It was early Sunday morning and the coffee was good, so we had another cup and lingered over a slice of pumpkin bread.
Not many years ago we would have read the Sunday paper. Comics first, then the headlines and the sports page. On a rainy day, a good novel was always at hand, or a tech journal in earlier years, or even a magazine.
Today we sit with glowing screens and the whole world is at our fingertips, should we choose to reach out. When we do reach out, we don’t often reach very far.
Back when we read the newspaper, we read it through. Maybe not front to back, but we read it all, eventually. We agreed and we disagreed with what we read. Sometimes we were moved by emotion and sometimes to action. There was always something inside that we could use.
Today we do what UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield calls “skim reading,” and multiple studies from San Jose State University tell us that the new normal is a form of word spotting. We read the first sentence and then browse through the rest of the material looking for key words.
When we gather information this way, we fail to develop or to maintain the ability to grasp complexity; we fail to develop empathy with the author or the principle characters and we lose the ability to perceive beauty as it is revealed by the written word.
Research done by Tami Katzir at Haifa University found that damage done by skim reading can show up in children as early as the fourth grade. The advantages of literacy are not transferred genetically – they are gained by the activation of neural pathways. Therefore, for older readers, it’s a matter of “use it or lose it.”
Unfortunately the transfer of the written word is now dominated by short bursts of information found in texts and tweets. Even “lengthy” articles on some of the most popular websites often consist of a column of various tweets pasted between an opening and closing sentence or two.
It doesn’t help the cause of literacy that many of us now only read from sources that agree with our preconceived notions. With a newspaper, we have to make a physical effort to turn the page away from the article that disagrees with us. We can slam a book down on the table. There is a tactile sensation from a magazine. Agree or disagree, we are impacted, influenced, perhaps even challenged, but in pixel reading, a click or a swipe is sufficient to remove the offending thought. The distractions are endless, and the sanctity of our comfort zones is maintained without effort.
For many, however, that safe space is merely a retreat or an attempted escape from accountability, and when comfort becomes tedious for the descendants of hunter gatherers who ride roller coasters and watch horror movies, reality television and nightly news, we need look no farther than social media for a dose of drama. (And drama is very addictive.) Social media, where everyone has an opinion, but few facts; where information is abundant, but truth is scarce.
Don’t get me wrong. There is benefit to be found in social media. Friendships are discovered and maintained; good conversations happen. Family ties are nurtured and loneliness is assuaged. Humor is shared, and ideas, music, and art.
But politics came to nest in social media like rats under the floor of a restaurant, and now we are infested. The rats gnaw through the insulation of our wiring, and the smell gets in everything. It makes people sick, angry and afraid, and misery loves company.
You know it does. How many times have you opened up Facebook to another tragedy, another disaster, an insult, an injustice or an outrage? You know that person, the one who, like the six o’clock news, seems eager to find every bad thing that happens and share it with you. You’ve been that person too, and so have I.
We’ll take this moment to remind ourselves again that we, alone, are the ultimate curators of our experience in life, and that includes social media and everything else that solicits our attention.
Back home, the coffee was cold and the news was all bad. Too many memes had crossed the threshold of consciousness to share the misery and outrage and remind us exactly who was responsible for it. We decided quite abruptly to curate our experience of Sunday.
A peaceful drive through the mountains ensued. We had great conversation over a nice meal, without the benefit of phones. We saw four generations sitting happily at one table and an elderly couple holding hands. We made someone laugh that was having a bad day.
Back home the meadow was alive with honeybees, bumblebees and hummingbirds. Partridge pea, Joe Pye, Ironweed and Jewelweed were in full bloom and the sound of water falling on rocks in the stream was the best kind of music. The breeze from the mountain whispered hints of Fall. Pages turned with every step we took, telling stories mysterious and astonishing. All of it was information we could use.