Reading Ourselves to Death

This essay is not real.
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Join me in a thought experiment. Imagine you are imprisoned in a room by a despotic regime and allowed contact with the outside world only through a primitive computer. Called a text-only terminal, the computer lets you send and receive as many written messages as you like. It lets you read as many articles as you like. But it can’t display images or videos of any kind, nor play any sound. The only understanding you would have of the reality beyond your four walls — aside from the trays of food slid under the door — comes from the words on your screen.

What would your grasp of the outside world feel like? Over time, increasingly abstract and dreamlike. Even those with whom you had regular contact would increasingly become simplified, abstracted, flattened characters. The world would come to you doubly translated, first into text by somebody on the outside, then back out of text in your mind. You would end up with a vague approximation of the world, and how close to reality it is you would never know.

Now imagine that, instead of a text-only terminal, a TOT, you had been given a VOT, a video-only terminal. It allows you to interact with the outside world only through video calls, video news reports, TV shows, and so on. This too would be an imperfect way of perceiving the outside world. But it would be what we might call an edited version of reality, rather than an abstracted one. With a VOT, you would be restricted to watching the world through a digital window, but you would still have a reasonably good idea what the world out there was really like.

Clearly, none of us have experienced anything remotely as dramatic as either scenario. But the text-only terminal is a useful exaggeration of what, at a much subtler level, has happened to all of us over the last few decades. We are awash in text. The cumulative cultural effect is a kind of mass delusion. We may believe that all this text somehow captures reality. But as the words engulf us, the world recedes ever more from our grasp.

Swimming in Words

Between 1900 and 1990, the amount of time the average American spent reading and writing remained broadly consistent: somewhere between one and two hours a day. According to a 2012 McKinsey report, the addition of text messaging and the Internet raised that amount to something closer to four or five hours a day. Most people were illiterate four hundred years ago; today Americans spend up to a third of their waking hours encoding and decoding text.

Every minute, humans send 220 million emails, 70 million WhatsApp and Facebook messages, 16 million texts, 530,000 tweets, and make 6 million Google searches. The journalist Nick Bilton has estimated that each day the average Internet user now sees as many as 490,000 words — more than War and Peace. If an alien landed on Earth today, it might assume that reading and writing are our species’ main function, second only to sleeping and well ahead of eating and reproducing.

Our immersion in the written word is but one ingredient in a cocktail of changes we have experienced thanks to cell phones and the Internet, and filtering out all the other factors and isolating the consequences of just text is impossible. Even if we could, we would have to account for the quality of reading too, as much of it involves skimming and darting around the page. But the sheer quantity matters. As both literacy theorists and neuroscientists attest, reading and writing have a profound effect on the way we think.

Your Brain on Text

Consider the experience of reading. From a few signs, we summon into existence a whole world between our ears, our heads becoming a miniature simulacrum snow globe of reality, within which an infinite number of characters and objects and scenarios come alive. The act requires all sorts of imaginative effort — we are costume designer, set designer, sound designer, and casting director all for the tiny holographic play going on in our heads.

Reading a novel, according to a 2013 Emory University study, can activate specific parts of the brain associated with the actions one is reading about. If the protagonist in the story is being chased, for example, your brain behaves in some ways as if you were being chased. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense,” the lead researcher explained. “Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.” The researchers found that some areas of gray matter activated by reading can remain fired up for several days. Reading encourages us to put outside reality on hold, to construct a parallel world in our minds, and retreat into it.

Unlike photos or videos, words give reality a structure that isn’t there in and of itself. This may be part of what we find so enticing. Think about what it feels like when you put down your phone after a bumper session of doomscrolling through the day’s awful news. It’s the psychological equivalent of stepping off a merry-go-round and expecting the world to keep spinning. We are so used to our screens bombarding us with text — news, tweets, emails — that we are almost surprised to discover that the walls around us have nothing to say. The sudden absence of words — the evaporation of the sense of control they give us — feels disorienting. A sentence, even a bad one, means something; its syntax has a neat logic. The world is thus packaged into manageable chunks. Our immediate surroundings, in contrast, feel curiously structureless and amorphous — the sound of traffic outside or the sensation of cold air on our skin means … what?

This is why when I’m out and about and have left my phone somewhere, or it has run out of battery, I find myself desperate to read something, anything, even a leaflet or a menu. Simply watching the world go by, observing and reflecting on it, is too shapeless an experience. I want the world narrated, to have clear, meaningful sentences fed to me. When we talk about being addicted to our phones, isn’t this craving for text a big part of it?

Patricia Lockwood has described being online as “the feeling my thoughts were being dictated.” How does that happen? It’s not that our brains are being irradiated by mind-controlling waves, nor that our neurons are being singed by our screens. It’s the text.

The Rise of Abstraction

In the 1960s and ‘70s, some literacy theorists, among them Eric Havelock and Jack Goody, argued that it was writing that gave humans the capacity for abstract thought. Thanks to its invention, they claimed, we gained, for the first time in history, access to ways of thinking about the world that had been conceptually out of reach in pre-literate cultures. Text became to reality what a map is to a landscape — a way of abstracting it, allowing us to remove ourselves from it, to peer at it from above, and annotate it with our ideas. As Walter Ong put it, writing “transformed human consciousness.”

The idea that writing was a necessary precondition for abstract thought may now seem overblown. But Havelock, a classicist, produced some intriguing evidence for the ways Greek thought changed in the years following the introduction of the voweled alphabet. Comparing transcribed texts of oral literature (such as Homer), and literature written after the spread of the alphabet (such as Plato), Havelock noticed the dramatic rise, in the few centuries between, in the use of copulas — words like is, are, was, and became that are often considered to be the linguistic fingerprints of abstract thought.

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These words are so central to our use of language today that it can be hard to imagine how we would write or speak without them. But let’s try. Say you were trying to describe somebody stealing your smartphone. You might say that wickedness prowled the streets looking for trouble, telling the thief to commit his crime. In other words, wickedness would not be considered some abstract, universal concept from which wicked things get their essence, but more like a creature or being in the here and now, much as we are.

By the time of Plato, a few hundred years later, Greek syntax had changed. By this point, you would have said that the thief was wicked, or that his decision to steal your phone was wicked — wickedness was considered, by then, a quality or essence that objects, people, and actions have.

It’s hard to say how much the change had to do with the introduction of the alphabet, rather than, say, with the difference between poetry and prose. But Havelock’s basic claim, that reading and writing aid abstract thought, has found support, too, in Derrick de Kerckhove and Charles J. Lumsden’s 1988 book The Alphabet and the Brain, in which they argue that the alphabet created a neurobiological bias in the brain toward left-hemisphere processes, those associated with analytic, abstract thinking.

What is striking is that both literacy theorists and neuroscientists generally consider the psychological consequences of reading and writing to be fundamentally positive, for reasons that become clearer when we look at the slightly different ways they use the term “abstract.”

Literacy theorists speak mostly about the abstract ideas writing gave us: universals, categories that link objects regardless of time and space, complex mathematical concepts, permanent truths. In other words, they speak of the conceptual annex to the mind we gained several thousand years ago, that, the spread of literacy aside, hasn’t really changed much since.

Neuroscientists, on the other hand, speak of the abstract thought processes that happen every time we look at the page, the numerous stages of conceptualization — a process that involves, as it were, lifting the words from the page into our minds, deciphering them, imagining their meaning, and playing through and then selecting from the infinite possible interpretations.

Both of these, on their face, are immensely useful. But when we put the two accounts of abstraction together, we begin to see a problem: Every time we read, we inevitably conceptualize the world, in perhaps an ever-increasingly abstract way. And it’s conceivable that we may reach a point where those abstracting effects go too far.

Some have spotted the problem. Marshall McLuhan, for example, claimed in The Gutenberg Galaxy that for all its obvious benefits, a byproduct of the phonetic alphabet was the emergence of what he called “schizophrenia” — a cultural split between our passionate, mystical side and our rational, empirical side. A. G. Sertillanges wrote in The Intellectual Life: “The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production…. Never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.” Peter Thorpe argued in Why Literature Is Bad for You that the negative effects of reading outweigh the positive: “If we become too involved in the beautiful imitation, we can begin to lose touch with the real thing.” Richard Weaver wrote in Ideas Have Consequences that, in retrospect, the invention of writing was a mixed blessing.

All these thinkers were writing before the Internet. If their arguments were remotely correct then, things can’t possibly have improved since. Perhaps they could see what we, swamped by text, no longer can.

The End of Experience

Consider the historical trajectory. First, we developed language, which, as Nietzsche pointed out, led us to believe that our words were the same thing as the reality to which they referred. Then we invented the written word, which codified and solidified language even more. Then we created the modern world, in which we now readily assume that models of reality encoded in computer language are all there is. Modern society, as the neuroscientist Joseph Bogen already put it back in 1975, is “a scholastized, post-Gutenberg-industrialized, computer-happy exaggeration of the Graeco-Roman penchant for propositionizing.”

What now? Many literacy theorists and early Internet pioneers spoke of a coming “secondary orality,” expecting that digital technology would relieve us of the excesses of writing by introducing new, predominantly voice- and video-based, forms of communication and entertainment. This mostly hasn’t materialized. And there is good reason why. Text is far and away the most suited to the age of data. We increasingly try to fit all our experience into a digital spreadsheet, and written words can be logged, searched, counted, isolated, and edited or deleted far more easily than anything else. They allow us to construct a simplified parallel reality alongside the unbearably ineffable one.

The anthropologist Joseph Heinrich has suggested that the rise of literacy in the West helped to produce a certain mindset that he calls “WEIRD” — for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic” — that excludes some aspects of reality in favor of others. The neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has speculated that literacy could “displace and dislodge” the older functions of parts of the brain that contribute, in non-literate cultures, to a particular sensitivity to things like our immediate environment. Writing, as the Native American activist Russell Means would have it, is a way of seemingly controlling the world, a way of shearing it of the intangible. It is “the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.” Maybe we just don’t know anymore what to do with the experience of experience — and putting it into writing, of course, only adds to the problem.

That’s a shame, because we should be glad the walls really aren’t talking, even as we seem ever more eager to stay locked in this room.

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