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August 21st, 2018

In Philosophy

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Has the Internet destroyed our ability to read?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

I first read Hadrian’s Memoirs when I was 14 and I loved it. I was a serious intellectual back then. I re-read it in my 20s and I still loved it. But I recently re-read and I was disappointed at how slow it is.

I don’t blame the Internet, I just think I’m older and I tend to skim more often than before.

So this is an interesting alternative view

Wolf resolved to allot a set period every day to reread a novel she had loved as a young woman, Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi. It was exactly the sort of demanding text she’d once reveled in. But now she discovered to her dismay that she could not bear it. “I hated the book,” she writes. “I hated the whole so-called experiment.” She had to force herself to wrangle the novel’s “unnecessarily difficult words and sentences whose snakelike constructions obfuscated, rather than illuminated, meaning for me.” The narrative action struck her as intolerably slow. She had, she concluded, “changed in ways I would never have predicted. I now read on the surface and very quickly; in fact, I read too fast to comprehend deeper levels, which forced me constantly to go back and reread the same sentence over and over with increasing frustration.” She had lost the “cognitive patience” that once sustained her in reading such books. She blamed the internet.

One of the big surprises about the Internet is that it has been unable to help the economy. The so-called Great Stagnation, which began in 1973, remains with us. Growth remains sluggish, and the collapse of productivity numbers has been historic, especially in the UK. If you’d told me, 30 years ago, that there would soon be a way of sharing all the knowledge that humans had ever discovered, for free, with everyone in the world, I would have said, “That will set off the economy like a rocket!” But instead, the Great Stagnation continues. Which is frankly amazing.

The techno-utopia has been revealed as a fraud:

Shirky’s was only the sauciest form of an argument I heard whenever I mentioned to my techno-utopian friends that I identified with Carr’s distress. Concentration had become more difficult even for me, a professional reader and lifelong lover of books. Now it seems utterly nuts that someone could insist both that technology is an unstoppable force that cannot be directed or corrected and also that everything will work out great in the end, but that was standard operating procedure among the tech commentariat as recently as eight years ago. That large corporations might manipulate and exploit these changes for profit (let alone that hostile foreign governments might tamper with the much-vaunted “wisdom of crowds” to influence a U.S. election) never seemed to occur to them—or if it did, it didn’t bother them much. Freed from what Shirky deplored as the “impoverished access” of the past, we were, he assured us, poised for “the greatest expansion of expressive capability the world has ever known.” In the dark days of 2018, all of us are fully aware of what it’s like to be bombarded with the expanded expressive capability of the internet. Forget War and Peace—nothing could be as uninteresting as 99 percent of the stuff people post online. The medium remains the message, and in the case of the wide-open internet, that means the medium is ever more cacophonous and indiscriminate, its democratic qualities as much a bug as a feature. One of the reasons that digital readers skim is not because of some quality inherent in screens, as Wolf seems to think, but because so much of what we find online is not worth our full attention.

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2 COMMENTS

November 19, 2018
10:50 am

By Gábor Hidvégi

The problem is that too many pieces of information reaches us (thanks mostly to the internet), and our brain and emotional system cannot process it. Besides that once we get used to a specific amount of information, we will get bored if we get less than that. After you see an action movie with many shots fired, you will find another boring with less shots.

November 19, 2018
11:07 am

By lawrence

Gábor Hidvégi, I agree with “too many pieces of information” especially small pieces of information. Most of the online platforms are optimized to offer bite-sized bits of information. I used to fall asleep reading long books, but now, if I’m tired, I find it easier to look online, at articles that are 7 or 8 paragraphs long. They are easier to consume.

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