If you ask someone in primary school what they want to be when they grow up, it’s likely that their answer will be “a Youtuber”.
You can read all sorts of negative things into this. It could be something to be concerned about.
Or, you could think that there might be something about this Youtube thing. In the past hundred years or more, each generation has grown up in quite a different technological, social, economic, and demographic environment to the generation before. On the whole, each generation tends to be quite adaptive to the environment in which they’ve grown up. I’m not saying this is the case, but I try to look for counterarguments like this, even if it’s not intuitive.
On this note, I sometimes read an article where the author talks about fascinating things, but comes to entirely different conclusions to me.
A case in point is Michael Harris’ Globe and Mail article from 2018, “I have forgotten how to read”. This article changed the way I think about the written word, but in the opposite way in which it was intended.
Harris seems to lament the new media age. Instead of “Beauty in, beauty out”, we now get “Garbage in, garbage out”. He says, “My attention – and thus my experience – fractures.” And he adds: “A cynical style of reading gives way to a cynical style of writing.”
Harris quotes Clay Shirky, suggesting “that we’ve lately been ‘emptily praising’ Tolstoy and Proust. Those old, solitary experiences with literature were ‘just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.’”
I think Harris is trying to dispute Shirky’s point, but in a sense, he makes the argument for Shirky just as strongly.
Harris discusses research that I find convincing:
“The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn’t surprise us. We should… marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never “natural.” Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.)”
He states: “Our habits of reading could easily become antiquated.”
Or should that be “will”?
In the same way that our reading habits evolved to the previous environment, doesn’t it seem inevitable that our reading habits – or more broadly, our media consumption habits – will evolve to match the new environment?
Harris says: “digital native brains do engage in concretely different ways from those of previous generations. Spend 10 hours a day staring at screens and – yes – your synapses will adapt.”
Adaptiveness is one of the characteristics that have made human beings thrive.
TV is a new medium, in the scheme of things. User-created content like we see on Youtube is much newer. It’s only in recent years that the means of producing content of this nature have been truly democratised.
Maybe audio and video are better designed for some purposes than writing?
Maybe the reason different forms of communication have taken off is because they offer benefits that text do not.
Maybe they have cons. But they also have benefits.
Audio and video are often easier to consume. They are often more emotionally resonant. People remember video and audio. It allows people to convey personality (for better or worse). (Over time, it will probably magnify the value/perceived importance of some traits such as attractiveness. Enter second- and third-order effects, like the increasing normalisation of cosmetic surgery, etc.)
Reading won’t disappear. Deep reading will continue to be important. But we need to think of it as a complement to other forms of consuming media.
Reading will always have advantages to video or audio. It’s easier to skim the written word. It’s easier to search (and although I think innovations in video and audio aren’t far off, the mediums will still be less accessible).
Reading is also more in line with actual deep thinking. There’s nothing quite like sitting down with something that is printed, with a pen or pencil, and drawing your own notes, brainstorming, and the like. Call me a Luddite, but I can’t come up with a replacement.
Reading is also easier to create than audio and video. To make something that’s good to consume on audio or video, there’s a lot more work.
I think there will be a place for the written word. I also believe that people who deep read will have a competitive advantage in the world at large.
But video is here to stay. Youtube and other forms of visual communication will only become more important. Instead of lamenting this, we might as well accept and embrace it, both as consumers and producers of content.