Some days after I close my laptop, I’d like to pick up a novel and read or work on a short story project, but then feel like I just need to empty my mind of all the snippets and clips of textual information I’ve consumed that day. News blurbs, thought pieces, emails, provocative tweets, more emails, more news blurbs… Frequently I’ll turn to a TV show or a social media binge in place of the novel. My brain can’t take any more text. It’s burnt out.
It’s no secret contemporary Americans live in a sea of images and videos. YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook all vie for human attention through images and color schemes designed to catch the distracted eye. However, we’re also awash in “a sea of words”, most of which are mediated by our screens. Even in an information age when we’re reading and ingesting more “text” than ever, do we know more and think more critically than prior generations?
Reading Ourselves to Death
Kit Wilson, a writer living in London, wrote a fascinating article in The New Atlantis contending that an ample amount of text might be diminishing our capacity to experience and contemplate the real world. Our surroundings become “abstracted,” and we prefer quantifying our experience with a torrent of information that tries to make sense of our existence. The article’s title, “Reading Ourselves to Death,” is derivative of Neil Postman’s classic warning of the rising entertainment culture in the West, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
It seems difficult enough to get people to read anything, given the shallow waters of the internet and the ever-waning attention of the typical American mind. Images, clips, and videos, always flitting on our screens, seem to be the obvious culprit in the search for the attention thief. But Wilson shows that, in fact, we deal with text constantly—through texting, email, social media posts, etc. He writes,
Every minute, humans send 220 million emails, 70 million WhatsApp and Facebook messages, 16 million texts, 530,000 tweets, and make 6 million Google searches. The journalist Nick Bilton has estimated that each day the average Internet user now sees as many as 490,000 words — more than War and Peace.-Kit Carson, Reading Ourselves to Death — The New Atlantis
The data is staggering, especially that bit about War and Peace! But it’s not that hard to believe. Some days I skim dozens of articles but barely remember any of them. So, what has this immersion in online text done to our minds, and how does it remove us from the real world?
Conceiving Abstract Worlds
Wilson notes that when we’re bombarded with words on our phones, it can get to the point where it feels strange to simply look out into a world that isn’t giving us lines of dictation. Wilson comments that it’s like we almost expect the “blank walls” to start talking to us and spin a narrative to make sense of our experience. We get uncomfortable just sitting there. The end result of overly ingesting text on a screen is an abstract, vague world—one that’s hard to relate to and experience without having someone dictate its meaning to us. Wilson writes,
Every time we read, we inevitably conceptualize the world, in perhaps an ever-increasingly abstract way. And it’s conceivable that we may reach a point where those abstracting effects go too far.”
If we constantly skim information online content, this makes it harder to feel connected to one’s surroundings.
What’s Language For?
At the end of a long day of skimming online information, it’s not a mindless Netflix binge that I need; it’s reconnection with the real world and real people. The written word, at its best, communicates ideas, thoughts, and descriptions in a way that enriches and deepens our experience of reality. Sitting down to read War and Peace intently for an hour, in my experience, did enrich my life and provoke reflection about deeper things. Swimming through waves of online text, darting from tab to tab, usually doesn’t.
If language is supposed to deepen our attention and love of the real and to establish relationship between persons, then an avalanche of online text, including the faceless ChatGPT responses, will not get us there, as Wilson notes.