It’s reading vs. screen culture — and screens are winning

Yesterday I posted some excerpts from and commentary on last weekend’s interview with Stephen King in Parade magazine, in which King says he’s uneasy about the future of reading in an increasingly screen-oriented culture. The main data point he cites in this regard is his experience of teaching a couple of writing seminars to Canadian high school students last year and finding that although the students were very bright,  their written language skills — and by implication their reading skills — were dismal. (See “Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading.”)

Following on from this, and for what it’s worth, I can confirm King’s observations and worries from my own 13 years of experience as a teacher, first in high school and now in college. The scary things you’re hearing about the collective state of literacy, or rather a-literacy, among the screen-reared generation are not just hype, not just hand-wringing, not just empty Chicken Little-ism. It really and truly is the case that among people under, say, 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even, in many cases, tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And it looks for all the world as if the ruling idea from the Highlander mythos — that “There can be only one” — is fully in play. And reading is losing the war. Badly.

It’s not that screens and visual media are inherently evil, nor that reading is inherently virtuous and humane. All kinds of nuances and variables come into play here. But as a matter of historical fact, the great democratic revolutions of the 18th century really did rise directly out of the cultural transformations attending the invention of the printing press some 300 years earlier, including the rise of “print culture” — a heady cultural milieu deeply informed by, and in fact obsessed with, books, pamphlets, and more — and the advent of what Neil Postman famously called the “typographic mind.” And many of the best aspects of Western civilization that developed and manifested in the succeeding centuries were likewise linked to the intimate psychic centrality of this psychological and sociocultural innovation.

And as John David Ebert has pointed out so cogently and powerfully in The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake, our headlong, giddy, and total transformation into a culture of ubiquitous and always-on electronic screens and digital media is effectively undoing all of this in a matter of mere decades. What’s more, the pace of the destruction is only increasing. Consider: How is it that in 2013 it boggles the mind to remember that Facebook and YouTube have only been around since 2004 and 2005? Less than 10 years after their creation, both feel like the very air we breathe: omnipresent, unquestionable, a part of our cultural-ontological substrate.

“It really and truly is the case that among people under 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And reading is losing.”

Last week I called attention to a recent essay by James A. Pearson about his experience of dividing his time between Uganda and California, and of finding the American media environment to be fairly toxic with its all-pervasive bid for perpetual distraction. (See “American media culture as psychic predator and parasite.”). What I didn’t mention was Pearson’s introduction to the piece, in which he begins by talking about the specific impact of all this on his ability to engage in sustained reading:

Against my better judgment, I’m watching another episode of The West Wing as I write this. It’s streaming on Netflix in a window next to this one. It’s my third episode of the night, my 80th or so this month. When I left Uganda this winter I had finally broken the 300-page barrier in David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan novel, Infinite Jest. I’ve started it three or four times in the past and aborted each time for attentional reasons. But 300 pages felt like enough momentum, finally, to finish. Then I hit my first American airport, with its 4G and free wi-fi. All at once, my gadgets came alive: pinging and alerting and vibrating excitedly. And even better, all seven seasons of The West Wing had providentially appeared on Netflix Instant. I’ve only finished 100 more pages in the two months since.

He points out that the irony of this interruption occurring to this particular book is especially pronounced, since Wallace’s book is about a deadly media “parasite” that captures and devours people’s minds:

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a film (also called Infinite Jest) so entertaining that anyone who starts watching it will die watching it, smiling vacantly at the screen in a pool of their own soiling. It’s the ultimate gripper of eyeballs. Media, in this absurdist rendering, evolves past parasite to parasitoid, the kind of overly aggressive parasite that kills its host.

Pearson closes with this:

An optimally adapted parasite takes as much from its host as possible without damaging the viability of the host. In order for us to stay viable hosts for the media parasite, we need only enough waking hours away from media to make money and to spend that money on advertisers’ offerings and/or media’s costs (and of course to feed ourselves and, like, stay alive). Media will gladly take all our other hours. Think about normal adult American life: After working, spending, and consuming media, how many hours do we really have left? Of course it will never get all of our spare time. But it captures more of our hours every year. Media is on an evolutionary trajectory, a curve bringing it closer and closer and closer to Infinite Jest.

Think about all of that — I know I’ll be thinking about it myself — as you reflect on the fact that you’re now staring at a screen full of hyperlinks and other assorted bids and opportunities to capture and scatter your attention. Reflect on the fact that before the day is out — hell, probably before the next 15 minutes are out — you will inevitably find yourself staring at several more screens in rapid succession, and will likely discover that you’re violently and irresistibly distracted by them and sheared clean away from the living reality of the present moment, not to mention from the possibility of slowing down and focusing, and picking up a (paper) book, and conforming your mind to the requirements of deep reading.

Like the psychiatrist at the end of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian science fiction story “The Murderer,” who is called in to treat an “insane” man who has gone around smashing up his society’s frantic multitude of noisy high-tech distractions, you’re surrounded by a cacophony of rings, buzzes, and chimes, all of them shrieking for your attention. Or else you’re pushed and pulled along like a junkie by an addictive inner compulsion to check your phone and Facebook timeline and Twitter stream, to download a new song and open eight more browser tabs while scrolling through your Netflix recommendations and clicking through your Pinterest boards. Or more likely you’re being puppet-led from both sides at once, the outer and the inner working in tandem, the environmental distraction playing perfectly into the psychologically and neurochemically imprinted inclination to respond to it, and even more, to crave it.

“Somebody has to kill the babysitter!” cries Jim Carrey’s human incarnation of cable television’s sick soul in The Cable Guy.  “You’re television incarnate, Diana,” says William Holden’s tragically disillusioned network TV executive to Faye Dunaway’s inhuman void of a ratings junkie in Network. “Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you.”

If it’s not too ironic to link to a YouTube video after saying all of these things, I invite you to consider the following elegant object lesson in the conflicted relationship — a zero-sum game, really — between the attention-grabbing, distraction-based culture of digital-visual media and the act of book-reading, courtesy of writer-director Ben Stiller:

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 29, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Internet & Media, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Paul StJohn Mackintosh

    Sorry, I don’t agree with this one bit. Tom Chatfield persuasively argues the point here [] that “more human beings can write and type their every thought than ever before in history … Ours is the first epoch of the articulate crowd, the smart mob: of words and deeds fused into ceaseless feedback.”

    Now does that disrupt or prevent the transition from texting to text? Or facilitate it? Personally, I’m as much of a gadget loon and Twitter twitch as anyone: I hardly read on paper any more. Yet I know that when a written work truly grabs my attention, it consumes it, to the exclusion of all else. Thanks to ereading I have read through and been inspired by far more than I ever did in an equivalent period when I only access to print. And Amazon shifts far more Kindles and ebooks than it does DVDs.

    Plus, Stephen King is hardly a neutral observer. He has his private obsessions and marketing priorities to peddle, and when I see Mephistopheles putting on Cassandra’s mask, I pause.

    • I’ve been trying to proliferate and draw discussion towards east-asian ghost worship and victorian spiritualism after having been raised in the 1990s and witness to the popularization of reiki. Visual media such as Japanese anime played a big role in stimulating me to later study this kind of thing in my spare time in University. but when I have drawn discussion to topics like Shinto and spiritual emergence psychosis, caused by the self-loss as theorized by Marcel Mauss as means of exchange – gift giving – on a mystical kind of level.. I’ve tried communicating, that is, with people interested in paganism somewhat and horror literature but they haven’t been receptive and are unwilling to study it themselves. What I have definitely noticed is that the spiritual not religious folks otherwise known sometimes as the nones or sbnr.. they don’t read.. I am flabbergasted by this. They do what they are told. They listen to Oprah or go to some spa, but they have no intellectual interest in what they’re doing. This baffles me. I definitely feel a disconnect, what Matt Cardin talks about as deep reading, that people aren’t willing to do. I definitely have noticed another trend with digital book sales, and some people actually find that an ereader has been a way of discovering and reading many more books.. but I definitely see a lack of intellectual culture. Mass media and corporate interests have reduced people to consuming exactly what they’re told to. They might be reading more books, but they’re reading very popular books. We’ve moved away from an era where people would debate each other through poetry and calling each other out and really interacting in an intellectual space to being reduced to lol lol cat pictures and twitter messages of X amount of characters. Its a systemic attack on our intellect. It is done on purpose. By people with questionable values. And I really question how the fuck that is good for society. We’re just consumers. This is how we’re treated. We’re not really participating in much of a vibrant intellectual community at all anymore as we used to . It doesn’t mean that Teeming Brain blog is not intellectual. But there aren’t many people using the internet in this way. They’re busy with other lame shit.

  2. I sympathise with Pearson in the way that modern media technology interferes with reading. I’m constantly telling myself that I’ll spend less time on the internet or watching DVDs so I can read some more books. As it is I’ve only managed to complete one novel so far this year (The Boys From Brazil which isn’t exactly a doorstopper).

    I did notice though that Pearson watches The West Wing at the same time he does other things (like writing about how he shouldn’t be watching The West Wing). If he isn’t giving the programme his full attention he probably isn’t even getting the full benefit of watching TV let alone reading. No wonder so many TV shows are empty-headed if the makers know that the viewers aren’t even paying attention when they’re watching. Forget watching in HD, future shows will be broadcast in ADHD.

    I also wonder that as books become more screen oriented will the quality of the writing suffer? I see these possibility on two fronts:
    (1) If images on the screen become integrated into the writing then they will eventually change the way writing is approached. Different styles and techniques will become obsolete as people rely on the images to plug the gaps previously filled by words. Kind of how emoticons have replaced any attempt at actually getting across ideas in words. After all, why bother with all the effort of using words to convey a concept when an emoticon can do the work for you? “So what if I threatened to rape and kill your mother? I added a smileyface!” *

    2) Even allowing for the fact that a word/image hybrid language could, if used properly, lead to an exciting new explosion of style and inventiveness there is the danger that the images will take precedence. They will be flashier, more exciting. I can see a future where stories are written by people who are experts at creating computer graphics but can barely string a sentence together. But if they do it will be done using photoshop.

    *There’s actually a UK court case that ran along similar lines.

    • As someone who is a huge fan of Kenneth Anger and Japanese anime.. I adore the fast cut, and MTV style music video.. I love short stories too. Watching a spooky horror movie can stimulate your emotions in ways that many authors try to coax you into feeling but many people might not be so receptive. I admit I wouldn’t have been so interested in some subjects were it not for spectacular films that I had seen at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival

  3. We’re attracted by the cheap, base, pornographic, glitzy, blingful, and simple-minded thrill — always have and probably always will be. Big deal. Our job as human beings will forever be to transcend those urges. Proust sees our superficial behaviour as “a heavy curtain of habit that conceals from us almost the whole universe.” I reckon that on one level we all know this. So eventually we will reject all this techno-excitement and respond to some kind of cry from within. Anyone care to elaborate on that?

    • I think it comes and it goes. like the tides. the Romantics like Coleridge and then later people like Byron and Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetes and Decadents.. falls through the 1950s and the red scare, breaks out into the hippie movement, then breaks down into the Satanic Panic and then people like Marilyn Manson come about and inspire a whole legion of demonic kids only to be consumed by the George Bush era

  4. Yes, ironically, Matt, it is an avalanche of emails from you in my inbox about the dangers of screen technologies that has made my screen time increasingly addictive.
    Please reduce the frequency of your messages to once a week.

    • Sorry about the deluge, Helena. I always thought that subscribers had the option to set the frequency of the updates they receive by email (once daily or once per week) using the subscriber management link that shows up in the bottom of each email, but just today I found that the subscription service I use here at The Teeming Brain doesn’t allow that. Bummer. I’m presently checking into alternatives and will let you and everybody know when I’ve found one that will allow you more control, the better to filter and manage the flow.

    • For myself, I really chalk it up to being born and raised in a different era. From growing up in the 1990s and being a teenager nearing my 20s in the mid 2000s .. When the internet came about I was definitely part of a generation that thought of it more like a giant library. Which is still true today but I think far less so

      In the past, people would use the internet, look up cool shit, and then explore cool stuff.

      because, facebook and whatever didn’t exist yet.

  5. I have read King, I like his early work, I think the Shining and On Writing are both classics in their respective fields, however, I find it odd that he should be the starting point for a discussion on digital vs print and the whole “technology is killing our attention span” debate. King wrote and writes for the generation that was reared on TV and cinema and it is no accident that all his work has made it to the big screen. If he was starting his career today as a young man, he would be writing best-sellers for the generation that grew up online.

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