The Rise of Digital Technologies and the Decline of Reading

It seems we’ve come to a time in history when there’s no problem we won’t blame on technology. Digital technology is ruining our attention spans and social skills, it’s destroying our memories and displacing our hobbies, it’s demolishing the way we see the world and downgrading the way we interact with one another. We are slaves to our screens, to our ever-present glowing rectangles. They threaten everything that’s precious to us. Or that’s the narrative we hear again and again.

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The latest casualty of our digital technologies is reading. Many people have expressed how there was once a time when they loved to read, but today they find it grueling. There was once a time reading came easy, but now it seems to be hard. The difference, they say, is all these new technologies. So it must be technology’s fault, right?

Maybe. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Let me offer a few thoughts on the rise of digital technologies and the decline of reading.

Replacement is better than displacement. Digital technologies are at times displacing and at times replacing our reading, and it’s displacement that should concern us more. In many ways YouTube with its endless selection of videos and Facebook with its ever-scrolling timeline has displaced reading. It has pushed out reading good material and, in its place, given us mindless content, articles, and videos that, though entertaining, are vacuous. Yet in other ways our digital technologies have offered good replacements for our reading. There was a time we might buy a book about home improvement or read a guide to photography. Today we can turn to YouTube tutorials that may be far superior to any of those books. There was a time we had to read a commentary on Romans to learn Romans, but now we can watch a lecture or sermon series on it. We’ve learned that other forms of media are sometimes superior to books, and this kind of replacement represents gain, not loss.

We are in a time of adaptation. Last week I visited the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, and was reminded again that the printing press was a technology that transformed the world. It transformed the way people encountered, consumed, taught, and spread information. In other words, it transformed nearly everything. While today we look at books and printing presses as near-perfect technologies, we forget that they were at first regarded with fear and suspicion. We forget that the late 15th and early 16th centuries were a time of adaptation in which society learned how to use these new technologies well. We are now in a similar period of adaptation in which it is up to us to learn how to use digital technologies with excellence. That responsibility falls on our society, on our churches, and on our families. I have every confidence that we will learn quickly and learn well.

We need authors and publishers to step up. While I am convinced that blogs, YouTube videos, and other digital platforms are useful, I’m also convinced there is and always will be a unique place for books. For authors, books represent the opportunity to encounter deep thought, thorough research, and edited writing. In this way they will always have a measure of superiority over many other forms of media. Yet, there is nothing inherently good or superior about 180 sheets of paper slapped between two covers. To the contrary, we are drowning in mediocre books. We have authors and publishers—even Christian ones—who churn out mountains of mediocre books (and don’t think I’m necessarily exempting myself from this). If they want to compete with the easy, compelling, and free content available online, they’re going to need to step up and ensure they are publishing material of the highest quality. You can’t be surprised when bland books can’t hold their own against excellent videos or outstanding podcasts. Perhaps in this way the Internet offers a challenge that will help improve the quality of our books.

Read with discipline. The rise of digital technologies (as with the rise of television before it) has proven that much of our former obsession with reading was based on necessity rather than desire. We read because we did not have many alternatives. Today, though, we have more alternatives than ever. Some people are learning that their love of reading was really just a love of filling their time. With so many fun and convenient ways to fill our time, we may need to regard reading as a discipline. We will need to reaffirm our belief in the value of reading and exercise self-control to ensure we make time for it. Rather than grumbling about the encroachment of Facebook and YouTube, we should realize the fault is ours and plan out how, when, and what we will read for the benefit of our minds and the improvement of our souls.

There is no doubt that digital technologies have changed our world and no doubt they will continue to do so. There is no doubt that such technologies make a convenient scapegoat for our problems. There is no doubt we can live and thrive in a world shared by books and such technologies.