The Guardian, ‘What Was I Looking For?’, Our Attention Spans, and Our Reading Habits

The Internet Archive’s printed books preservation project* prompts the The Guardian (“Is this the end for books?”) to survey some questions about books and the nature of reading. In particular, it’s not just how we read, but what we read that is in question —

“In some ways, though, the question of whether we do our reading off paper or plastic is the least interesting one. More interesting is what we’re reading, and the manner in which we do so. A large number of literate westerners spend most of their waking hours at computers, and those computers are connected to the web. The characteristic activity on such a computer has been given the pleasing name “wilfing”, adapted from the acronym WWILF, or “What was I looking for?” You work a bit. You check if it’s your move in Facebook Scrabble. You get an email. You answer it. You get a text. You answer it. Since your phone’s in your hand, you play Angry Birds for five minutes. You work a bit. You go online to check something, get distracted by a link, forget what you were looking for, stumble on a picture of a duck that looks like Hitler, share it on Twitter, rinse and repeat.”

The article rightfully invokes TS Eliot’s “distracted from distraction by distraction” — it’s hard to ignore the fact that we are now fully part of a reading culture characterized by divided attention: “You could call wilfing multitasking, or parallelistic cognitive layering — or you could call it cocking around on the web.” So, should we have cause for bemoaning this loss of immersive reading in favor of the always-also-doing-something-else kind of reading we all know too well? Or have we, collectively speaking, simply adjusted or evolved our reading habits to a new means of information availability? Steven Johnson and Nicolas Carr offer competing theories:

“There are two main schools of thought. One is that modern culture is making us cleverer. In Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson observes that IQ scores in the west are rising, and argues that pop culture — from soaps to video games to the web — is responsible. In the other corner is Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. He thinks the web is making us more stupid. We surf the shallows in a state of permanent distraction, and concentrate on no single thing for long enough to engage properly with it. Since much of our mental energy is spent processing the medium, little is left for the message. Carr, then, is a descendent of Plato, who mistrusted writing because he thought people would stop bothering to know anything if it was all there in books.”

The truth, as with so many things, likely lies somewhere in between. Sure, there are many more things available to compete for our attention; and so many of those things seem to offer such easy short-term gratification in comparison to other things like, you know, reading, or thinking (I personally hate having my email or iPhone-type device near me when I’m really reading a book).

The Guardian article raises an interesting suggestion which is well worth thinking about — if our attention spans are shortening, should that ultimately mean an increased demand for short stories and a waning of the longer novel (i.e., Wolf Hall, The Pale King)? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Although, maybe it’s too soon to tell for sure: “These books may resemble 19th-century novels in size, but the pace of even the most traditional of them is faster. And in many — especially in Infinite Jest, a novel about addiction, entertainment, radioactive rodents and tennis — you can see a conscious attempt to engage with the phenomenon of information overload.”

Two other interesting points I feel compelled to touch upon briefly:

“Most commercial writing is shaped by the market, and the market is shaped by the formats that have become standard; and those have been shaped by issues of portability, how wide you can make the spine without it breaking, the sizes of printing presses, and so forth.”

In the history of print-based books, this is certainly true. It’ll be interesting to see, now that the Age of the Digital Book is upon us, will consumers of books still place as much value upon this question of format? Books are in theory more portable than ever. But does portability necessarily mean readability?

“So, even if they now seem natural, the lengths and formats of books are but cultural accidents. If this all goes, there will be consequences for the shape, size and format of prose narrative.”

Interesting. And, also true. The article specifically calls attention to the “cellphone novels” in Japan (something I may need to write about sometime soon) and the blogs-to-novels trend. All of these and other related developments strike me as more options in which to consume what we choose to read — but I’m not so sure if this actually indicates a fundamental shift in the form of the book itself. The question of enhanced ebooks and books vs. apps also seems to be expanding our definition of how books should act.

* We also took a look at this previous: “The Internet Archive and Paper: Together at Last?”. And, Engadget has a very relevant Raiders of the Lost Ark pic.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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