Technology, intellect, and the future of reading
A recent article titled “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds” examined the impact of smartphones on the intellectual activities (and abilities) of their users. I’d like to highlight several excerpts, then discuss what they mean for us as writers – and for our audience and target market.
The smartphone is unique in the annals of personal technology. We keep the gadget within reach more or less around the clock, and we use it in countless ways, consulting its apps and checking its messages and heeding its alerts scores of times a day. The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are.
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Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens … Dr. Ward and his colleagues wrote that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain” that can diminish such vital mental skills as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”
Many people (including myself) read e-books using their smartphones. That would certainly involve “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity”, as the article mentions. However, that’s only one of many things for which we use those devices. Readers are frequently interrupted by incoming calls or text messages, which demand their attention visually and aurally, and in many cases require a response. Advertisements flash onto the screen, interrupting one’s concentration. If one’s relying on services such as navigation (for example, to tell one when to get off the bus or train), they, too, interrupt one’s attention on the book one’s reading. One’s attention span is attenuated and “ambushed” by multiple outside factors. Is this one reason for the complaint from some readers, at least, that they don’t seem to be able to get as much out of an e-book as they do out of a “dead tree edition”?
There’s also the reality that smartphones can demand – and be given – a dangerously high proportion of our overall concentration. Who hasn’t heard of, or witnessed, smartphone users stepping off a pavement into traffic, oblivious to the danger? How many people have been blithely sending text messages, only to crash into other pedestrians, or stumble over an obstacle and fall down? Instead of concentrating on the important things – getting safely from point A to point B – we’ve allowed our concentration to be undermined by the sheer convenience of the smartphone, thereby endangering ourselves. Somewhere, I’m sure Darwin’s laughing at us…
Finally, from our perspective as writers, there’s the impact of such devices on creativity. How many of us, striving to write our next book, have been distracted by incoming e-mails, or text messages, or phone calls? It used to be relatively easy to shut the door on the outside world and write. That’s no longer the case. The smartphone is portable and ubiquitous; and even if we leave it outside our “writing space”, there are messaging apps on our computers as well. It’s very difficult to escape these constant demands on our attention, and their distraction, without making a deliberate effort to do so. However, if we do, we’re likely to face irate questions from family and friends about why we don’t respond at once, if not sooner, to their communications.
The evidence that our phones can get inside our heads so forcefully is unsettling. It suggests that our thoughts and feelings, far from being sequestered in our skulls, can be skewed by external forces we’re not even aware of.
This highlights a dilemma for writers. Our audience, our potential market, is vulnerable to that sort of distraction. Can we write in such a way as to “cut through the noise” and hold their attention? Should we, rather, be considering ways in which our work can fit into such a crowded, externally influenced environment, and perhaps write accordingly?
It’s been demonstrated that graphic books can teach concepts more quickly than a text-only work, but they also appear to demand less from students (who have grown up in a highly technological environment, and therefore may be more intellectually disposed to such a “lighter” approach). For example, Shakespeare is being taught using such an approach, with different levels of text to match the intended audience. On the other hand, graphic novels may also present less of an intellectual challenge – and that may be dangerous in itself. Research suggests that “intellectual stimulation may directly help maintain a healthy brain“; but the corollary would suggest that the absence of intellectual stimulation (as in graphic novels versus their text equivalents) might have the opposite effect.
I suggest that the growing popularity of graphic novels (epitomized by the recent stunning crowdfunding success of the Alt*Hero project) shows that such forms of entertainment are here to stay. Are we – should we be – taking that into account in our own writing? Is there room for collaboration with graphic artists, to produce such versions of our books, perhaps using simplified language? Might such versions lead readers to tackle our longer print works in future? It’s a thought.
… even in the history of captivating media, the smartphone stands out. It is an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what Dr. Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it is part of our surroundings—which it always is. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.
This observation may highlight one reason why our creative processes seem to become more difficult. We used to be able to research a topic fairly simply (e.g. the use of poison in murders), and then apply it to our book’s plot. Nowadays, instead of reading a book on the subject, we’ll do an Internet search on it. That will lead to links, which lead to further links, which take us off down a side track to pursue an interesting concept that may (or may not) have anything to do with our original premise. Before you know it, our “research” has developed into what’s become known as a “Wikiwander“. We’ve poured hours down a rat-hole without producing any worthwhile “return on our investment” of time. The smartphone is iconic of this process of distraction, and our computers aren’t much better.
The same can apply to our readers. I recently decided to observe my own reactions to new concepts while reading a new-to-me fantasy series (Miles Cameron’s excellent Traitor Son cycle, which I highly recommend; its fifth and last book, “The Fall of Dragons“, will be published at the end of this month). He uses many concepts that are rooted in and grounded on history (e.g. early Byzantium, medieval England and France, hermetical theory and theology, etc.), which he’s adapted to the world he’s created for his books. I found myself growing frustrated if I didn’t (or couldn’t) stop reading when I came across elements of those concepts with which I wasn’t familiar. I was almost driven to open a Web browser to look up the word or subject involved, and learn more about it before resuming my reading. My mind’s become conditioned to the ability to do that – something that would not have been a factor even twenty years ago, when I could read an entire multi-volume work like this without once feeling the need to digress into research or fact-checking.
The problem is, the ability to do that may actually be interfering with our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. The article points out:
As strange as it might seem, people’s knowledge and understanding may actually dwindle as gadgets grant them easier access to online data stores … Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology. If the only thing at stake were memories of trivial facts, that might not matter. But, as the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.” Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking. No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.
Speaking as an author, this makes me think. Do I need to incorporate enough background information into my books to make it unnecessary for my readers to leave my book, look up something for themselves, then return to read further? That can be dangerous; the dreaded “infodump” lurks in the wings! (That’s not to say that infodumps can’t be done well; check out these examples, and this handy column on how to write them.) On the other hand, if I write so esoterically and/or impenetrably that my readers can’t figure out what I’m saying or where I’m going, they soon won’t be my readers any more!
The article raises this question. Do we need to – should we – take into account the platforms on which our readers will access our books, when we write them? Should we try to adapt the way we write, so that our work is more suited to a high-interruption-level, distracted sort of reading? Or should we try to write so absorbingly that our readers will resent interruptions and do their best to “stay with us”, even at the expense of ignoring other demands on their time or attention? Is that even feasible in our technological age?
I look forward to your responses in Comments.