The Internet and Reading

“In the last few years The Atrocity Exhibition seems to be emerging from the dark, and I wonder if the widespread use of the internet has made my experimental novel a great deal more accessible. The short paragraphs and discontinuities of the morning’s emails, the overlapping texts and the need to switch one’s focus between unrelated topics, together create a fragmentary world very like the text of Atrocity Exhibition.” –  J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life.


One reason why I tend to write in a concise, fragmented fashion is because I enjoy writers who do so. From the  novels of Richard Brautigan and B S Johnson right back to Herman Melville. Although very descriptive, few chapters of Moby Dick are more than four or five pages long, and Melville loved to digress.

But in addition, I often feel my own fragmented writing style is a product of its time and works to my advantage. Away from the books, it may have something to do with a short attention span picked up from the ad breaks of the TV generation, as well as the barrage of subliminal media that exists in all urban spaces. In any case, it’s a long way from spending dark nights reading by candlelight without mainstream distractions. And perhaps nothing has had more impact on the human brain’s (in)ability to concentrate than the internet.

The net is changing they way that we read and think. It is now a major source of info for:

–          reading the news

–          finding out about and watching films

–          all sorts of other general information.

The brain adapts to each new change. Some experts think this could lead to reduced ability to read and think in a deep and detailed manner. Others reckon it may continue to help our intellectual capacity increase.

So do we still have the required attention span that is necessary in order to read for hours? In my own case, I’d say yes – in theory – but admittedly I rarely spend the best part of a day with a book any more. The only time I do so is when I’m away on holiday and/or have no internet access.

Last year, Nicholas Carr asked a valid question in The Atlantic magazine – Is Google Making Us Stupid? (That’s right, google or wiki Carr or his article for more information).

Carr is concerned about the role of the internet. The media supplies the subject matter but at the same time it moulds the thinking process. The major threat is the way it can reduce our capacity to concentrate, reflect and concentrate. What we lose is our ability to maintain a line of thought for any length of time.

Researchers at the University College London, observed the behaviour of internet readers at the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee. They found that users glanced at the information, going from one article to another without going back. They read one or two pages from each source, dedicating four minutes to each e-book, and eight to each digital newspaper. In short, it was clear that the users did not read online in the ‘traditional manner’. They employ techniques to give them immediate satisfaction and it almost seems as if they go online to avoid reading in the traditional way.

David Nicholas (author of ‘Digital Consumers’) is among those who point out that although a new generation has grown up with this, it would be wrong to assume they are the only ones affected. I suspect he is right there. Many people in my age group use the internet more often than they buy a book or visit the library for information.

It will be interesting to see what effect e-book readers have on all this if they do take off. At the moment these devices tend to cost a couple of hundred quid. I could buy quite a few books with that, and then you may still have to pay for the download of the book anyway as well as think about things like battery life.

They may well take off in a big way if the prices come down significantly but the signs are they likely to serve for a lot more than just reading books. The Amazon Kindle allows for the reading of newspapers and other materials. Meanwhile, e-book readers are being incorporated into the iPhone, meaning that all the usual technological distractions that disrupt our reading will still be to hand. It can be used to make phone calls, send text messages, surf and listen to music, watch films, etc. With all that available, the likelihood of getting lost in a good book could be very difficult, which kind of defeats the purpose for me.


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