Surplus to Requirement
September 9, 2010 | 6:18 am
By Paul Biba
“As Shirky observes, Wikipedia was built out of one percent of the hours spent watching television in a year. However, before the web, we also spent more time reading long-form books, shaping the capacity for complex cognition, something that’s changing with the switch to scanning snippets on the web. As MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte observed: ‘my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared.’ This deficit also has enormous consequences. The capacity for complex thought is required to meet the complex social, political and environmental problems of our day. Bottom line, does the surplus exceed the deficit?”
That Wikipedia stat makes me incredibly happy. I genuinely think that the time I’ve spent away from television (three years and counting, barring the occasional box set of The Wire, Generation Kill, etc.), time spent with the internet, has improved my thinking immeasurably when combined with better reading and being surrounded by some very smart and very erudite people at university who make me feel bad enough that I try a bit harder. And I’m new to creating regular written content, but surely the cognitive surplus devoted to writing here is better for me than anything I ever watched week to week on that other screen. I also relax with the internet in the same way I used to with television, flaking out for an hour (or two, or three), but Boing Boing, The Guardian, Wired, Pitchfork, and every other digital thing I browse just for fun always seems to get my head working against the grain of whatever homogenising influence British television had. The net’s good like that; diversity breeds complexity which breeds challenge which breeds thought, and it comes relatively effortlessly provided you ‘click through,’ provided you search around, provided you engage.
So, I agree that the Shirky point is one worth making: the internet has the capacity to drag people’s leisure time into more productive use than television does. And I also agree that reading “shapes the capacity for complex cognition” (check out Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid or Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain for more on this). But the idea that “scanning snippets on the web” is reducing the “capacity for complex thought” honestly seems a touch…ludicrous. The full quote from Negroponte is: “I love the iPad…but my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared, as I am constantly tempted to check e-mail, look up words or click through.” This seems to be a different quote than the one which is cited as evidence in Miedema’s post, where it is appropriated into suggesting that the net in general has robbed Negroponte of his capacity to consume extended written work. Regardless, as more people use tablet computers, and generally read on screen, might we see a death of long-form reading, a move to reading snippets, and the end of activities which develop ‘complex cognition?’ My guess is no, certainly not, or at least not on this evidence.
Negroponte, I assume, is a busy man. He probably gets a TON of email which needs regular checking. But otherwise the behaviour he describes doesn’t seem so new. I still look up words I don’t know from books, I just tend to Google them now rather than go to a dictionary. But as far as I’m concerned that’s not breaking up reading, that is reading, that’s what you do to read properly. It’s the same with ‘clicking through’ – that’s just pursuing leads. If where you were held all the answers, or formed the meat of what you were interested in, then you’d stay there. Clicking away to new content, to the detriment of where you were before, just suggests that where you were simply wasn’t where you wanted to be, not that you were incapable of reading it (I’ve discussed this before).
The other thing about being busy, besides the email, is you don’t get to practice the things in your life that you see as being in any way peripheral. Last year I read around 120 books, a lot of them poetry and novels. This year I’ve only read 40 so far, (cover to cover at least), very little of which was poetry, barely any novels, it’s mostly been a lot of technical and theoretically dense works. I’m a different reader than I was last year; not better or worse, just different. Actually, maybe a bit worse. My point is that reading is a skill that waxes and wanes with use like any other. If you don’t practice playing guitar for a time then you will get worse, even if you remember the gist. If you stop reading poetry, unfortunately, your critical head isn’t going to be as good as when you were knee-deep in it. And if you don’t get a chance to read long-form works then suddenly a 300 page tome will seem gargantuan. I suspect that Negroponte is able to get the things he perceives as crucial to his work and leisure from short-form writing and other media forms, otherwise he’d be practicing long-form reading by necessity. If you’re whittling to essentials then long-form reading might well fall by the wayside, even if you feel bad that that’s the case.
And this is ok. I fail to believe that Negroponte’s work with OLPC, and everything else he gets involved in, doesn’t flex the muscles of his complex cognition, even if how he spends his leisure time is less taxing than it used to be. If he was reading Confessions of a Shopaholic would he really be working his mind harder? Reading, as an action in isolation, isn’t a substitute for thinking, we’ve known this since Plato:
“Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom [they] will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society” (Phaedrus p96)
Reading is not an unalloyed good, critical thinking is. Some written work has the capacity to prompt such thought, much doesn’t. The same applies for the internet, for cinema, for music, for visual art, and, yes, for television, though at varying ratios (Sturgeon’s law, however, has always seemed about right to me). If reading is important to you then you need to practice, and you will. If the presence of a new device in your life gets in the way of this, as an adult, then maybe your priorities just lay elsewhere, maybe what you were looking for, information, distraction, whatever, is better provided by another medium. When it comes to teaching children then yes, we absolutely need to indoctrinate every last one of them into the specific skill of absorbing large swathes of written information, not because it’s essential or somehow noble, but because any one of them might go on to lead a life where they will need it. Early pedagogy is about providing the fullest range of likely options for valuable later use that we can muster. But as adults: readers read. They just do. Anyone who stops reading just because youtube has funny videos they can suddenly access, well, maybe reading wasn’t really for them, maybe it was getting in the way of putting their cognitive surplus to use in the same way youtube now does. Or maybe youtube scratches a necessary itch in a way reading couldn’t.
It is no service at all to suggest that the internet causes people to read less, as if that was a bad thing in and of itself, as if some panacea for the ills of the world was being squandered while a puerile vice mushroomed irrefusibly. The truer argument lies with suggesting that people’s cognitive surplus, their downtime from their activities needed strictly to survive and thrive, might be better spent in more meaningful or enabling activities. The medium is not the point, we shouldn’t try to yoke people to media that they would willingly abandon at the first sign of something easier – this only masks the more profound problems of our society: the devaluing of inquiry, the rising infantilism of mass culture, the privileging of the easily gratifying. But these are not new problems, parts of the internet only continue them, and books are far from immune to their ravages.
Editor’s Note: Matt Hayler is a PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter. He is interested in all forms of resistance to the digitisation of the written word, but particularly resistance stemming from human neuropsychological and phenomenological interaction with physical objects and the widespread idea that technology is ‘unnatural.’ He blogs at http://4oh4-wordsnotfound.blogspot.com and you can follow him on twitter – @cryurchin