Usually I’m posting about issues that I’m encountering into the circles I’m frequenting. My last post about literary gluttony is a subject I’m very familiar with. Till some reaction on my post turned my nose into the other direction; literary anorexia.
As it happens, literary anorexia seems to be a wider problem then I assumed. I used to think that the function of the novel was just absorbed by other media carriers. It turns out that illiteracy leads to “secondary orality”—a sociological term for a post-literate culture.
Television, rather than the Internet, seems to be the primary force distracting people from books. Average TV time is still rising, because TV watchers are, incredibly, watching more and more of it, the quantity rising from 3.28 hours in 2003 to 3.45 hours in 2016. In a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.
The sturdiest and most convincing data about reading habits that I found came from a Dutch time-use study, which went back decades. It showed with remorseless detail how television had dethroned reading in the Netherlands between 1955 and 1995.
It’s possible that the migration of news from print to the digital realm has disguised some reading as mere computer leisure. I suspect, though, that the fraction of such computer use devoted to essays and news is too small to provide much mitigation.
Recent neuroscience confirms many of the things sufferers of digital overload know innately. Successful multi-tasking is a myth. It takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task. It takes less energy to focus.
That means that people who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, but they’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted after doing it. The counterproductive tendency of multitasking is steered by following factors;
- New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. The brain has been trained to want a constant hit of dopamine, which a digital interruption will provide
- The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush
The problems are thus identified. The secondary orality provided by the TV networks saves us from the effort to think for ourselves while a digital dopamine addiction causes some people having trouble to focus: on books, work, family and friends.
Perhaps whatever is eating away at reading is also eating away at socializing. The current digitized culture is all about immediate gratification.
For those who need some tips to increase their capacity to focus, I have the following suggestions;
- No more Twitter, Facebook, or article reading during work or school hours.
- No reading of random news articles
- No smartphones or computers in the bedroom
- No TV after dinner
- Instead, start reading a book. Reading books is a great way to regain your ability to focus and to connect with a strong evolutionary need for ingesting narrative.
Those who read own the world, and those who watch television lose it. (Werner Herzog).