In my previous post, I wrote about the impact of the internet on our brains. One of my favourite key take-away from the book which inspired that post was how we need to evaluate the impact of a new technology:
In one of the most perceptive, if least remarked, passages in Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote that our tools end up “numbing” whatever part of our body they “amplify.”
“McLuhan’s point was that an honest appraisal of any new technology or of progress in general, requires sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained.”
The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”
I have been thinking a lot about this in context of my changing reading habits with the introduction of Kindle. I am keen to evaluate the changes that I can see its bringing about me.
This post isnt about the pros and cons of an e-reader but unalterable cognitive changes triggered by it.
What makes me happy
Extended reading hours
Most of my reading (as I guess for most people) takes place in the quiet hours of night. With a physical book, the upper limit for reading was based on when the lights needed to be switched off. At this point, I did, at times choose to move to the living room but on more occasions chose to resume the reading next day. The back-lit screen of the Kindle did away with all such constraints as I could continue to read in the comfort of my warm bed without causing any distress to the other person in the room (on a different note, with the back-lit screen, my childhood fantasy of reading in hiding comes alive. I grew up watching this Bajaj ad and used to imitate the child with the torch inside the blanket for many years)
The compact size of the Kindle means that books I carry don’t have to be evaluated basis their size or that of my bag. Hence, I have also been reading more during local metro commute and travel outside the city.
Access to best global content at seductive rates
Previously the choice of reading content was governed by ease of access at the bookstore. Sure the option of online shipping has existed for years but the shipping costs would sometimes become a deterrent. With the Kindle, the biggest value unarguably is the access it gives to global content at unmatched prices. From an old obscure title to the newest title from my favourite author, everything is available like a form of instant intellectual noodles
What worries me
Picking easy reads versus long texts
The previous post quotes research studies which show how “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”
To an extent I have experienced this both in the way I read and my choice of books.
As my use of internet and digital media had increased, there had been a parallel rise in levels of distraction and I had started struggling reading a printed book. Strangely, it’s easier to focus reading on a Kindle perhaps because the mind has become “used to” experiencing digital text (what confuses me though is that I still like reading the newspaper in print format than digital, if changing consumption habits are responsible for the struggle with printed book, how does this not extent to the newspaper?)
While I am able to focus better on a Kindle, I feel that I do on occasions end up “browsing” and “scanning” instead of using deep concentrated reading. Re-reading a page is often more conscious and deliberative than a natural act to assess and assimilate.
Further, as a means of self-discipline, I have created a ground rule, not to purchase a new book on the Kindle till I have completed the previous one (don’t wish to end up with an unread shelf of digital books!). Hence, I carefully sample a new book in terms of writing style to make sure it’s not something I will end up getting stuck with. I wonder if this makes me choose ‘a certain kind of book’ which is compelling and different yet not too lengthy, nor too dense (nor an obstacle in gaining psychological brownie points of “finishing” a book). This I consider a really dangerous “change”, already the amount of fiction that I read has dramatically decreased, the high focus on most “useful” (in my case books on marketing, consumer behaviour and the internet) is perhaps leading to a narrowing circumference of intellectual discovery.
As I write this, I realise that some of the changes that I am talking about are not entirely to do with the piece of technology itself but a function of who I am as an individual, my own motivations and anxieties. I must confess though that I am beginning to be worried about our growing subservience to technology and ‘Singularity’ not remaining just a possibility in the realm of science fiction.