At the beginning of every semester, the journalism students I teach lament the difficulty in reading long texts and focussing on the meaning of the words in front of them.
“I get my news from Twitter,” one of them said, as if Twitter were a news source and not a social networking website with aggregating capacities. News distributed on social networks is news often reported by someone somewhere in a newspaper, on a television website, or a blog. Social networks condense the meaning of the news article into 140 characters (now upped to 280), leaving little meaning there.
Class assignments are long articles to be read on the course’s website. Students have to understand, research, comment and critique — all online.
Halfway through the semester, I notice that all their skills improve. They articulate better. They research with depth. Clearly, the capacity to absorb the material studied has expanded. This is because it is forced to expand, in order that they get good grades.
The medium is the message
Students are encouraged to contribute their opinions and ideas to the lively topic of how the Internet is changing our brains. We discuss, for example, how Socrates in Phaedrus said the alphabet would bring an end to our capacity to memorise ideas. How, since those days of ancient Greek wisdom, the advent of a new medium has always generated new, at times useful, Cassandras. Fear of the new: neophobia.
We also discuss the ideas of Nicholas Carr, who, in his book The Shallows — How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, described what the loss of the kind of deep thought we reach with focussed reading can do to our minds. We look at what Camille Paglia says about a society obsessed with images: it can sink in the present without understanding the context and the meaning of what is really happening in that present. Pierre Bourdieu dissects the impact of TV on culture, explaining how talk shows threaten science and academia, for example. Deleuze, Derrida, Baudrillard — all the complicated French minds are summoned to make things even harder and to explain how our perception of reality is altered by a new medium. But, mostly, we gaze into the prophetic views of Marshall McLuhan and his “medium is the message” mantra. It’s not what you say that has a real impact on society, it’s the medium you use which will alter everything in society, especially perceptions. And thus, in the Internet’s case, our capacity to focus on reading.
Feeling versus knowing
Our constant usage of the Internet threatens our reading capacity, it is commonly said. It results in our decreasing capacity to concentrate, think and understand things as we were used to. And while the decision-making part of our brain works in overdrive by clicking, skimming, browsing, liking, sharing, bookmarking, it is true that we are choosing faster, but we are not understanding in depth what we chose and why we chose what we did.
In class, we’ve discussed what we’re looking for when we’re on the Internet, which is almost always. Although we may think we are looking for information, news, novelties, we realised that it mostly boils down to emotions. We tell ourselves we’re looking for data and facts on which to base our opinions. But once we ask ourselves the simple “why?”, the deep answer is not “in order to know,” but “so that we can feel.”
Novelties. We seek the quick, constant gratification of empty news, not having time to understand their meaning in our lives. The power of news then — the power to inform, to put a new shape to the concepts in our minds — gets lost. We feel, but we do not know. And if we don’t know, it’ll be even easier to manipulate us.
The motto of the zeitgeist is images, not words. But images have a double-edged power. We click and see a man squatting to protect his genitals from attacking dogs in an American prison. We click and we see a rockstar twerking in hot pants. Twerking, torture, pain, dance, glamour, cruelty — it’s all the same. On the same screen. Quickly alternating. It’s the Internet.
“It is making us feel jaded,” admitted one student.
In this open laboratory of thought about the impact of the Internet on our brains and our capacity to absorb knowledge, we force ourselves to understand and we push to discuss and propose solutions. And we have reached a simple proposal based on these premises: isn’t reading taught in classrooms? Aren’t we accompanied on our first steps to understand the meaning of letters, words, ideograms? As much as reading on paper needs to be inculcated in order to be mastered, so does e-reading.
We have many techniques to propose to the Ministry of Human Resource Development. They can be applied at the same age when children learn to read. Provide a screen and connectivity, Mark Zuckerberg, sure. But dish out funds to teach us how to connect, research, discover, and also how to disconnect, reflect, focus, until we’ve finished reading a long text online. How to click on hypertext only once we’ve reached the end of an article and then, and only then, we may go back to deepen our understanding, to search for more knowledge. This is how we will be able to prove that reading online is just as good as reading on paper: by learning how to do it right.
Yes, you can read long texts online. Deep reading. But you have to learn the self-discipline needed to absorb the information and make it become knowledge. The way children are reprimanded if their attention wanders off while reading on paper as they learn how to focus, the same can be explained when training to e-read. Turn off the 3G or WiFi and keep your eyes on the screen until you’ve reached the end of all these paragraphs. Then explore the Web for more. In order to deepen our independent gaze into reality, we must be helped to wade through the metastasis of communication surrounding us, so we may battle the anorexia of true information: knowledge.
Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory. His most recent book is The Edge of an Era