Our Culture of Reading and the End of Dialogue in the Internet Age

Matt Lee Anderson has a typically perceptive essay over at Mere Orthodoxy on the subject of our habits of reading in the Internet Age and how these are unconducive to reflective and receptive dialogue. He writes:

I suggested above that a world that does not read deeply will struggle to speak reasonably with each other. That claim deserves more attention, as it is not intuitively obvious. If my hypothesis that deep reading demands trust gets anywhere near the truth, it would provide one reason why a world of shallow readers would also be a world of combative and reactive interlocutors. When our posture is one of skepticism or defensiveness toward what we read, our tone in response will be as well. Winsomely and cheerfully defending the truths of Christianity means charitably reading those who oppose us.

The paradox of this is that the very promise the internet made for intellectually minded Christians is the one that it necessarily cannot fulfill, at least not for very long. As someone who began his public career by organizing the first conference for Christian bloggers back in 2004, I know well the triumphalism of the “new media” and the possibilities for improved and expanded dialogue with those we disagreed with inherent in it. Those possibilities may have come to pass in some small corners (like this one!), but more often than not the speed and anonymity of the internet brought out the least charitable and most polarizing aspects of our world. And that was among a body of people whose first movements in this world didn’t have screens in front of them. Those who are children now will struggle even more than we, unless they are fed a steady diet of books.

Read the whole piece here.

Matt’s points about the connection between our online media and our habits of reading, thought, discourse, and argument will be familiar to readers of writers such as Nicholas Carr. However, I believe that they are extremely important. I have reflected upon these things extensively over the last several years and, in large part as a result of this, I am reaching the conclusion that the Internet isn’t generally serving me well on these fronts.

Like Matt, this has brought me to the point of radically reassessing my online reading, writing, socializing, and dialoguing. Most of the time I spend reading material online would be better spent reading published material offline. Most of the time I spend writing material for blogs, comments, tweets, e-mails, and other online discussions would be better spent writing in a more polished and detailed fashion. Most of the time I spend socializing online would be better spent interacting with people in person. Much of the time I spend dialoguing online—with the esteemed commenters on this blog excluded—could be more productively spent doing … well, just about anything else!

As I have argued before, greater speed, increased efficiency, the reduction of ‘friction’, more information, and greater sociality are often detrimental to our habits of reading, thought, writing, and argument (follow any of the eight links in this sentence for much more of my thoughts on the subject). Those of us who know life before the Internet and especially before the web started to be dominated by a few social networks and when it provided room for much more obscurity and privacy, with much less supervision, may sense a loss that many of our younger peers might not. Many of the sorts of conversations that first inspired me to start a blog are no longer possible now on the Internet now. Indeed, what it means to blog has changed considerably. The future of the Internet for me may well be a movement back to such archaic media as private e-mail discussion lists, where it is still possible to have slow, non-reactive, non-intimate, and intelligent conversations with select groups of interlocutors, who can be held to high standards of interpretation, argumentation, and dialogue. The value of and great need for online contexts that are slower, ‘frictionful’, pared down, less social, less efficient, less intimate, obscurer, less accessible, less inclusive, less interactive, less connected, etc. has never been so clear to me. It is in such contexts that reading, thought, and discourse may finally thrive.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, On the web, Society, The Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Our Culture of Reading and the End of Dialogue in the Internet Age

  1. whitefrozen says:

    ‘Much of the time I spend dialoguing online—with the esteemed commenters on this blog excluded—could be more productively spent doing … well, just about anything else!’

    So in other words, you’d rather be doing anything besides talking to people who comment on your long-winded posts:)

  2. evan773 says:

    I’m not sure that I agree with Matt here. It strikes me that he has a preference for a florid, round-about style of writing that had died by 1915, let alone 2015. In fact, economy began to emerge as a hallmark of effective style as early as the 1860s. I enjoy reading what he writes nonetheless.

    • Economy ‘as a hallmark of effective style’ has been around for some time. However, favoured style depends upon chosen and/or prevailing media. For those publishing largely in popular journals and the like, Matt’s style may appear out of date, but such a medium never had a monopoly on publication nor an absolute stranglehold upon style. Furthermore, the level of ‘economy’ that we are dealing with today far outstrips that of previous generations.

      More importantly, however, the Internet has provided a home for such ‘longform’ writing from the outset. Before blogging was really a thing, many of us spent hours reading lengthy essays collected on various sites. The people who wrote and published such essays—I was one of them, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s—generally went on to start blogging, which typically shortened their pieces and changed the pattern of their ‘consumption’. It put more pressure upon people to ‘keep up’ and to read immediately and quickly. Now, many of these erstwhile bloggers post on social media instead, in an even shorter format. This context intensifies social pressure and influence in our reading. There has, of course, been a flourishing of ‘longreads’ in certain contexts, but such a movement is going against pronounced countervailing online tendencies in reading habits.

    • Chris E says:

      That style of writing does persist in some places – the essay based magazines like Vanity Fair for instance, where every writer gives the impression that they’d rather be writing the ‘great American novel’. It’s somewhat telling that it is most common across the pond, where a fashion for anachronism is generally stronger.

      On a stylistic level, the issue is usually that the lack of an editor has been confused with a Buckley-eseque eloquence.

      On a cultural level – in terms of Christian engagement – it’s often a form of refined thuggery. Rather than testing an idea in the world of academia, the long form essay (with numerous tangential argumentative strands) is used to bludgeon people (who don’t necessarily have the training to respond to it on its own terms) into silence – at some point people have decided that they’d rather be ‘seen to be right’ by their own constituency than actually making their argument understood.

      • On a cultural level – in terms of Christian engagement – it’s often a form of refined thuggery. Rather than testing an idea in the world of academia, the long form essay (with numerous tangential argumentative strands) is used to bludgeon people (who don’t necessarily have the training to respond to it on its own terms) into silence – at some point people have decided that they’d rather be ‘seen to be right’ by their own constituency than actually making their argument understood.

        Is this actually the case? Such long form essays are often written primarily for an audience of the writers’ peers. More importantly, many such essays are popularizations of work that has been presented in more academic contexts or preparation for such work (certainly in my experience). For instance, Matt’s lengthy recent piece on SSM had already been presented in a more developed academic form. The long form essay served to make this work more accessible to a wider audience, even if not to a general one.

  3. mnpetersen37 says:

    Do you want me to read Matt’s article, or would it be better for me to be “reading published material offline”? 😛

    More seriously, I wonder if it’s reading silently that has given rise to many of the problems Matt describes, and whether the Internet merely amplifies many of the problems of silent reading. This article claims that “Linguistic historian George Steiner (Language and Silence) argues that reading silently was central to the emergence of the individual sense of self as it developed during modernity”, and in an old Credenda article, Peter Leithart argued for a connection between hearing and the sort of reading Matt is commending.

    • Some of the problems are exacerbated by silent reading and the printing press. However, silent reading and the printing press also made more possible many aspects of the sort of reading that Matt is speaking about.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        You’re perhaps correct. I think silent reading tends to individuate us, and isolate us from the sonority of words, converting them into objects. We would do well, I think, in emphasizing the oracularity of speech, and practice reading aloud, with rhythm, pitch, emphasis, sonority, etc. even if quietly, as was done in the Middle Ages. We can’t, in our world, escape from silent reading, but I think we need to emphasize far more oral reading, even if the reading aloud is quiet.

  4. quinnjones2 says:

    ‘Christians are a people of the book’. Ooh! There are many strands contained this statement and in Matt’s whole article, and also in your comments, Alastair, and in other comments here!
    I will comment on one strand here. I wonder about the extent to which the first Christians had access to ‘the book’, and the extent to which they were dependent on the oral tradition. I also wonder about the extent to which people remain dependent on the oral tradition today either because they do not have access to ‘the book’ or because they are unable to read, or because their main strength is in speaking and listening skills, rather than in reading and writing skills. For such people, there is more to being a Christian than ‘the book’, and I believe that our God is a ‘special needs’ God who reaches us all in ways beyond our understanding. I suppose what I’m really heading towards is the idea that ‘the message’ is primary and the media are secondary and that one man’s ‘media meat’ is another man’s poison, so to speak.
    On a personal note, I used to be a real ‘book-worm’ but I am less so now. I tend to read on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. For instance, when I find myself with an ethical dilemma which is outside the experience of most people I encounter on an everyday basis, I research the writings of others on this matter. I wish to thank you again, Alastair, for your writings on many ethical matters, because they have helped me to engage more fruitfully with many people I encounter on a day-to-day basis.

    • Thanks for the comment. Here I think that it is important to remember what the ‘Bible’ or the ‘book’ was for early Christians: not a mass produced, privately owned, printed and bound text between two covers, primarily to be read privately and silently, but a public and ecclesial text, to be encountered in the context of the gathered church’s liturgical worship.

      I strongly believe that media do matter, not least because different media engage the sensorium and hence the person in different ways. The word spoken and heard can’t simply be substituted by the written word silently read. For instance, reading silently is an individualizing experience, whereas reading aloud publicly creates an audience. As a former teacher, I am sure that you have seen many times for yourself the different dynamics created by a teacher reading aloud to the class as opposed to a teacher telling the class to look at their textbooks.

  5. quinnjones2 says:

    Thank you, Alastair. Yes, reading aloud to a class creates special dynamics – in fact, in the teaching of foreign languages, it was considered to be bad practice to allow pupils to see the written word before hearing the spoken word, and those who saw ( and spoke ) the written word first almost inevitably pronounced it wrongly! This has started me on a new train of thought about ‘individualism’ – language is ‘communal’ and we need to speak standardized language and to pronounce our words as accurately as we can. We could make up our own words if we wanted and we could pronounce words according to our own preference, but no one would know what we were talking about and we would be very much ‘out of community.’ Maybe I’ve gone off topic here, but I think there is definitely a case for ‘speaking the same language’ and for challenging ways in which we seem not to be speaking the same language – and social media do give a platform for ironing out such differences.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I’ve had one further thought about ‘speaking the same language’ and how it is, of course, appropriate to use specialized language in relevant contexts, though inappropriate to use it in some other contexts. For instance, when teaching lower ability pupils, some of us did not dare to use the word ‘verb’ – the children preferred ‘doing word’. I can also remember a lesson where I thought I had done a reasonable job of explaining how to use pronouns, until a pupil told me eagerly that he’d ‘got it’: Instead of saying ‘The boy sat on the chair’: we have to say ‘The pronoun sat on the chair.’ (This child was not winding me up 🙂 )

    • Thanks for the response.

      The concern to speak the same language is an important one, albeit one to be balanced with other concerns. There are certain contexts, languages, minds, and habits of reading and participation that cannot sustain certain conversations, even if ‘dumbed down’. On such occasions, we may have to abandon talking about certain issues, exclude certain persons, or resign ourselves to conversations that get nowhere.

  6. Does the Internet actually cause the tendencies you and Matt are deploring, or does it merely reveal them? Are we less civil in discourse because technology simply enables what was always lurking beneath the surface?

  7. Paul Baxter says:

    I know you and I have been over this ground before, and I hope you remember that we are of much the same mind on the subject, though I’m sure I’ve given in to tech temptations as much as you have.

    You’ve brought a couple of things to my mind, though. One is just the memory of reading Mark Helprin’s Soldier of the Great War. I hereby recommend said book to all your readers as one of the high water marks of American literature of the past forty years or so. One of the themes of the book is how radically the world was changed by the experience of the first world war. This is brought out most strongly through an character who had been a scribe in a law firm. This man was driven to madness by the advent and general acceptance of the typewriter in both law and general commercial use. He felt that there was an enormous loss to humanity due to the mechanization of writing, removing the humanity and subtlety from the process. This character is comically absurd in the story, but serves to highlight quite pointedly how technology CAN represent the loss of certain aspects of life.

    The other thing you brought to mind, largely just because I have been thinking about it anyway, is the fact that I almost never have a good conversation about books any more. This was something I remember doing at least SOME of in the earlier days of the internet, specifically on some of those old email lists and other antiquated things. One of the great promises of the internet in the late nineties was the promise of eliminating distance (and other inconveniences) and allowing the free discussion of ideas in open and powerful ways. Somehow it seems that the older the internet gets, the less of that there is.

    I don’t know to what extent the internet plays a part in this, but I find myself frequently in a situation where I’m reading a book over lunch or something and someone will ask me about it, then confess that they “don’t really read books.” The US simply isn’t that much of a “book” place today, despite leading the world in publishing the things.

    • Apart from private correspondence and e-mail discussion lists, that is largely my experience too. The more that the Internet becomes organized around publicity, sociality, and speed, the less hospitable it seems to be for such conversations.

      • Paul Baxter says:

        BTW, didn’t you have a post some time back where you promised to take suggestions for books to read and then discuss them here?

      • I did, but, unfortunately, there wasn’t much interest. Nowadays, that is the sort of thing that I will do on Mere Fidelity. I don’t have much time for additional reading at the moment, and would prefer to read my own choices as much as possible.

  8. quinnjones2 says:

    I just your comments above, Paul and Alastair.and I would like to

  9. quinnjones2 says:

    I hit the post button too soon! I have read your comments above, Alastair and Paul and I found them helpful and informative. I would like to add a more general comment about reading. I have not done much reading in recent months, but before that I read a great deal. I have several friends who are book-lovers and we regularly recommended and lent books to each other, and discussed the books informally. One friend sometimes greets me with ‘How are you and what are you reading?’ Amongst our common reading interests are contemplative prayer, psychology and poetry. I have not felt a need to find reading-friends on Twitter in relation to these interest areas ,so I am not in a position to comment on it. Very few of my friends are interested in theology and, as a novice in this respect, I am indebted to you, Alastair, and to a few others on Twitter, because much of what I read on Twitter about theology leaves me feeling like a pilgrim in a barren land – thank you again!

  10. mnpetersen37 says:

    47. Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.-Laudato Si’

    Sounds like Pope Francis agrees with Matt.

  11. whitefrozen says:

    Sometimes the tone on Mere Orthodoxy resembles a refined ‘get off my lawn, you damn kids’.

    While I usually agree that the interenet hasn’t been the greatest thing that could have happened to general discourse, I don’t know how helpful it is to disparage the aspects of speed and generally-less-than-reflective-ness that characterize internet discourse. Rapid-fire responses can be just as and sometimes are more productive as longer, more sustained conversations. And, personally, I don’t really mind such rapid exchanges occurring under a little bit of non-reflective heat – in other words, I’m not adverse to engaging in a rough and tumble and (dare I say) emotional exchange. Virtues can be developed under rapid and ‘unsupervised’ interaction as well as within more reflective contexts.

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