Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reading In A Time Of Distraction

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

This column isn’t about what I thought it would be about.

Last week, I picked up a new anthology of Indian literature, intending to take a few days in going through it and then writing about my reactions. But reading ran aground, as it’s been doing for some time now. Every few pages, a drowsy numbness pained my sense, as the poet chappie would have said, and I put the book aside, reaching for a nearby screen.

Maybe I was just intimidated by the anthology’s phalanx of authors, professors and translators writing about – in their words – stalwarts and towering figures, with books that shaped contours, created a stir and, in one case, behaved like a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the establishment (which gave rise to the urge for a cocktail of a non-explosive variety).

It would be unfair to point fingers at this book alone, however. Even the new le Carré, which otherwise would have been consumed in a gulp or few, took several more swallows than necessary, and that’s not because of the quality of the novel.

I’d written about this earlier, referencing Nicholas Carr’s much-discussed 2011 work, The Shallows, which – to put it baldly – claims that the Internet is making us stupid. His subject is what happens to the brain when faced with digital distraction: "On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream."

This cognitive overload rewires the brain, Carr writes, and one of the costs of such switching is that "the linear, literary mind" becomes "yesterday's mind". Brains are scrambled by Twitter, Angry Birds, RSS readers, e-mail and all the other distractions that flesh is heir to. Neuronal grooves caused over time by the act of sustained reading are being overlaid by smaller nets, each one triggered by getting a quick fix.

The world we live in makes such pursuits increasingly easy and gratifying. As Damian Thompson writes in his The Fix, “our problem is that we’ve built an environment that bombards us with rewards that our bodies don’t need and that do nothing to ensure our survival as a species. Yet, because they are rewards – that is, because they provoke specific feelings of anticipation and pleasure in the brain – we grab them anyway.” Thompson’s thesis is that we’re all addicts in one way or another, entranced by objects from cupcakes to smartphones. It takes considerable willpower to break free -- although won’t-power may be a better word.

Present shock is what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls it. “Everything is real, real-time and always on”, he says in his new book, the title of which is a tip of the hat to and update of Alvin Toffler’s influential 1970 work. We live in a “distracted present”, Rushkoff writes, always reacting to “the ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands”.

He identifies several consequences of this new presentism, the first of which is narrative collapse: the abandonment of the traditional, linear stories that we all live by. With no charted journeys or goals, we’re more impulsive and impatient, and though he doesn't spell it out in so many words, this could also be why reading for a prolonged period is becoming more difficult. “How do we tell stories and convey values without the time required to tell a linear story?” he asks. Social impact apart, this has implications for the future of the novel itself – a new mode, fractured and jittery, may well come into being.

All of which can cause anxiety and exhilaration in equal measure. Swinging between the two, I managed to get this column done on time, in large part because the wi-fi stopped working and the technician resisted all attempts at contact. If he continues to prove recalcitrant, I may even be able to finish reading the anthology I intended to write about.

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