As with most people, including the author of, “Is Google Making us Stupid?“, Guy Billout, I’ve found myself unable to read as much for as long as I once did. When I was in middle school, my prime ‘book nerd’ years, I would read approximately 350 pages each day. In the summer, I went to the library at least twice a week and got the maximum 10 books each time. I would read three Nancy Drew books per day. I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in about a day and a half when I was 14. Needless to say, I was a voracious reader.
However, that changed when, as a teenager, we got a computer at my house. I still loved to read, but instead I would read less and go on the internet more. I still didn’t go on much, mind you, since we had dial-up, but I still went online all the time. By the time I was about 16, I hardly ever read other than for literature class. Once I started college I didn’t read a damn thing other than required books for a few years. In fact, before I joined a book club in the fall of 2015, I read an average of one to two books per year in college that weren’t required for class.
Guy Billout would say that this is because the age of technology has changed the way we read more than just what we read. In his article, he outlines the very problem I mentioned having and addresses the way that information immediacy has changed not only how we access information but how our brain comes to expect information to be consumed.
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.”
I find this interesting because on one level, I am certain this is true. I’m positive that technology and the immediacy of internet access has changed the way we read and more importantly our attention spans.
However, I also have to question my own certainty, because when I think about it, there are other factors I can track along with all of my reading history.
Before middle school, I didn’t like to read. I found fiction stories boring and only like dreading nature non-fiction books in class. In middle school, around 12 years old, I found a love for reading and read voraciously, as I mentioned. However, in middle school, I also had an incentive to read and that made me discover that I did, in fact, enjoy fiction. In fact, almost all of my periods of great reading were incentivized.
In middle school, they placed your reading comprehension level with a test and then you were supposed to read a certain number of books on or above your reading level before you could read whatever you wanted. While we had Accelerated Reader (for those who may not know, you read books, took tests on the computer about comprehension of the book, and got points that were linked to how long or advanced the book was) in elementary school, it was only in Middle School when they placed us in a reading level that I found my incentive in that I was at a higher reading level than anyone else in my class – and I was already in the advanced gifted class – and I was cocky about that. I liked being smarter than everybody else, and because I had to read higher reading level books, they were worth more points. The more I read, the more points I got. I never had the most in the school but I almost always had the most in my class. I would have 80 points while others had 12 or 14 points. My teachers praised me for how smart I was and how good of a reader I was, and I ate it up.
So while I did really love reading and did it in the summer without those points, the only reason I got into reading was because I liked hearing how smart I was. In high school when there was no points or praise, I stopped reading so much. Yes, it probably was the internet and computer at home, but there was also the lack of praise.
In college, it was the same thing. I still liked fiction, and I do think it probably still was the instant gratification thing, but even though I was an English major, I didn’t read much that wasn’t required for class. My excuse was always that I had so much to read for class, but often that wasn’t even true. I did start writing in college, which was another excuse for taking up time from reading, but again, it still came to be that there was no incentive for me to read.
Fall of 2015, I joined a book club because I felt ashamed that in the past year, I had only read two books, and one of them I only read because I had a flight that was four hours and it had no wifi. When I joined the book club, I found my incentive again. Someone wanted to talk about books and I could only do that if I read the books.
Last year, in 2016, I read 20 books. The most books I have read in one year since I was probably about 14 or 15. I did so because I made a Goodreads account to review the books I read in book club, and discovered they had challenges you could set yourself. There were days in 2016 I didn’t want to read a thing, but I wanted to beat that challenge. You win nothing. Nobody really praises you for it. It’s a self-set challenge, even. I could have set it at 5 books for the whole year and been done. However, there is little more I love than a good challenge. I read more than I have in years, but it was still incentivized.
This year, since I don’t have a 6-book series to read, I set my goal at 15 books. I’m currently on book number 4 and HATING IT because this book is boring. However, I’ve read 150 pages and I’m not going to let 150 pages of reading go to waste when I want that number 5 towards my goal. It’s still an incentive.
Why am I telling you all of this, you may ask? What does this have to do with digital media? What does this have to do with Billout and whether Google is making us stupid?
It all comes back to the quote I included above. ‘It’s not what we read, but how we read.‘
While I do think the way we read now, because of the speed of how we take in information now, has adapted to be more goal-oriented, always trying to get the most information in the quickest time, I think that it’s entirely possible that this isn’t a bad thing.
We live in a world these days of ‘time is money’. For many of us, that’s a fact of life. In the state I live in I believe the statistic is something like you would have to work 80 hours a week at minimum wage to afford rent on an apartment on your own. Everything is so fast-paced these days, so is it really bad that our brains are adapting to take in important information from a source in the quickest way possible? Is this ‘skim and go’ reading style online not actually a positive talent in a world where we are incentivized to do it that way?
Just as I have always read best with an incentive to read a book, isn’t ‘time is money’ a good incentive for us to adapt our brains to understanding and comprehending information in the most succinct way possible?
I’m really interested in your thoughts about this, because while there are clear negatives, I still think that adaptation is a more positive than negative. Do we have shorter attention spans? Yes. But the affect of this is that we get more things done in a shorter time because we are better at multi-tasking. Right now, for example, I’m watching Chopped, I’m writing this blog post, and I’m having a conversation about figure skating on twitter. I’m able to watch TV, and then write during the commercials while I’m waiting on the person on twitter to respond to what I said last. I’m optimizing my time, even if it makes it harder to focus on just doing ONE of these things.
Is that not what we need as a skill in this digital world? So in essence, is “Google making us stupid” or is the way our brains are adapting to a new necessary skill a positive more than a negative?
Be sure to let me know what you think in the comments!