'A few years ago, I noticed that I really enjoyed reading on airplanes and wondered why. After a bit of reflection, I realized that it was because I wasn’t distracted by the temptation to check a device every now and then, allowing reading to be the kind of immersive experience I once took for granted.
Now I make a point of semi-disconnecting every night, sitting down with a novel and a glass of wine, with my computer and phone out of reach. I try to do the same thing when I’m reading for work instead of pleasure, setting my devices aside so that I can read deeply and really think about things, but it’s always a struggle. And I don’t think that I’m alone.
I’m not suggesting something as simplistic as books good, Internet bad. There’s nothing inherently good about books as such – Das Kapital and Mein Kampf are both books with murderous consequences, and books that obviously did nothing to improve their readers’ critical thinking abilities.
But the capacity for deep reading and deep thinking is a valuable one, and one that is being tossed aside for no particular reason. As Fulford notes, “Universities report that students now avoid signing on for classes in 19th century literature. They realize they can no longer work through Dickens or George Eliot.”
In his classic The System of Freedom of Expression, Yale First Amendment scholar Thomas Emerson wrote:
Freedom of expression is an essential process for examining knowledge and discovering truth. An individual who seeks knowledge and truth must hear all sides of the question, consider all alternatives, test his judgment by exposing it to opposition, and make full use of different minds.
The kind of deep, wide ranging, multipolar community debate that Emerson envisioned as key to our system of freedom of expression is at odds with the surface skimming, tribal, catch phrase-based nature of social media.
It’s unfortunate that social media not only makes such debate more difficult on its platforms, but also, it seems, rewires people’s brains in such a fashion as to make such debate more difficult everywhere else. It is made worse by the fact that Twitter in particular seems to be most heavily used by the very people – pundits, political journalists, the intelligentsia – most vital to the sort of debate that Emerson saw as essential.
In fact, the corruption of the political/intellectual class by social media is particularly serious, since their descent into thoughtless polarization can then spread to the rest of the population, even that large part that doesn’t use social media itself, through traditional channels.'
Read more: Toxic technology: How social media is making us dumb, angry — and addicted