The Effects of Technology on Reading and Writing

My credentials are progressive—in 1952, I stood in line all night to meet presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson in an auditorium in Cambridge, Massachusetts—so I am surprised to find myself a Luddite, one of those nineteenth century people who opposed industrialization and, by extension, any new technology. Of course, I am exaggerating: I embrace the research potential of the Internet and the convenience of email. What I am suggesting is that I miss human, personal, one-on-one communication—the sort, for example, that brings a love letter via the post office.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that interacted enthusiastically, especially over supper, about ideas, books, music, politics, sports, movies, and games. Our parents encouraged the three of us sisters to join in these exchanges, to learn to converse, to communicate clearly, and, above all, to look one’s interlocutor in the eye. Our President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, did not twitter; he regularly spoke to us over the radio (our single contact with the outside world), confidingly and comfortingly, from 1933, in the Depression, to 1944, toward the end of World War II.

Today, I am worried about the way communication has changed and the way those changes affect writing skills. I am illiterate in terms of Digital-speak (my newly coined term is meant to remind my reader of Orwell’s Newspeak). I never engage in social media, nor do I ever find anyone in a waiting room reading a book. People seem absorbed with their IPhones. On our campus, students, ear phones in, do not see me pass. It is all very well for Thoreau to counsel, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away;” he only stuck it out in Walden for two years before moving back to the livelier society of Concord.

Gratifyingly, I discover that I am not alone. A day does not pass that I do not see signs that others are fearful of Digital-speak, too, and seek human interaction. In a few weeks, I collected the following evidence:

  • In Michiko Kakutani’s NYT review [12/6/16] of David Sax’s book, The Revenge of Analog, she quotes him as saying, “The more time we spend in the digital world of clicks and taps and swipes, the more people have begun to recognize the value of face-to-face interactions.”
  • In his NYT column [12/30/16], David Brooks calls attention to an essay by Andrew Sullivan, who writes, “Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction, I was not involved in a human encounter.”
  • John Williams reviews Eva Hoffman’s new self-help book [1/9/17], which “explores the challenges posed by excess options and digital stimuli.”
  • In her health column in the NYT [1/10/17], Jane Brody urges her readers to curb their “digital dependence.”
  • The sidebar in a Thomas L. Friedman’s NYT op-ed [1/11/17] warns: “Our lives have gone digital. Be careful.”

From these fragments, I extrapolate the argument that Digital-speak, in addition to lessening face-to-face encounters, has prompted a decrease in reading books and a lack of dependence on literature. I believe these phenomena may have affected some writers and separated them as readers from close, emotional relationships with literary characters. They have deprived some writers of living vicariously through classic literary experiences: for example, learning that Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch has decided to marry Mr. Casaubon (“Dorothea!” I say silently to her: “Don’t do it!”) or that Isabel Archer plans to marry Gilbert Osmond in Portrait of a Lady (“Isabel!” I plead, “Stop and think!”) or that Elizabeth Bennett has shut Darcy out of her life in Pride and Prejudice (“Lizzy, give him a break, please!”) These experiences from reading novels contribute significantly to a writer’s understanding of human nature and provide a valuable frame of reference.

A few days ago, Nicholas Kristof commended literature and the humanities in his NYT op-ed piece (3/30/17): “The arts humanize us and promote empathy.” The human condition, and its vital elements of communication and compassion, are easily accessible to writers without their needing to go online.


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