Digital technology is actually fuelling a love of literatureby Frank Furedi / October 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Since the 1950s discussions on the future of reading frequently draw on the rhetoric of crisis. With the emergence of the internet the narrative of anxiety that dominates this discussion has acquired an increasingly pessimistic dimension. Technophobes frequently contend that the arrival of digital media has reduced attention spans, leading to despair about the “end of the book” and the “death of the reader.” Some experts go so far as to insist that those immersed in online experience risk losing the power of concentration necessary for serious reading.
Historically the debate around reading has been disassociated from reality. So when in 1956 the American weekly, the Saturday Review asked “who is to blame” for the “plight of contemporary reading” there was little public recognition of the fact that sales of books were flourishing, and that despite the advent of television, reading remained a popular past time. A similar pattern is at work today. Time and again, digital technology is blamed for declining standards of literacy. Yet surveys conducted indicate that many intensive users of the new media—particularly of the internet—read more than the average person.
What our study of the history of reading suggests is that almost every complaint hurled at digital technology—“too much information,” “loss of attention span,” “constant distraction,” “it is addictive”—are claims that were also made in relation to the reading of manuscripts and printed texts during the past 2,000 years. Moreover, a concern with a “crisis” of literacy long preceded the ascendancy of digital technology.
So what are we to make of the many references to a “crisis of literacy” in our time? Whatever the problems confronting society today one of them is not the availability of powerful and exciting new technologies of communication, but an uncertainty about what to communicate. Disenchantment with the status of literacy is today closely linked to the difficulty that contemporary culture has in giving meaning to content and human experience. Blaming the internet evades attention from what is a fundamental cultural problem: the failure to endow reading with cultural authority.
Reading comes into its own when what people read matters to them. Writing and reading are not simply techniques of communication, and reading is not purely a skill that allows individuals…