Spreading the Word: Deep Reading in the Digital Age

We live in an increasingly digital world where the race for our attention is growing ever faster. Messages, notifications, updates, comments, and on and on and on the eternal scroll goes. This environment influences us even when we don’t realise it. Distraction happens also when I do not pick up my phone to check the message. The mere fact that I noticed its arrival (the sound, for example) is already a distraction. What does this have to do with deep reading? As with any task that requires deep focus over a long period of time, the more often we get distracted during our daily lives, the more difficult it is for us to develop and maintain the difficult skill of sustained focus. This, in turn, influences how we interact with each other and the world more broadly.

In today’s post, I share with you a podcast episode. In it, the hosts talk to three researchers and discuss how the growing demands on our attention are affecting us, and what we can do about it. For example, every distraction of our attention from something we were engaged in comes with a switch cost – a term Dr Daniel le Roux of Stellenbosch University uses to explain that our performance at the task we were distracted from is going to suffer once we return our attention to it.

UCLA professor Dr. Maryanne Wolf talks of a study which found that young adults perceived their reading of a text was better when it was on a screen than printed because they associated faster reading with better reading. This perception reveals many underlying assumptions, such as, anything to do with technology is better and more progressive, and that the medium we use for reading – be it digital or physical – does not influence us in any profound way (presumably because we take it that the tools we use have no impact on who we are). But one of the things that goes missing when we are skimming and skipping instead of immersing ourselves in the world of the text is deeper insight, comprehension, and beauty and our appreciation of it.

One of the less obvious but significant benefits of the deep, focused reading skill, as professor Wolf argues, is the ability to leave one’s egocentrism, stepping out of the familiar (one’s own) perspective and encountering the other’s thoughts and feelings from their viewpoint. We develop a special form of empathy. This is what Maria Lugones described as travelling to another’s ‘world’ and seeing the world (including oneself) from that person’s standpoint. Of course, this is difficult to do if my attention is spread thin across multiple demands and tends to jump rapidly from one to another.

If you listen until the end of the episode, there is a helpful suggestion for improving your deep focus skill, recommended by one of the researchers based on their personal experience. Here is the link: Too many digital distractions are eroding our ability to read deeply. Enjoy!

The Travelling Companions, 1862. Artist: Augustus Leopold Egg

Keeping up the “Spreading the Word” tradition, I hope to share an insightful and thought-provoking article, podcast episode or video every weekend. Humans have always turned and returned to storytelling to find meaning. My weekends’ “Spreading the Word” posts are an online version of sharing meaningful stories.   

keep exploring and storytelling!

P.S. If you enjoyed this post and would like more interaction on philosophical topics, you may be interested in the blog’s Telegram channel. You will find additional content there that I plan to post 3-4 times a week, and we can engage in discussions in the chat group.

Image credit: Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

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