21 votes

The erosion of deep literacy

13 comments

  1. [5]
    kfwyre
    Link
    I started this article on my phone, during dinner, then put it aside. I returned to it later on my computer. Firefox's reader mode estimates the time to read at 37-47 minutes, which feels like a...

    I started this article on my phone, during dinner, then put it aside. I returned to it later on my computer. Firefox's reader mode estimates the time to read at 37-47 minutes, which feels like a fair call for the amount of time I spent reading (I didn't time myself).

    During the article I checked three different notifications on my phone -- an e-mail, a text, and a weather update. Despite being aware that I was reading an article about distractions inhibiting our reading, I still responded instantaneously to my phone's buzz.

    I have a lot of mixed feelings about the article, as I feel some of it is resonant and some of it is reaching, but I also realize that much of my response validates key premises of the article. Despite reading the article in full, I wasn't really "deep reading" it and letting the author's words and narration live in my mind. Instead, I was reading it with my personal responses in mind, front and center. I think the internet has caused me to have a natural guard up -- a sort of "what's your angle?" filter for anything that I read.

    I spent the whole article trying to figure out whether the author was gatekeeping or being paternalistic or drawing sweeping conclusions from minimal evidence. This skepticism and reflexive distrust made it so that the author couldn't take me on their intended journey through philosophy and history. I should have been engaging with the novelty of their thoughts first and evaluating them later, rather than attempting to classify them on the fly.

    On the other hand, being completely unguarded is no way to read either. The author doesn't touch on this, but perhaps one factor in the decline of deep reading is in the loss of trust. Why should I give any particular author the benefit of the doubt? Why should I follow along with their ideas? What have they done to earn that space in my head?

    Part of the way through the article I opened a note on my computer so I could log important talking points. I didn't trust myself to remember them. I didn't trust myself to remember them. Not only does that say something about my memory, it also says how focused I was on my own thoughts while reading, rather than what the author was saying.

    I wasn't even doing this to make a rebuttal either -- much of what I was writing down was actually a confirmation. As a teacher, I see my students struggling with reading, day in and day out. I myself fell out of the habit of reading fiction and have only just restarted.

    Much of what the author said resonated with me outside of just reading. It isn't just that we're not deep reading anymore -- it's that sustained focus and effort is falling out of jobs and life. My job has accelerated and compressed to the point that I have to do a large number of tasks quickly, efficiently, and ultimately poorly. I get them done because I have to, but I could do any one of them so much better if I didn't have to worry about the others. How many of us feel held back by the demands of our job because we're asked to work in ways that are efficient but subpar? How much of us seek non-deep entertainment or distraction because the mental or physical fatigue from our jobs inhibits our ability to sustain our engagement in our off-hours?

    The loss of deep reading feels like a natural consequence of the modern compressions of life. We're enabled to do more, process more, and handle more than we ever have been in the past, but there is still only so much energy we can expend, and only so many minutes in a given day. If I have one book that I want to read, I can sit and relish it, page after page. But if I have twenty more waiting on my to-read list, well then why not get the train moving so I can get to all those others.

    I listen to audiobooks at a minimum of 1.5x speed, meaning the narrator is sped up by 50%. I used to listen to them at 1.25x. I've gone as high as 2x. Listening at 1x, the pace of the narrator actually reading, feels excruciatingly slow to me. Even my entertainment is living under modern compression.

    I normally comment with a broad arc. An idea that I try to put together from start to finish, much like the author of this article did. I often write, re-write, and go back and edit so that my writing is cohesive and targeted to specific points. I'm intentionally not doing so here. This is more stream of consciousness than I'm used to doing. It feels disjointed and irregular, but it's also reflective of my genuine human response. Remember how I said I was worried I'd forget about my talking points? This comment is what happens when I don't prepare them in advance.

    Is this because I've been rewired? Is my brain hopping around too much, or is this a natural confluence of ideas that I'm simply choosing to articulate? Everything that's in this post is something I've chosen to write, but everything in this post also feels like something that has entered my thoughts in the process of writing, and something that wouldn't necessarily have come up otherwise. Is this "deep writing" or merely a jumpy, addled mind fishing around for clarity amid chaotic thoughts? Without a specific direction to head in, like I normally have, I feel like I'm spinning my wheels.

    I also have no conclusion, though I normally try to build to one, even if that conclusion is "I don't know". Part of me is concerned about the optics of this scattered wankery, part of me feels I should have put together the effort to comment something meaningful and with substance, and part of me feels quietly assured that, because I wrote something of sufficient length, few people will read it anyway, so the efficacy or lack thereof of what I wrote is ultimately immaterial.

    It took me a little over 30 minutes to write this. Was this a valuable use of that time? Or would I have been better served by doing something else? Or is asking questions like this rooted in the idea that I need to optimize my time in that modern, impersonal way that is choking my career and also my entertainment?

    The slowest moments of my day are when I sit down with my dog. He snuggles with me, and he's perfectly content in that moment. I am too.

    27 votes
    1. entangledamplitude
      Link Parent
      Reading both your comment and the article, led me to several thoughts: While the article touches on a couple of fairly important themes (loss of deep literacy; political unsophistication), I...

      Reading both your comment and the article, led me to several thoughts:

      1. While the article touches on a couple of fairly important themes (loss of deep literacy; political unsophistication), I wouldn’t put this article among the most thought-provoking / well-written reads — which is actually emblematic of another problem — we have floating around on the internet way too much undeserving long form content (zero marginal cost of bytes). From the point of view of the first problem, my resolution is that I would rather deeply read what I consider to be “classics” and conceptual breakthroughs, rather than every other long form article.

      2. I read more than most people I know, and I’ve noticed that anytime I share an interesting article longer than 10 minutes, people ask me for a TL;DR! The funny thing is that my concentration/dedication is not great in an absolute measure — I barely manage to read 10-12 books a year (I do, however, read a lot of articles online).

      3. The medium is the message, and the printed word had a strong cultural effect towards interiority, rationality and enlightenment. I’m very surprised the article doesn’t cite McLuhan, who studied this thoroughly, several decades ago.

      4. I wonder how much of a relation exists between the physical size of the screen, and the depth of thinking. I personally feel significantly “freer” with larger screen in a manner I cannot articulate, but an increasing amount of reading now happens on mobile screens, which probably has a distinct contribution.

      5. More fundamental than just literacy is that straightjacketed interfaces and passive consumption lead to a form a learned helplessness wrt thinking. From what I’ve seen, this malaise is depressingly endemic. People seem to have tunnel vision about most things, most of the time (focus on the immediate). I consider this a crisis of leadership — what does “leadership“ even mean without vision? (Interestingly, Deresiewicz makes a related point in his classic article on leadership and solitude; JGI).

      6. I consider “computing” to be a skill on par with Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic (3Rs). Whatever our misgivings about lack of deep literacy, the primitiveness of computing ability (and most popular tools) is abysmal.

      7. There seems to be some flavor of the problem articulated by Ivan Illich, regarding the “industrial” displacing the “convivial”. The fact that culture and communication have been increasingly industrialized over the last few decades probably a contributing factor. Polarization and culture wars are just a symptom of opinions and identities becoming amenable to the same sensibilities as industrial products (uniformity, economies of scale, few competing brands, identity-based marketing, etc.).

      8. Lastly, there are interesting relations to Robert Kegan’s orders of consciousness; the systematic reasoning mode corresponds to the 4th stage of psychological development. Just wanted to mention it... following that trail might be a digression.

      Epilogue: FWIW, I spent well over an hour reading that article and writing my comment. I wonder what that says :shrug:

      I enjoy slow, thoughtful and immersive experiences, try to regularly create such opportunities for myself. It’s possible that a lot of people have either never experienced the joy in that, or have forgotten it. (Of course, not everyone needs to enjoy this, but I would expect a larger fraction of people to do so, than currently do)

      7 votes
    2. [2]
      elcuello
      Link Parent
      I can't put my thoughts down in english as well as you so I will just point out some of the things you wrote that resonated with me. I also have my guard up maybe too much some times but your...

      I can't put my thoughts down in english as well as you so I will just point out some of the things you wrote that resonated with me.

      Despite reading the article in full, I wasn't really "deep reading" it and letting the author's words and narration live in my mind. Instead, I was reading it with my personal responses in mind, front and center. I think the internet has caused me to have a natural guard up -- a sort of "what's your angle?" filter for anything that I read.

      I also have my guard up maybe too much some times but your point about thinking about your response while reading really hits home with me and it makes me unfocused. I remember a couple of years ago when I was infatuated with reddit I almost thought exclusively in "posts" and "comments" and that scared me a little.

      During the article I checked three different notifications on my phone -- an e-mail, a text, and a weather update.

      I know you know this but...I have turned off every notification for years now and it's really helpful. I highly doubt you would miss something important because well your on your phone all the time anyway. Just do it (at LEAST for something like weather) for at couple of days...I'll assure you you won't turn it back on.

      It took me a little over 30 minutes to write this. Was this a valuable use of that time?

      To me it was.

      Another thing is that I sometimes feel that if you don't comment quickly enough on a post it feels like it's already old news and not worth it. It's definitely stems from many years on reddit but I actually feel like this isn't so important here...yet. I like that and I hope it stays that way.
      ...and last but not least...I didn't even read the article.

      6 votes
      1. NaraVara
        Link Parent
        I've been doing this ever since I first got an iPhone. I trained myself into doing it even when I had a laptop. I was honestly shocked most people don't. On my computer I only get notified by...

        I have turned off every notification for years now and it's really helpful.

        I've been doing this ever since I first got an iPhone. I trained myself into doing it even when I had a laptop. I was honestly shocked most people don't. On my computer I only get notified by iMessages and my email pings once every half hour if there is something new. Slack and Discord only ping me if someone addresses me directly. And even then, I've disabled all "loud" notifications except for upcoming calendar appointments. (And by loud I don't just mean sounds. I mean anything that gets in your face to get your attention. Everything is just notification badges to let me know something needs my attention when I need to get to it.)

        It would literally be impossible for me to keep my sanity or my focus on anything if I didn't do this. I have no idea how people get anything done on their computers without this discipline. And ever since the "phone revolution" I've noticed software just getting worse and worse. I tend to think of software as a tool to perform a function to be invoked when I need it. Ideally it knows when to invoke itself, but that's not a deal breaker. Most app makers, though, think of software as a trap to hog your attention for as long as possible, which is just not a good way to serve you. If you think of a phone as a butler or personal assistant, someone who is in your face all the time is the worst kind of assistant. They're supposed to be freeing up my time and attention, not monopolizing it. And this mentality has infected things where it isn't even the business model. Even Apple designs more things around a notification centric flow instead of a "this application has something for you" sort of inbox flow. It's always LOOK AT ME NOW! I hate it.

        3 votes
    3. Ayax28
      Link Parent
      I really highlight your commentary not only for the quality, but that 30 minute effort you doubt it was valuable. It really is an excellent complement to the main article.

      I really highlight your commentary not only for the quality, but that 30 minute effort you doubt it was valuable. It really is an excellent complement to the main article.

      4 votes
  2. [3]
    spctrvl
    Link
    I think this is a bizarre and serious abuse of the term 'Great Awakening'. There was a religious revival in the United States along the lines of those previous revivals, and from opposition to...

    Now, arguably, we behold a fourth Great Awakening, which began in the late 1950s — just as the television entered every home and commenced the draining of Americans' capacity for deep reading — and continues today. Its core idea is radical (and sometimes global) egalitarianism. It is roiling American politics with what we conventionally call the culture wars, but it obviously also affects a host of policy zones, including immigration and education.

    I think this is a bizarre and serious abuse of the term 'Great Awakening'. There was a religious revival in the United States along the lines of those previous revivals, and from opposition to integration, to opposition to abortion, to opposition to the ERA, to opposition to LGBT+ equality, you find its adherents there. If any 20th century social movement deserves to be called the fourth great awakening, it's the plague of religious fundamentalists at forefront of fighting egalitarianism.

    In a sense, the populist, Awakened energies in American politics today are twinned, with populist demands for equality of outcomes, not just opportunity, coming from the left, and populist demands for freedom coming from the right.

    Equality of outcomes versus opportunity is such an asinine bit of rhetoric. As though equality of opportunity could exist or be meaningful without massive wealth redistribution to address systemic inequalities, as though two people with identical abilities born to families of different race and class don't have radically different levels of opportunity through no faults or choices of their own. Claiming to support equality of opportunity, but decrying the absolutely milquetoast social democratic reforms proposed by the mainstream populist left as legislating equality of outcome reveals the former as a delusion or misdirection.

    If right wing populists are demanding freedom, it's news to me, unless freedom only means the freedom to be horrible to people. What freedom they support is purely that which is useful in their fight to strip back every bit of social progress of the last sixty plus years. All gung-ho about freedom of speech when it allows them to harass people, but try leveling some criticism about the president or the republican party in their circles and see how quickly you're silenced. No, freedom is a tool to the alt-right, to be used when needed and then discarded, and to characterize it as an ideal, let alone the main ideal of their movement, is just dangerously ignorant.

    Anyway, the article as a whole was pretty interesting, and still worth a read I think, but the conclusions the author started to draw towards the end feel off, a bit like he's trying too hard to get this idea of a decline in deep literacy that he's spent so much time setting up to segue neatly into his opinions on modern politics, and that does put something of a shadow over what comes before, at least for me.

    6 votes
    1. [2]
      Loire
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      The ideas are intertwined fully. You can not have a liberal democratic nation without, what I would prefer to call, deep thought. One of the major issues ailing our society currently, and this...

      Anyway, the article as a whole was pretty interesting, and still worth a read I think, but the conclusions the author started to draw towards the end feel off, a bit like he's trying too hard to get this idea of a decline in deep literacy that he's spent so much time setting up to segue neatly into his opinions on modern politics, and that does put something of a shadow over what comes before, at least for me.

      The ideas are intertwined fully. You can not have a liberal democratic nation without, what I would prefer to call, deep thought. One of the major issues ailing our society currently, and this ironically is one of the few times "bOtH sIdEs" is actually true, is that the vast majority of citizens literally can't think past a sentence's worth of idea.

      Americans simply are not reading. The share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015.. Not even a single short story across an entire year. How many Redditors read nothing but the title to a post before posting their opinions. How many tilderinos do this? The answer is about 60 to 80 percent. How do you have a fully formed opinion based on a 7 word title?

      If we don't read we can't even begin to develop our critical thinking ability, let alone reading deeply. And if the average citizen can't even read the body of a news article or a short story, how are they to critically consider a politician and their platform?

      I don't want to turn this into a political argument, which is why I'm skirting around the rest of your post, but I will ask this: Where have you derived your beliefs from? How are you certain that "freedom™" is actually right wing code for being horrible? Where have you derived your beliefs that "massive redistribution" is the only solution?

      Perhaps for you it does derive from a place of deep thought/reading. Do you think thats the case for the majority of Bernie Sanders supporters? Do you really think they have deeply considered his position or do you understand that they heard something that they liked on the surface level without ever really considering it?

      While populism takes root in social and economic inequality, it proliferates on shallow thought. The reason we have, not one, but two succesful populists right now is exactly because of the point the author is trying to make.

      5 votes
      1. spctrvl
        Link Parent
        I don't really disagree with that, what I took issue with was his characterization of modern populist and egalitarian movements. In particular, I think linking pushes towards egalitarianism...

        The ideas are intertwined fully. You can not have a liberal democratic nation without, what I would prefer to call, deep thought. One of the major issues ailing our society currently, and this ironically is one of the few times "bOtH sIdEs" is actually true, is that the vast majority of citizens literally can't think past a sentence's worth of idea.

        I don't really disagree with that, what I took issue with was his characterization of modern populist and egalitarian movements. In particular, I think linking pushes towards egalitarianism beginning in the late 1950's to a religious populist backlash is completely backwards, and I think he fundamentally misrepresents the goals and ideals of modern populists, left and right, in a way not connected to this idea of deep literacy.

        1 vote
  3. [5]
    andre
    Link
    Anyone have a tl;dr for this?

    Anyone have a tl;dr for this?

    8 votes
    1. [4]
      sleepydave
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Not contributing anything useful, just want to point out the irony of a TL;DR on an article about the detrimental effects of digital-era literacy & skim reading :P The article actually covers...

      Not contributing anything useful, just want to point out the irony of a TL;DR on an article about the detrimental effects of digital-era literacy & skim reading :P

      The article actually covers quite a bit more than that though, including emotional/empathetic connections between writer and reader due to deep reading and understanding - it's probably worth reading through the article if you have time.

      9 votes
      1. [3]
        Crespyl
        Link Parent
        I think that was the joke...

        the irony of a TL;DR

        I think that was the joke...

        6 votes
        1. [2]
          sleepydave
          Link Parent
          I figured it was either that or they genuinely didn't want to read through the entire piece, it took me a fair few minutes to get through haha

          I figured it was either that or they genuinely didn't want to read through the entire piece, it took me a fair few minutes to get through haha

          2 votes
          1. andre
            Link Parent
            It was definitely a joke, but I also can't claim to have read the article - the headline was enough for the joke :)

            It was definitely a joke, but I also can't claim to have read the article - the headline was enough for the joke :)

            5 votes