In the 1830s, a French aristocrat by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America and wrote about its democratic character.
While Tocqueville claimed that democracy was inevitable (fighting against its coming was like arguing with “the Providence of God”), he maintained that democracy wasn’t an absolute evil or an absolute good. Instead, it must be directed.
You could say, even today, there is a great revolution taking place among us … in the way we read. More and more people read exclusively online, and less and less people buy books.
And this matters, because the medium we use to read significantly affects the way we read. And the way we read can open our minds to great things … or close them.
Reading doesn’t merely concern abstract ideas, but the transmission of ideas through written word. It’s an important distinction to make: text is a tangible part of the physical world. The human brain essentially regards letters and words and sentences as “physical objects” because “it does not really have another way of understanding them,” writes Ferris Jabr of Scientific American.
Just as someone may remember her childhood home by recalling an image of a tire swing in the front yard, readers remember that they read about Jem, Scout, and Dill watching Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson’s trial from the balcony … on the top of the right-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.
Reading a book — or an article, or an essay, or a blog post — online takes away this mapping phenomenon and, therefore, impairs comprehension. Online texts require scrolling, which prevents our brains from “mapping.”
And so, we skim.
Online readers click on a link, spend a few seconds on the page looking for exciting words, and then bounce. We like short headlines, bullet points, and graphics.
Most pages on the internet have little content. The average blog article is short. The width of the main body of the page is small. Even the 160-character limit on Twitter is too long, say some internet-marketing gurus.
So here’s the question: are screens conducive to learning about justice, grace, courage, love, beauty, greatness, forgiveness, reason and revelation, and statesmanship?
Can we learn about these things through 6-word headlines, bullet points, and memes? It’s an important question, because it seems that there can be no human flourishing without these things.
As a society, can we aspire to greatness when all we encounter are articles about “37 things you won’t believe Kim Kardashian did”?
The human body won’t last long on junk food. Society can’t survive on memes, pictures of kittens, and Buzzfeed.
But, there’s good news.
- Screens offer a unique experience. You couldn’t read ESPN.com very well in a book. It’s too dynamic, visual.
- More information in more hands. The democratization of information is good for society. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln stated that, before printing, “only a small portion of the people… could write, or read writing.” That changed with the introduction of the printing press: “a thousand minds were brought into the field where there was but one before.”
What do we do about reading on the internet?
It seems as inevitable as Tocqueville claimed democracy was some 180 years ago (and it appears he was right!). Should we celebrate or lament?
Neither. Democracy needs to be directed. Its vices need to be contained or combated … and its virtues need to be lifted high.
We should spend time reading about Lebron James’ return to Cleveland and Jimmy Fallon’s impersonations, stay informed about the abhorrent terror in the Middle East, check the pulse of our economy, and research new SEO methodologies (and even look up a few videos of cute animals). But maybe we should also spend some time with Ishmael in Moby Dick, Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, and Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings.
Can human beings flourish without it?