Re-posted here from Medium for my own archives. Feel free to ignore.
I don’t know how many books I read last year. I probably could find out if I wanted to but I don’t particularly care. It isn’t important.
What I do know is that I read a lot of interesting and thought-provoking writing. I watched videos that changed my mind and my approaches to life. I listened to podcasts and other media that taught me new skills and opened up new perspectives. I learned. I discovered. I like to think that I’m a better person now than I was a year ago. Books, for the most part, weren’t involved.
Which gets me to the heart of my problem with Hugh McGuire’s “Why can’t we read anymore?”. It never questions whether it’s worth it. It never questions whether enacting the digital equivalent of hairshirt ascetism in order to read more books is worth the effort. It takes the moral judgement of the cultural elite as fact. It never asks whether the value a book gives you equals that of the social media and websites that you’re giving up. It just takes that as a given.
Most of what follows isn’t strictly speaking a response to Hugh’s piece. (Apologies, Hugh!) He is writing about his own habits in a constructive effort to improve his life, which is cool. However, his rhetoric and line of reasoning echo a strain of anti-digital elitism that I’d like to pick at. It’s a strain of bildungsphilister that is pervasive in publishing circles and sees books as an unalloyed good and social media as a corruption.
(I’m not going to link to those tracts. I’m linking to Hugh because I like him and agree with him on most other things. Just not in this particular case.)
O tempora! O mores!
The very least we can do is acknowledge the possibility that this worldview— books good, social media bad — may not be universally applicable. That the reason why many (not everybody, but definitely many) now read fewer books is that the web, social media, and apps give them more value, provide a better experience, and just generally have a bigger — more positive — effect on their life than books would.
For almost every adult reader, a website that couples text, video, and exercises is a better way to learn than reading a book. (Both trumped, of course, by having an actual mentor who both knows the subject and how to be a good mentor.) And the website remains better than a ‘enhanced’ ebook because it doesn’t have to be structured linearly, in chapters, or mimic the printed format in any way.
For almost every thinking voter, mid-length articles and commentary are more informative and more thought-provoking than books on the same subject.
And don’t try and sell me the idea that books can present more complex ideas or break free from the echo-chamber. Most ‘thinking’ books are padded to hell. Besides, nobody buys a book of political commentary unless they think it’s likely they will agree with it beforehand.
More importantly, once you become savvy to the craziness native to social media (which is everybody who practices social media regularly for more than a year or two), it becomes an excellent source of a low-level understanding about important events in other countries and places. I wouldn’t have a clue about what was going on in Baltimore at the moment if it weren’t for online activists posting information on Twitter and Tumblr. And Twitter brought to me this excellent interview with David Simon on the roots of Baltimore’s problems. The empathic awareness of the root and context of the important problems of our day that social media enables is impossible to do in a book.
All of this is assuming that people are curious, open-minded, and interested in learning, but if they aren’t there’s nothing books can offer that will fix it.
And if you’re in the habit of ignoring the people around you, don’t blame your tools.
That isn’t to say that social media has no downside. It definitely increases your exposure to idiocy and your vulnerability to abuse and harassment. But, just because one or two social platforms fail to address those problems, that isn’t a reason to abandon the ideas of the web, social media, or apps in their entirety.
The neuroscience sidebar
From Hugh’s piece:
So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh, dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.
This piece in general isn’t directed towards Hugh’s post but I always get a bit twitchy when people bring neuroscience into a sociocultural debate.
(I may be a bit touchy on this specific issue since dopamine production is at the heart of Parkinson’s, which my grandfather died of, so YMMV.)
Other people have covered dopamine myths better than I ever can, but here are some highlights.
- Dopamine doesn’t seem to have anything to do with pleasure, enjoyment, or liking things. Mice unable to produce dopamine still seem to enjoy their sugared water.
- Dopamine seems to be involved in the learning process and seems to kick in when you expect to learn something new or rewarding.
- Dopamine seems to kick in more strongly when the rewards are less predictable.
- Dopamine seems to play a key role in motivation or feeling the need to do something, which explains why it’s so often brought up in ‘I’m addicted to the internet’ pieces.
So, at face value it might seem plausible that excess dopamine compels us to check social media even though we don’t enjoy it.
The problem with this kind of pearl-clutching is that the brain simply does not work that way. You simply cannot boil complex behaviour down to a single neurotransmitter or a single centre of the brain, especially not behaviours as complex as social communication, language, or social interaction. The brain is a complex system of interacting clusters and chemicals of various sorts that involve the body, our senses, and our environment in ways that we still don’t fully understand.
Blaming our behaviours on dopamine or the neurotransmitter du jour is insulting to us because it removes our agency. It assumes that the only reason we continue to engage with the web and social media is because we feel compelled to do so by a chemical — that we are not responsible for the decisions that take us to the web. Unfortunately for this line of rhetoric, we are not slaves to our hormones or our neurotransmitters. If you do something you do not like, you have only yourself to blame and need to take it up with your therapist. Do not blame a wayward chemical.
There is a famous study of rats, wired up with electrodes on their brains. When the rats press a lever, a little charge gets released in part of their brain that stimulates dopamine release. A pleasure lever.
Given a choice between food and dopamine, they’ll take the dopamine, often up to the point of exhaustion and starvation. They’ll take the dopamine over sex. Some studies see the rats pressing the dopamine lever 700 times in an hour.
We do the same things with our email. Refresh. Refresh.
He’s referring to this 1954 study.
This particular comparison, that a person’s email habit is like that of a rat stimulating electrodes in its brain, is bullshit for a variety of reasons.
- There is no such thing as a ‘dopamine centre’ in the brain. A part that stimulates dopamine release has a multiplicity of roles. Stimulating it is a brute force activation of a set of complex interlocking systems. It is not the controlled release of a single neurotransmitter.
- That a rat with no alternate form of stimulation would resort to pushing a lever that stimulates its brain artificially tells us nothing about human behaviour. It doesn’t even tell us anything about rat behaviour since we don’t know if it would make the same choices if it had a healthier alternative source of stimulation.
- It assumes that the choices we have made in the past have little to no bearing on where we are today, that unless we resort to guilt-driven self-discipline and asceticism, the attraction of ‘dopamine’ rewarders like social media or the web is literally irresistible.
We do not behave like rats in a cage. Hell, rats in general don’t behave like rats in a cage. And, again, drawing conclusions about human behaviour in general based on a specific study of rats with electrodes in specific parts of their brains is dodgy at best.
(Another thing about trade publishing — the lot responsible for the books Hugh is writing about and hoping to read more of: they are incredibly bad at accurately representing current scientific research.)
Veering away from Hugh’s post, back into the main topic
Instead of assuming that we only engage in social media because we can’t help ourselves, what about assuming that we use it because we like it?
After all, it’s plausible that an animal as social as the human being would prefer social interaction over a cognitively tasking solitary activity with dubious rewards, even to the degree of preferring bad social interactions over the alternative.
That’s actually very plausible.
Just because we dislike some parts of Twitter, to use a minority platform as an example, that doesn’t prevent us from liking the rest of it, enjoying it so much that we hang on in the hopes that it will improve, rather than to give it up. We can like something and dislike it, both at the same time. We’re complicated like that.
Why don’t we start with the assumption that social media and the web are taking over because people actually enjoy them and go from there? People generally like people and having them on tap in a context that you can turn on and off at will just increases the attraction and utility. Why isn’t the onus on those who want to promote book reading to show that books are more enjoyable, more useful, and more relevant than social media, apps, and the web?
Because they generally aren’t, that’s why. Because most people in publishing are beset by the horrifying suspicion that books simply aren’t competitive with other media, that’s why. They know they’d lose that argument. For your average consumer, books are a worse learning environment, less fun, less rewarding, and less relevant to their day to day lives than almost any other alternative.
The implication is that if we don’t guilt or scare people out of social media and into reading books, they will overwhelmingly choose not to read books.
Which is probably true. With good reason.
The sheer variety boggles
Books are predominantly neurotypical, straight, white, male, and middle-class. Most people aren’t. The publishing industry responsible for making books is incredibly homogenous.
Social media gives us direct access to people who are like us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re queer, on the spectrum, a person of colour, female, or poor, you are much more likely to find your experience, your life, your needs represented and addressed in social media and on the web than in books.
Most people have a pretty good reason for not reading more books. The books we publish aren’t for them, but by and for a bunch of middle-class white men who think their tastes should rule the world.
If you don’t fit into a shape that publishing assumes represents all of humanity, the books that speak directly to you are relegated to a segregated ghetto of either a tiny selection of titles intended for your particular ‘minority’ or titles that have that ever so pervasive aftertaste of bitter moral panic.
After all, if publishing started to represent us and people like us, then we might start thinking that we’re normal. And that wouldn’t be good for society now would it?
Don’t fix people, fix books
If you think that book reading should be a mainstream activity, one that’s performed by a majority of the population, then you don’t accomplish that by assuming that everybody is broken and needs to be fixed.
Don’t assume that social media has no real world value.
Don’t assume that the web is inherently inferior to books.
Don’t try to guilt people into abandoning media that has enriched their lives and broadened their horizons more than books ever could.
Don’t blame it on a neurochemical.
Whatever you do, for Christ’s sake don’t slap a bunch of animations, video, and crap scroll-jacking effects on your ebooks and call it a day.
Instead we need to fix books. And fixing them isn’t a question of technology. Otherwise they’d already be fixed.
Fixing book means making them truly diverse. It means making both the people who write books and those who publish them more diverse.
Fixing books means making them more immediate and quicker to publish.
Fixing books means making the industry around it less conservative and less reactionary.
Fixing books means making them more accessible — not just in terms of screen-reading but also in terms of their writing and design.
Fixing books means not marginalising the magnificent plurality of the English language. It means publishing books in all of the various Englishes in all of their class, race, regional, and national varieties.
Why don’t people read more books? Because most books aren’t for them.
If we want people to read more books we need to make books for them. Until publishing does, we in publishing have no right to complain.