Local View: Students weren’t reading anyway — then the virus came
From the column: "Call it the 'out-smartphone' if it has the power to distract us when it’s not even in the same room."
From 2010 to 2018, leisure reading dropped from 20 minutes to 16 minutes per day. You know, like reading the Opinion section of a newspaper. Take out the elderly, and it drops to six minutes per day — less than an hour a week.
Nobody wants more 2020 drama, but one of the worst things about last year went basically unnoticed. It was detailed in a book, not even a new book. It was the second edition of Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize when it was released a decade ago. The book diagnosed a new normal, whereby the internet splays attention, fractures thinking, and reconstitutes reading.
Not only was the first edition written before smartphones were common, the second edition was released just before the pandemic imperiled us to screen subsistence. If the Pulitzer was awarded for clairvoyance, “The Shallows” would have won by a landslide. In the new edition, Carr revisited his 2010 research and decided to let the book stand as it was.
“When it comes to how we think — the central subject of this book — smartphones and their apps have reinforced the status quo of the digital age, not upended it,” he explained. “They have amplified and accelerated all the psychological and cognitive trends I described.”
And then the virus came.
Certainly, the disturbing trends amplified and accelerated by the smartphone will be likewise amplified and accelerated by the coronavirus. So in a sense, it’s also a computer virus. But maybe the same way it “fire-hosed” us into digital living it can also power-wash away the screen’s most opaque conceits. I mean, before the pandemic started, both children and adults were spending roughly seven hours per day on screens — just for pleasure, according to Common Sense Media’s national survey. We had already pointed the fire hose in our own mouths. For there to be anything like a return to normal in 2021, “The Shallows” ought to be required reading.
In fact, I do require it in one of the classes I teach at the University of Minnesota Duluth. A student of mine this semester named Elizabeth Grone got religion from it in a final paper she wrote for class. Her honesty was wonderful, and so some of her thoughts appear here to shed some non-blue light on the new normal in which students today have to read, think, and, of course, write.
“Our brains have been trained to jump from tab to tab, switch from email to social media to research articles and back again,” she wrote.
Elizabeth’s paper was curiously bespeckled with little vertical lines throughout. Near the end, she disclosed that the lines marked every point of distraction while she was writing: “As I sat down to begin this essay, I found myself committing the exact same crime that I was going to write about.”
Her creativity made me smile; then I did the math. There were 23 distractions in a 49-line essay — almost one for every two lines of writing. This already was the students’ new normal.
According to Carr, “The way people read — and write — has already been changed by the Net, and the changes will continue as … the words of books are extracted from the printed page and embedded into the computer’s ecology of interrupted technologies.”
And then the virus came.
In 2015, researchers in England installed tracking software on the smartphones of a sample of students and staff at a university. People were on their phones for just more than five hours a day, checking it 85 times per day for less than 30 seconds at a time. Time-use data from England show that people are awake for an average of roughly 15 hours and 30 minutes per day. Distributed evenly, a person would check their phone every 11.1 minutes. Those minutes are not attention spans; they are the spans where attention can be allocated, and they are shrinking.
When distraction is routine, does it still feel like distraction? Can it even still be called distraction if one habituates to it?
“Media multitasking is an everyday part of our lives, we don’t even realize we’re doing it,” Elizabeth wrote in her paper.
Of those 15-plus waking hours, a typical person spends about nine hours and 45 minutes gazing into any screen. Again, that’s pre-pandemic, before the coronavirus stranded us to digital islands. We already were spending roughly 62% of our waking lives staring at a screen. Almost two-thirds of life was fractured into 11.1-minute bits.
Long spans of attention are its first victims. Students report to me with increasing frequency that I am one of the only professors who assigns books to read. No wonder. A literature professor at Duke University claims she can’t get her students to read a whole book anymore, according to Carr. Sure, students have spurned their readings for decades, but has that leveled up?
Rhodes Scholar and former president of the student body at Florida State University, Joe O’Shea said, “I don’t read books. … I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly. … Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. … It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.”
“But skimming and word searching is not reading,” as Elizabeth pointed out in her paper. “I’m not absorbing any of the text on my screen.
What are the intellectual and social costs of O’Shea’s convenience-shopping for knowledge? Careful experiments reveal that when people hear their smartphone ring but can’t get to it, their blood pressure rises, their pulse quickens, and their problem-solving skills weaken. Researchers also have found that the smartphone doesn’t have to be in the room to impair cognitive abilities. Still other research documents that smartphones impair thought similar to an actual diagnosis of attention deficit disorder.
“This is a perfect example of the growing impatience that has been imposed onto my generation,” wrote Elizabeth, “but who imposed it on us?”
Maybe we should call it the “out-smartphone” if it has the power to distract us when it’s not even in the same room.
Modern education was birthed by the printed word. Then the digital revolution came, and now the virus is here. There is no guarantee that folks raised in a digital culture will either notice or care if the digital revolution ends up revolting against education as we knew it.
As Elizabeth wrote, “Immersing yourself in a plethora of information sounds like the basis of an education.”
Education still churns by the sort of thought and work print inspires. No question it has been wildly successful; no question the digital age is questioning that. Young folks, even Rhodes Scholars, gamble on a different sort of thought and have a different regard for learning.
“I’m not really learning anymore, much less thinking,” Elizabeth wrote.
To Carr, these are the shallows. Elizabeth’s essay described an unwanted digital encroachment into academic life that robs her of deep thinking. In other words, she agreed: “My reading is not reading.”
Technology solves all sorts of thorny problems, especially in a pandemic. It causes them, too: from reconstituting reading to almost completely erasing whatever fuzzy boundary still exists between work and the rest of life. Geobiologist Hope Jahren writes in “Lab Girl” that, “A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because (the desert) hasn’t killed it yet.” Humans, on the other hand, can look around and choose their ecology, natural or digital.
Carr’s 2010 book was a field guide. His 2020 book is a canary in the coal mine. We are the canaries, and the digital revolution is our coal mine.
And then the virus came.
“Now, I encourage you to sit down and read, for crying out loud,” Elizabeth urged.
Aaron R. Boyson is an associate professor of communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He wrote this after receiving a final paper from UMD communications student Elizabeth Grone, who helped with its editing.
UMD communications student Elizabeth Grone included this “Bibliography of Distractions” she faced while writing a final paper about the decline of reading in the U.S.:
1: Music - Using Spotify on my laptop, I chose a playlist.
2: Online Shopping - I opened a new tab and went to lululemon.com.
3: Online Shopping - I scrolled through an entire subcategory of clothing (>100 items) and added 2 pieces to my virtual cart on the same website.
4: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I replied to a few notifications.
5: Online Shopping - I completed my transaction for those two items on the website.
6: Music - Using Spotify on my laptop, I skipped a song.
7: Stared out the window - I watched the snowmobiles go by across the frozen lake.
8: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I viewed stories (community posts) by my friends.
9: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I replied to a few notifications.
10: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I replied to a few notifications.
11: Stared out the window - I watched the squirrels simultaneously run down the trees.
12: Snacktime - I popped some popcorn.
13: Music - Using Spotify on my laptop, I switched to a different playlist.
14: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I viewed stories (community posts) by my friends.
15: Stared out the window - I mindlessly gazed out the window and pondered the other things on my to-do list.
16: Started an assignment for a different class - Using Microsoft Word on my laptop, I responded to a few questions about a reading for a different class.
17: Social Media - Using Instagram on my phone, I viewed the pictures and videos posted by my friends.
18: Finished that other assignment - I completed and submitted the assignment for the other class.
19: Social Media - Using Instagram on my phone, I viewed the pictures and videos posted by my friends.
20: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I replied to a few notifications.
21: Stared out the window - I watched the squirrels simultaneously run up the trees.
22: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I replied to a few notifications.
23: Social Media - Using Snapchat on my phone, I replied to a few notifications.