Is the Digital Age Stealing Our Ability to Read, Think, and Feel Deeply?
How to fight back against the machines
What’s going on? With all the information we have available now, why are so many people embracing bizarre “alternative facts” as reality? The recent US election, as Umair Haque pointed out, was a census of idiots. There are 74 million of them in the US. How did a so-called first-world nation come to that? We are all connected now through the world wide web, so why do so many people, even before Covid, feel empty, and alienated? A survey by the health insurer Cigna, reports that 3 out of 5 Americans feel lonely, with younger people, especially heavy social media users, reporting the highest incidence.
Several authors, including Maryanne Wolf and Adam Garfinkle, have recently written about the erosion of what they called deep literacy or deep reading. These terms refer to a reader’s capacity to seek out and engage in an extended piece of writing that leads to a thoughtful collaboration with the author’s intent. Deep reading can enrich our lives and enhance our capacity to understand and engage with the world. To quote Garfinkle regarding the alternative, “If you do not deep read, you do not cultivate a capacity to think, imagine, and create; you therefore may not realize that anything more satisfying than a video game even exists.”
I stumbled into books at a relatively early age. Reading was something I could do in solitude, but yet feel connected to greater humanity and all of history. Sci-Fi and fantasy were among my earliest interests, but after a while I abandoned the fantasy genre, at least in its modern form, realizing that was mostly escapism, and with a few exceptions, devoid of meaningful ideas.
Rich storytelling, in ancient times often metaphorical, is the basis of civilization. It unites us as human beings and thinkers through time and space. There is a recorded linage our strivings from the quest of Gilgamesh to the seekers of the Higgs Boson
My daughter, Maxine, grew up in two households, neither of which had TV. Germaine Greer once called television the greatest threat to humanity after nuclear war. I believed there was some truth to that, even before TV morphed into the much more dangerous dark side of the digital age. People who never learned deep reading and true critical thinking, have little mental buoyancy to prevent themselves from being pulled down into the undercurrents of lunatic conspiracy theories. Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet. Every day I am grateful for such an amazing resource for information and research. But the internet can also be full of traps for those who do not have the skillsets to navigate its pitfalls.
Bards used to memorize the millions of words of their culture’s Epics so they could recite them to audiences. The human brain, with training, can do that. But now we have fallen into the habit of forgetting to remember. Why should we have to bother to train our memories when all the information we will ever need is always at our fingertips on the internet? But without an inventory of many facts stored and sorted in our heads, we will be unable to make the connections necessary for the insights that lead to problem-solving and new discoveries.
When Maxine was little, I told her stories. She got a synopsis of literature going from Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and so on to HG Wells. We would also have formal arguments, picking a subject, taking a side, and passing a talking stick back and forth. I always enjoyed her questions, even in the middle of watching a movie — we did watch films together.
Maxine’s questions and interruptions often made me think, broadened my perspective, and gave me insight into familiar stories. “Why did Poseidon punish Odysseus for blinding his son the Cyclops, when he was only acting in self-defense and to save his men?”
“Hmm, well, you remember when Odysseus was sailing away from the island of the Cyclops, he shouted back, “If anyone asks who did this to you, say it was Odysseus, son of Laertes, Sacker of Troy.” Self-defense is one thing, bragging about it is another, and bragging about sacking the Sea God’s favorite city when you are in a small boat on a big body of water is what the Greeks called hubris Max. It was the big sin that the gods were prone to punish severely.”
Beowulf was one of Maxine’s favorite stories. As I told it to her and other children over and over, its layers began to peel away for me, in great part due to the children’s questions and insights. On one level I realized it was a kind of self-help guide. I described this in more detail in my book, Chasing the Phantom. I thought I was a reader, but children taught me to read more deeply.
There is the other side of the deep reading equation. My friend Mark, a professor at UBC, says writing is thinking. I believe that my most meaningful thinking comes in the action of writing. Writing can give thoughts clarity. For me, it’s often an integral process. The thoughts flow out through my fingertips onto the keyboard and then where they go next often surprises me. Writing can also help you to edit nonsense, especially after you look at it the next day. Everyone should write, and try to write deeply, which is not possible in a cramped little Messenger format or on Twitter. I find it frustrating when I keep sending people my email address through Messenger and they just keep Messenging me. Gee, I want to have a dialogue with you long lost friend, not just share the barest trivia and some stupid emojis.
I do see how, in the last decades, our machines have been separating folks from the real world — and each other. Young people even seem to be less interested in sex. As I continue to wander the planet, I experience much less of the spontaneous camaraderie of fellow travelers that once was our universal glue. Now people almost everywhere, even monks in remote Himalayan monasteries, are walking around with their faces stuck in their “smart” devices. Many travelers seem to be more motivated to be seen on social media in an exotic setting than actually experiencing that place. And what’s with the explosion of selfie-sticks? How did public displays of narcissism become so normal?
Extreme self-absorption, not to be confused with true introspection, at one time stigmatized, is now acceptable, even, among many, for the president of the US.
How many steps from reality could the machines take us eventually? In 2000 a short Sci-Fi story by David Brin was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. The story addresses the Fremi Paradox, which posits the question: given that there are at least a hundred billion suns in our galaxy and most of them likely have planets, where the heck is everyone? You may have heard of the Great Filter, the idea that civilizations advance to a certain point and then perform some self-destructive thing that prevents them from advancing further. Brin’s premise in his story, Reality Check, is that once a civilization invents virtual reality (VR), its citizens escape there and lose the ambition to explore the stars.
Much of the world-wide rock climbing community, to which I belong, is still an exception to the interpersonal alienation brought on by digital technology. Wherever I go on the planet, where there are climbers, I am accepted and can meet up with partners. Adventure sports, which involve real risk to flesh and bone, are far removed from Virtual Reality. The brother/sisterhood of those willing to put something of themselves on the line, even just for their fun, may be somewhat of an antidote to enslavement by the machines.
Although Covid has put a big crimp on my world-wide adventuring, I’m finding that it is giving me an opportunity to reemphasize reading and writing habits and to expand long-distance dialogues with friends.
Will young people still have the ability to engage in meaningful discourse, either with themselves through books, or in person with each other? I don’t know. Something to discuss with my younger friends, readers, and my daughter.
Eduard Fischer, Squamish BC