Monday, March 27, 2023

That fertile miracle of communication

If you watch a movie from the '80s, like Splash or Big or Back to the Future, I bet you react how I do. You'll think, wow, that moved way slower than I remember. You'll notice more details than you did back in the day.

In the digital age, our brains have changed. We process video much more quickly than we used to. Our attention spans have diminished. Heck, we don't even have time to look at a 5-second ad on YouTube.

In the digital age, what has happened to our reading brains? Maryanne Wolf explores this in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital Age (2018), and I find the book especially important for anyone who reads full-length books because it is truthful and enlightening.

I stumbled across this fact in Reader, Come Home: The average person encounters 100,000 words each day. That number is mighty high to me. That's a full-length book. Each day.

However, those 100,000 words typically accompany a photo or are scrolled past. Then, when we're actually reading, we are so accustomed to looking past words so fast that we don't read every word. We're scrolling, in sense, when we're reading nowadays. And if you happen to read this sentence, go ahead and tell me that at

Our lack of extended reading harms us. Not only do our brains end up craving video snippets, but we lose empathy. When we participate in actual human life, it can feel boring.

Personally, I had a stint in which I checked my phone at every possible free moment. At red lights — that is one place that comes to mind that made me realize I needed to change that. Thankfully, I did.

In Reader, Come Home, Wolf looks at the science of what happens to the brain with the bombardment of video snippets and digital experiences. That scientific part of the book was OK, to me. But I especially responded to the arguments Wolf made for reading, calling upon Aristotle, Derrida, Heidegger and a mini-army of renowned thinkers.
Heidegger argued that a human's special nature is to be a reflective being. I agree with Heidegger, and where is reflection nowadays? So much "content" is just consumed and forgotten. As I write this in an outdoor cafe, by the way, I notice that everyone here is on their phone, presumably working or consuming that content. Typical, I suppose.

With Wolf mentioning how Proust referred to reading as "that fertile miracle of communication in the midst of solitude" or explaining how the act of reading goes beyond the wisdom of the author to discover one's own, I loved the pro-reading passages.

In the digital age, however, reading may have morphed into a different animal. Nowadays, we experience "continuous partial attention," a phrase coined by writer/consultant Linda Stone. Are we even reading when we're reading? Is our attention being hijacked during reading as well? Are all those video snippets too much for our brain to overcome?

The phone, AKA the pocket supercomputer, allows us to consume so much content — videos, social media feeds, text, sports scores, stocks, emails, you name it — that it puts up a firewall between us and our reflective nature. Books, on the other hand, may get us to slow down and reflect.

Because of our omnipotent supercomputers, our brains need faster-paced books now, and we likely turn pages much more quickly than a decade ago. New fiction books almost make it a certainty that they will end each chapter with something surprising to get the reader to keep going, just like what TV shows do to keep the viewer binge-watching.

Our media has conditioned us to live in non-reflective, superficial ways. But I simply refuse to succumb to that.

Sure, I can watch some schlock TV, but something in me yearns to see things in a deeper way, to connect to wisdom of the past, to connect to our great thinkers and to understand that our minds, our perecptions, aren't meant to be wasted on supercomputer diversions.

1 comment:

  1. Schlock tv is out there. Sometimes pure entertainment is needed to revive a weary mind. But tv can teach, too! Anyone can pick and choose their programs. I do.