Electronic screens have fundamentally changed the way people read, and the impact on society is greater than one might think.
People are constantly reading on screens — or more properly stated, people are constantly skimming what pops up on their screens. Ziming Liu, professor of library science at San Jose State University, says the new norm of skimming means not taking time “to grasp complexity, understand feelings, perceive beauty and generate thoughts of the reader’s own.”
In an article for the Guardian, Maryanne Wolf, a research professor at UCLA, remarks that as society moves further into the instant information age, it is in danger of losing some essential learning and social-interaction tools — “internalized knowledge, analogical reason and inference, perspective-taking and empathy, critical analysis and generation of insight.”
Simply put, by not using the brain to apply the reading and reasoning skills human beings have used for centuries, people are in very real danger of losing these critical abilities.
Should society really care? If communication has moved and continues to move into the realm of the brief and instant, what difference does it really make?
For one thing, research shows failing to use tools like reasoning and analytical thinking severely affects one’s ability to learn at any age. For a society craving analytical and critical thinking skills, this doesn’t offer a happy outlook. Learning to learn, and creating a life of learning, is what separates good leaders, employees or parents from the best.
Then there is the tide of news and information that sweeps over the populace every day. If the public does not hone the skills of analysis and empathy, it will be less likely to determine what is truly “fake” and what is real.
Learning to learn, and creating a life of learning, is what separates good leaders, employees or parents from the best.
Deseret News senior columnist Jay Evensen recently reported on a study conducted by MIT scholars who found false news stories — the ones cooked up in a parent’s basement with no foundational truth — spread through social media six times faster than real news stories. Evensen noted, “the reason had everything to do with humans, not with bots.”
Without these critical tools, people will continue to retreat to the comfort of information sources that make them the most comfortable, or they will rely on others to tell them what is bogus and what is true.
Suggesting civilization abandon electronic communication and retreat to only reading words on paper is impractical. But science is saying it would be to everyone’s benefit if they not only “skimmed” information but thought carefully and analytically about it, whether in digital or in printed form.
To do otherwise risks losing what makes humans thrive. In the words of professor Wolf, this means jeopardizing "the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.”
The pursuit of truth is one of life’s noblest endeavors, but in this instant age, only those willing to read, absorb, ponder and analyze will find it.