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A Societal Shift in Perception Elizabeth Kyi HUMA 024 - Humber College

A SOCIETAL SHIFT IN PERCEPTION

A Societal Shift in Perception A journalist from the Wall Street Journal recently made the claim that one of the great joys of book reading [is] the total immersion in another world (Johnson, 2009). His article is a reflection on the latest advancement in the world of reading, the e-book. He, along with author Nicholas Carr, adheres to the belief that society is in the process of a massive shift in its mode of thinking. What Carr and Johnson argue is that the typical reader no longer enjoys the ability to totally immerse himself in a long and thought-provoking text. It is no longer normal to spend hours concentrating on one thing -- such as reading a book. This inability to focus for long periods of time can be attributed to the numerous text messages, emails, tweets, Facebook alerts, RSS feeds, and blog posts that constantly divert the readers attention. Society is constantly in flux and it has become necessary to multitask in order to keep up with all the forms of communication now available. As a result of this influx of technology, we have transformed the way we read in an attempt to adapt to new media. Marshall McLuhan, in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, first introduced his theory claiming that the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964). In other words, the communications medium we consume alters our actions and perceptions. Although most communications scholars were analyzing the content of messages, McLuhan chose to focus his attention on the medium through which those messages were sent. It was his belief that a prominent communication medium conditions the brain to adapt to the new technology. We become blind to the effect the technology has on us because patterns of perception [change] steadily and without any resistance (McLuhan, 1964). Johnson and Carr draw on McLuhans theory by acknowledging the change in reading tendencies today and directly attributing the shift to modern technology. Johnson claims that the deep immersion of thought into the printed pages

A SOCIETAL SHIFT IN PERCEPTION

of books is significantly altered by e-readers (Johnson, 2009). Similarly, Carr blames the internet for the shortened attention span of modern readers and their newfound inability to focus on long volumes of writing (Carr, 2011). McLuhans theory encompasses both views by recognizing that all perceptions and habits eventually endure a shift as a result of new forms of media. Evidently, all three thinkers link cultural shifts to modern communications technology. When books were the most prominent source for information gathering, the mind was linear; thought processes followed a long, straight path as they studied the words on a page. A seasoned academic could consume Tolstoys 1000 page tome with relative enjoyment and ease. Todays student, on the other hand, is bombarded with an abundance of advertisements vying for attention, desperately trying to catch the eye of the reader. As a result, our brains are trained to seek excitement, and can no longer focus on a constant and unchanging stream of text. We have subconsciously been trained to think in multidirectional ways. In the words of Nicholas Carr, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts (Carr, 2011). The process of research is a perfect example. In the age of print, research involved hours of deeply reading entire books to find and understand relevant information. In contrast, the digital age has introduced a method of research that involves skimming multitudes of articles and pages online, all of which are embedded with highlighted hyperlinks that lead the researcher to other relevant sources. Therefore, instead of deeply reading one source, we could skim hundreds of sources in the same amount of time. Another confirmation of our change in reading style can be found in the change the field of advertising has undergone. The first commercial advertisements consisted of a full page of uninterrupted copy. The objective was informative and the companies sought to teach their

A SOCIETAL SHIFT IN PERCEPTION

readers about the product being sold. Modern advertisements contain little to no text. Instead, they feature a large and eye-catching image or graphic with only as much text as is necessary to identify the brand. The switch of advertisements from being reading intensive to requiring only a casual glance is exemplary of societys shortened attention span. An old style advertisement would not be successful today because few would bother to read all the text on the page. Not only do new media affect the way we read, but they affect how we write. In other words, they affect how we produce material for others to read. The anecdote about Nietzsches adoption of the typewriter is paradigmatic of this phenomenon. Once Nietzsche began writing with a typewriter as opposed to a pen and paper, a close friend noticed that his writing style had become more abrupt and mechanistic. The philosopher had subconsciously adjusted his writing style to mimic the style of the typewriter. There is a proliferation of more modern examples as well. Perhaps the most obvious is Twitter. The social network allows its users no more than 140 characters to express their thoughts. Therefore, tweeters are forced to condense their language. A similar effect is caused by texting and instant messaging. Because these forms of communication are usually desirous of an immediate response, they are often more brief and concise than an email or letter would be. Blogs also represent the shift in writing style that accompanies the internet. In the past, someone had to write a book to have their views heard by the masses. They had to spend years drafting and editing in order to have it published. The length and difficulty of the process promoted a desire for perfection. In contrast, the communications technology of today allows users to publish a blog post that could potentially reach a worldwide audience in a matter of seconds. The posts can be removed or edited with minimal effort and thus, the refinement of the writing is not as important. Naturally, the informal process of blogging produces a more casual

A SOCIETAL SHIFT IN PERCEPTION

writing style. The result is that we learn to write and read in a conversational tone. The invention of blogging has changed the way our culture produces and takes in information. Nicholas Carr argues that with the appearance of these new high speed and multi functioning technologies comes our adaptation to them and consequently, the loss of our ability to exercise the deep reading we used to do. He talks about the loss of this ability in his book The Shallows when he writes, Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski (Carr, 2011). His metaphorical comparison illustrates the difference between the old style of information intake versus the new. Carr laments his loss of ability to engage in deep reading, reflecting on the fact that he is not able to focus on a lengthy piece of writing without finding distractions. This feeling, I imagine, is not unique to Carr, evidenced by the amount of people surfing the net or texting with their books open at the library. However, perhaps this kind of change, rather than being a disappointment or tragedy, is simply inevitable. In a world that is constantly inventing something new, society cannot resist evolving with it. The change we are currently experiencing is not the first of its kind and not likely to be the last. The printed book demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object (Carr 2011). There is very little else that would require that sort of deep and quiet reflection. Therefore, with the coming of the book, society would have undergone a change in thought process, just as we are now. According to Carr, readers had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them (Carr, 2011). The rise of silent reading brought about the style of learning we know today, involving readings that precede lectures. It also brought about the library format we are familiar with that incorporates individual desks and noise restrictions. These learning methods would not have existed prior to the invention of the book. It is likely the

A SOCIETAL SHIFT IN PERCEPTION

case that many people condemned the silencing of reading as many today criticize the internet. Just as people living during the rise of the book might lament the loss of a learning framework based on orality, people today claim the internet causes a dumbing down of society. As we abandon the focused and uninterrupted reading that used to be commonplace, we become a multitasking society, thriving in an ever-evolving world in which these shifts of cultural perception are inevitable. In conclusion, the way we read is enduring an inevitable change as a result of the progression of communications technology. Marshall McLuhan outlines the reason these shifts occur with his theory, typified by the common phrase: the medium is the message. He acknowledges the perceptual changes we experience individually and as a society in response to the media technology we consume. The change in reading tendencies can be exemplified by current methods of research. Our newfound tendency to skim information and bounce from source to source while executing research differs greatly from the old techniques that required long and involved reading of large books. By extension, society has also adopted a new style of writing inspired by text messaging, twitter, and blogging that is succinct and conversational. Though many people lament the loss of deep reading, time might be spent more usefully by accepting and harnessing the ever changing nature of our modern society. Reference List Carr, Nicholas (2011). The Shallows. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Johnson, Steven (2009, April 20). How the e-book will change the way we read and write. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123980920727621353. html McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media; the extensions of man. New York: McGrawHill.