do not regard any e-book platform of my books as "canonical", and more recently have prohibited my publishers from issuing or allowing any of my books in an electronic book platform.

We'll get back to these points, because they form the core of my Orwellian high octane speculations today. Meanwhile, as I said, Mr. V.T. (and many others) sent along this article about the effects of "digital reading":

A neuroscientist explains what tech does to the reading brain

Here's the paragraphs that I'm focused on:

So what’s changing now with technology? How is that affecting our circuits?

The fact that a circuit is plastic is both its beautiful strength and its Achilles’ heel. Reading reflects our medium. And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

And these slower processes are deep learning, the ones that are more cognitively challenging. They’re the basis for going beyond that initial short circuit of decoding the information and understanding it at a very basic level. The digital medium affordance rewards and advantages fast processing at the cost of the slower processes that build our very important critical, analytical, and empathetic processes.

Why is it zero-sum, though? Surely it’s good to be able to skim when needed. Why does one take away from the other?

This is a question that requires a very careful attempt at explanation. It’s not zero-sum, but we have grown used to skimming. People like you and me who spend six to 12 hours a day on a screen are led to use the skimming mode even when we know we should use a more concentrated, focused mode of reading.

It’s an idea I call “cognitive patience.” I believe we are all becoming unable to take the time to be patient because skimming has bled over into most of our reading.


What are the consequences of all of us becoming skimmers?

Skimming has led, I believe, to a tendency to go to the sources that seem the simplest, most reduced, most familiar, and least cognitively challenging. I think that leads people to accept truly false news without examining it, without being analytical. One of my major worries is that when you lose the novel, you lose the ability to go into another person’s perspective. My biggest worry now is that a lot of what we’re seeing in society today — this vulnerability to demagoguery in all its forms — of one unanticipated and never intended consequence of a mode of reading that doesn’t allow critical analysis and empathy.

Hear hear! This phenomenon both of "skimming" (in the old days we called it "speed reading"), and the use of "the least cognitively challenged sources" is something that many teachers who are regular readers here have brought to my attention, particularly those who deal directly with literature or language courses; students not only cannot read well, but those who can, show little inclination or ability to read slowly and ponder deeply and critically.

And part of it is the result of reading via the digital technology rather than the old analog technology (books). There's another consequence I've blogged about before, but it's worth mentioning again. This is the phenomenon that has grown to become an implicit assumption of our digital "culture", and that is, all information is on the internet, and the way to find it is the search engine (which puts one at the mercy, as the political news has shown lately, of those designing the search engine algorithms). But not all information is on the internet, and this is particularly true of the nooks and crannies of "old" information, the wayward scholarly tome or medieval text. People no longer know how to use catalogs in libraries, some of which are not even fully on a digital platform (think of the large copyright libraries, the Library of Congress, the Oxford Bodleian, the British Library). Most of what I have researched for my own books, for example, are from books not available in any digitized format at all. Nor did I learn about some sources through "internet searches" but by reading the bibliographies from other books.

So what has all of this to do with today's high octane (and Orwellian) speculation?

Simply this: if one wanted to manipulate any given collective societal mind, then one surefire technique would be to introduce a technology that induces "speed reading" or "skimming", and not deep slow critical reading. One cannot "speed read" or "skim" Shakespeare any more than one can "fast forward" through a piece of music by JS Bach and gain any deep understanding of either. Those works are meant to affect - there's that word again! - not just the conscious critical mind but the "under mind" in a deep, and deeply philosophical way; they're designed to integrate and stimulate active intellectual and passionate involvement. It's the attention to detail and critical thinking about it that drives the critical mind. But if one wants to socially engineer a compliant population, then, yes, skimming is the way to go, and reading only on digital platforms, which can adjust both the flow and content of information, is also the way to go.

Which brings me to the core of my Orwellian High Octane Speculation of the day, for I can indeed imagine a world in which the sources of one's information will be criminalized, much like listening to the BBC in Europe during the Nazi occupation was a criminal act.  I can indeed easily imagine a world where sitting on a beach and reading a book or a magazine, rather than an ipad, could be a criminal act. I'm as much a user of the internet as anyone else, but when it comes to detailed information or presentation of an argument on a topic, hard copy books, for me, are still the way to go. And I can easily imagine a world where the old analog technology - the library - is the protected preserve of the rich and powerful, who alone have access.

See you on the flip side...