Could it be true that the increasing time most people spend on-line has produced an ‘eye byte culture’, making it more and more difficult for them to comprehend long passages of complex prose? That’s the sad probability indicated by cognitive researchers such as Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust & the Squid: The Story & Science of the Reading Brain (reviewed here) and IT journalist Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (reviewed here).
As the brain’s circuitry adapts to ever larger amounts of digital on-screen processing, it learns to scan and skim cursorily – but (so the argument goes) at the expense of traditional deep reading skills developed over centuries of engagement with words on pages.
Michael Rosenwald’s recent article on this subject in the The Washington Post quotes Wolf as reporting that many students of literature can no longer read canonical writers such as George Eliot or Henry James.
Habituated to on-line communication, they find it physiologically impossible to follow complex syntactical structures and interpret the intricate patterns of thought that those structures represent.
No wonder! Texts composed for electronic transmission normally curtail themselves for easy skim-reading. This is most obvious in emails and other quick messages, but advice on writing articles for the internet also insists on language that ‘cuts to the chase.’ There’s a strong preference for bullet points, short sentences, simple words – and especially ‘uncluttered syntax’, which means one should avoid subordinate clauses such as this one. (Being a truculent reactionary, I ignore such restrictive advice in my blog posts when it suits me.)
If constant exposure to on-line information is making our brains less able to cope with the kind of deep reading that serious writing demands – surely a Very Bad Thing – is there anything to be done about it?
One possibility is a Drastic Digital Detox. In her book The Winter of our Disconnect Susan Maushart describes how, as an experiment, she and her three teenage children pulled the plug on all their electronic media for six months. No computers, iPods, mobile phones, TV… And one result of this screen-free experience was (you guessed it!) that they re-learned how to read difficult literary works.
Such an extreme rejection of the digital world is unlikely to appeal to more than a tiny number of people. Without going that far, one can surely make moderate efforts to minimise the addictive tendencies of screen fixation. Lengthening the intervals between checking the email inbox would be a good start. Curbing the habit of following an endless chain of hyperlinks with the internet browser might help a lot. Putting aside the TV remote for a while and picking up a novel instead is a good idea too.
After all, isn’t it just a matter of balance? Shouldn’t we – those who cherish the art of deep reading – simply continue to bathe our brains regularly with the kind of textual experience that’s mediated by books in their traditional form? There’s no need to abjure all exposure to the screen world’s flit and flicker, provided that it doesn’t become a substitute for frequent engagement with words on the printed page.