“Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter. One could argue that social media are not an extension of the public sphere but the antithesis of it. … You can’t have genuine public intellectuals if you don’t have a sizable class of people who are able to read—who can understand arguments and assess them shrewdly and fairly. But anyone has been on social media knows how rare such ability is, how regularly (almost unerringly) people respond to what others have written without having, in any meaningful sense, read it.
So maybe one of the most important questions we who are concerned about our common culture can ask ourselves is this: How do we bring reading back?”
Reading, at least the deep reading Jacobs is referring to, won’t make a comeback until we learn to curb our voracious media diets. The internet makes it possible for people to create more distractions than ever, but really, we’ve always been good at distracting ourselves. The difference in today’s world is that our devices give us easy-everywhere access to those distractions. On top of that, hardware and software companies are leveraging their vast reserves to engineer products that take advantage of our physiology and keep us glued to our screens.
My wife and I were talking about my son’s peanut allergy, and we agreed that the number of food-borne allergies these days must (at least in part) be a result of the tidal wave of marketing that swept over America in our parents’ generation (I’m a millennial). There has been a slow but steady reaction against processed foods as we’ve seen the detrimental effects of eating lasagna from a box—diabetes, food allergies, heart disease, etc. Those reactions include things like the slow food movement, the rise of farmer’s markets, grocers like Whole Foods and Earthfare, and a focus on organic and non-GMO foods.
I wonder if something similar will happen with our devices. We’re in the widespread adoption phase where everyone is mystified and captivated by the newfound power their screens give them. Instead of a trip to the library, a phone call to a friend, or waiting for something (I know, the horror!), we can reach into our pocket and have what we want in a few seconds. Of course we’re excited about that! Of course we’re going to binge Netflix and keep up with old buddies from school on Facebook. Because we can! And because it used to be so hard, or, in some cases, impossible.
But once the euphoria fades and we realize we’ve ceded too much of our humanity to a room full of engineers with very different ideas about what it means to be human, we might just wake up and start to change how we “eat” information and entertainment. To some extent, I think this is happening now.
What worries me, though, are the consequences our children will face because of our ridiculous digital habits. Will iGen/Gen. Z have digital-borne allergies? Impaired social skills that take years to address? What will constant connection, a documentable online history, and egos heavily influenced by what others think and say do to our children?
We’re starting to find out—and it ain’t pretty.
If we want to bring reading back, we have to start by reclaiming our time and attention. Critical thinking simply cannot happen without both.
We won’t reclaim our time and attention until we decide that the cost of a life lived through and for screens is too high. Unfortunately, that time might not come until the next generation says it cost them dearly.