Textual Distraction: Interiority, Visual Space, and the Future of Literacy
"The most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented is the book." - Northrop Frye
Last night, my girlfriend and I finally got around to watching this year's winner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Argo. Although, the film lacks the immediacy of Django: Unchained and the introspection of The Master, it's still a highly gratifying movie-watching experience - one which led to an accidental and unexpected moment of (rare) self-awareness that I feel extends to much of Western society as a whole.
I'm a little embarrassed about this, but I must admit that I knew almost nothing about the Iranian hostage crisis before I watched Argo. I was vaguely familiar with certain events, but I was clueless about the political motivations behind the series of revolutions that preceded the hostage situation or the nominal reasoning behind it. Thankfully, my iPhone (and my Wikipedia app) was only an arm's length away, so I thought I'd clue myself in on a little background information just to catch me up to speed for the sake of achieving ultimate viewing satisfaction.
As usual, once I started using my phone to browse information related to the movie, it was extremely difficult to stop. A simple "Iranian Hostage Crisis" search on Wikipedia led to more searches ("Canadian Caper," "Ayatollah Kohmeini," "Tony Mendez," "Ben Affleck," "Gigli," etc.) and, before I knew it, I'd left Wikipedia altogether and was playing a game of "Scramble" with a complete stranger. I finally glanced up about 45 minutes later to an all-but-forgotten television screen and realized that I was missing the majority of a movie that I had just spent $5 to rent. Because of my choice to utilize the extra-textual media at my disposal, I had (unwittingly) completely distracted myself from the principal narrative before me - a movie I'd been waiting months to see.
My distraction had nothing to do with the superb quality of the film and everything to do with our shared cultural desire to be distracted as often as possible, by as much as possible. My personal experience of Argo, my cerebral interiority, was interrupted by my over-saturated visual space, and it's only a matter of time before these sorts of interruptions extend to the written word.
Like most writers, I love books. I love the smell of the pages, the feel of the spine, the antiquated physical structure itself. I love the wisdom the good ones are able to impart; I love the adventures, the scandal, the triumphs, the grief, and the humanity, above all. Books accelerate our imaginative impulse, and they shape our worldview. They offer a singular experience that can be shared with other readers or kept wholly confined to the vast recesses of our imaginations. But there's also a degree of work and difficulty involved in true literacy.
I always viewed reading as the intimate relationship forged between the author and reader in a shared space of creativity. The author constructs the raw material of the story based on centuries of ingrained human experience, but the reader is tasked with extending the words on the page into the head space of his own conception. This endeavor is both exciting and complicated. It requires a degree of consistent effort on behalf of the reader to transfer the tangible setting, plot, and characterization to an abstract interior of architecture, drama, and familiarity. As we go about the business of this ethereal transference, our brain is working overtime to craft our highly personal experience of the book.
The single most effective deterrent to this process, the slayer of all things imaginative, is interruption, which usually comes in some form of external distraction. The abrupt halt in creativity suspends our artistic construction and catapults us forcibly back into an unwelcome reality. Historically, this usually came in the form of my mother yelling up the stairs for me to do the dishes or take out the trash. This was a modest inconvenience since I could easily return to my own realm once the menial task had been completed. In a more modern context, however, it's the ever-presence and unrelenting persistence of extra-textual media that produces the distraction, and these are much more difficult to overcome.
It's hard to believe, but e-readers like the Kindle and Nook have only been around since 2007. In these six short years, they have permeated the culture of the literati, and, as they move into the app market, they threaten to make physical books obsolete in the near future. They are relatively inexpensive and highly accessible; they are fast, and they are convenient. Instead of making the public trek to Barnes and Noble for the latest work by your favorite author, you can simply download the book onto your e-reader in the privacy of your bedroom and the comfort of your undies.
Like most internet shopping, impulse purchasing abounds on e-readers. It's difficult to tell if these books (can we still call them that?) are being read, but we do know they're being bought. So, while book sales may be trending upward, it's hard to say if actual literacy is following suit. (Of course, this argument can also be made for traditional books, but the impulse buy factor isn't nearly as significant in this case.)
Recent data suggests that the sales figures of reading-only devices sharply declined in 2012. As opposed to the 28 million units sold in 2011, only 19 millions were sold last year. This doesn't point to the decline of virtual readership, but rather the logical extension of such: the tablet. E-book readership actually increased by 7% last year.
Translation: The modern reader isn't satisfied with the convenience and affordability of an e-reader; they want their media platform to be all-inclusive.
I certainly can't fault them for this, but it points toward our desire to multitask (i.e. perform optional distraction). We actually want the ability to disrupt the ethereal transference of reading. We choose it. Even if we're merely checking a dictionary app to glean the meaning of a complicated word or SparkNotes to gather some background information on the author, even if we're trying to advance our general knowledge on the subject matter, we're still consciously choosing to divorce ourselves from complete immersion in whatever we may be reading.
In an article written for the Wall Street Journal, author and journalist Steve Johnson sums up this point nicely:
"Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article–sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument."
In fairness, Steve is referring to online readership rather than tablets or e-readers, but a distraction is a distraction all the same. Also, these sentiments are no longer limited to online reading (his words were printed nearly four years ago); there are now Nook and Kindle apps for both the iPhone and Android OS. So, now, not only are there external interruptions like your mother telling you to take out the trash, but there are also myriad distractions of your visual space right at your finger tips. Naturally, you have the choice to ignore this interference and focus exclusively on your book of choice, but something tells me this will be a difficult task for even the most ardent readers. Furthermore, it seems logical that the natural progression of this form of reading will be to imbed display advertisements within the text. You'll probably be given the option to opt out of these ads for a nominal fee, but the point is that you shouldn't have to!
There's a time for reading and a time for playing on your tablet or smartphone. The former requires intense focus that, with further and further immersion, seamlessly transcends reality, while the latter is predicated on the exact opposite: willful distraction and the empty exercise of wasting time. It's a shame that the two are now being cross-bred in some bastardized version of artificial literacy.
The main problem is that this is seen as progress. People will argue that whatever gets people reading more must be a good thing. I'd argue the opposite. For the average person, full immersion in the text is impossible when faced with constant interruption. Unifying two unlike things isn't evolution, it's farce used to goad us into thinking that periodically reading tidbits of information in between preoccupying ourselves with useless games and minutia constitutes true literacy. There's more to reading than taking note of patterns of letters on a page. Reading isn't reading if it's being interrupted by folly every other page. Reading is about fully immersing oneself in a work, comprehending the material, developing a personal theory of the themes, and retaining that knowledge to further advance their own humanity.
If I can't even sit through the year's "Best Picture" without spending half of the film playing on my phone, how can I possibly expect to even make through a James Patterson novel on my iPad?
Once we stop reading (or start "reading" much more depending on how well you thought I presented that argument), how will we chronicle the human experience? Instagram-brushed mirror photos? Temple Run top scores? Oh, I think I've got it - Facebook! The perfect indicator for future generations of the power of 21st century technology! And all of these are readily available on your media device of choice. So buy immediately, and don't forget to read the newest Twilight novel, now available in the Kindle app!
Johnson, Steven. "How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write." Tech. The Wall Street Journal. 20 Apr. 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
Bensinger, Greg. "The E-Reader Revolution: Over Just as It Has Begun?" Tech. The Wall Street Journal. 4 Jan. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.