Skip to content ↓

The Rise of Digital Technologies and the Decline of Reading

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.

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.

You can’t be surprised when bland books can’t hold their own against excellent videos or outstanding podcasts.

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.

  • Free Stuff Fridays (Help The Persecuted)

    This weeks giveaway is sponsored by Help The Persecuted. Help The Persecuted rescues, restores, and rebuilds the lives of persecuted believers in the Islamic World through spiritual support and tangible help. Every week, they send out an email with specific, real-time prayer requests of persecuted believers to their global Prayer Network. You can join the…

  • A La Carte Friday 2

    A La Carte (March 1)

    A La Carte: Rumblings of revival among Gen Z / Addition by subtraction / Seeing red / Burying the talents of the Great Rewarder / Inviting evaluation of your preaching / Book and Kindle deals / and more.

  • New and Notable Books

    New and Notable Christian Books for February 2024

    February is typically a solid month for book releases, and this February was no exception. As the month drew to its close, I sorted through the many (many!) books that came my way this month and arrived at this list of new and notables. In each case, I’ve provided the editorial description to give you…

  • A La Carte Thursday 1

    A La Carte (February 29)

    A La Carte: Is it ever right to lie? / When the “perfect” fit isn’t / An open letter to Christians who doubt / When a baby is a disease / The long view of preaching / and more.

  • A Freak of Nature (and Nurture)

    A Freak of Nature (and Nurture)

    We are probably so accustomed to seeing bonsai trees that we don’t think much about them. But have you ever paused to consider how strange and freakish they really are?

  • A La Carte Collection cover image

    A La Carte (February 28)

    A La Carte: Can Christians buy expensive things? / You are probably WEIRDER than you think / Our limits are a gift from God / Big dreams impress. Ordinary faithfulness delivers / The biggest problem in worship education / Children’s books / and more.