This Street Prophets Coffee Hour is brought to you by Dr. Maryanne Wolf. Today’s article, The New Digital Media, is part 10 of 15 in a series about figuring out just what is going on in American politics. It will be about how we got to where we are now. And hopefully present a story of where we should be going. Along the way we will take a look at Russia, the U.S. 2016 Presidential election, Memes and Fiction, Network Propaganda, soft warfare, and cyberwarfare.
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Dr. Maryanne Wolf in her book, Reader Come Home, presents the case that the shift to digital media we have experienced in the last 20 years is changing how humans learn and integrate knowledge into their minds. She simply states that there are measurable qualitative and quantitative difference between those that learn by traditional reading of books and print media versus those that learn similar things from digital media.
Wolf would like us to see this moment in history as a major event on same the order of magnitude and importance as the shift from non-language to oral language and the shift from oral to written language. Wolf identifies this modern change the shift from print culture to a digital culture.
Her research identifies a number of cognitive changes that children raised on digital media that differ from children raised as “old school” book readers.
A decade after the publication of Proust and the Squid, neuroscientist Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language at Tufts University, returns with an edifying examination of the effects of digital media on the way people read and think. A “researcher of the reading brain,” Wolf draws on the perspectives of neuroscience, literature, and human development to chronicle the changes in the brain that occur when children and adults are immersed in digital media.
Publishers Weekly: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
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The New Digital Media
Before returning to a discussion of Wolf’s book consider Marshall McLuhan famous phrase: “The medium is the message.” I will be bold and say the new digital media transmits conservative values more easily than progressive values.
In the video above Wolf recaps her becoming aware of this major cultural shift while working on her first book Proust and the Squid. Her epiphany, in 2007, would have been about the time of the crossover in the graph below that led to her writing her new book Reader Come Home.
In her books she presents the case that reading is learned and and this learning makes significant changes to brain wiring. Wolf says the human brain was never born to read and each reader creates a new, plastic, reading circuit from older cognitive and linguistic structures. In the video above she illustrates this plasticity by showing English, Chinese, and Japanese brain scan diagrams. As the medium of “reading” and “writing” systems vary, Chinese and Japanese are more visual, so does the brain regions used vary.
In both her books she carefully builds the case that “Deep Reading,” as she calls it, is necessary to sustain the progress humans have made in society. In the video she says, ” Literacy changes the brain, which changes the individual, which changes society, which changes the future of the species.”
“Deep reading is always about *connection*: connecting what we know to what we read, what we read to what we feel, what we feel to what we think, and how we think to how we live out our lives in a connected world.”
Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
Below is a short list of her findings about digital media that may apply to politics. And I want to stress that Wolf supports the following assertion by using multiple “peer reviewed” empirical studies. Over the next year I’m going to be digging deeply into the resources that support these findings.
- Reduces the ability to “Deep Read.”
- Reduces the ability to grasp complexity.
- Skim reading is the new normal.
- Reduces the ability to perceive beauty.
- Diminishes the ability to create insights of our own.
- Reduced ability for critical analysis.
- Reduced ability for empathy. (40% decline in youth over 20 years)
- Less tolerance for alternative viewpoints.
- More susceptibility to false information and demagoguery.
- Greater susceptibility for divisive thinking
Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.
Guardian Article: Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound by Maryanne Wolf
Wolf provides a little glimmer of hope by giving prescriptions to educators on how to modify teaching curriculum to address this issue. The following is from an San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. The author of the review, Sophie Haigney, was disturbed by the book. Haigney had noticed a decline of her own capacity to read.
I read Wolf’s early chapters anxiously, awaiting what she promised would come next: a set of proposed solutions, or at least suggestions that might help salvage the next generation of readers. On an individual level, Wolf’s solutions, like 20-minute reading workouts, can be heartening. She proposes the outlines of a comprehensive plan for raising a young reader today, one that doesn’t banish devices but gradually introduces them. She outlines how we might attempt to treat digital devices and print books as almost two separate languages.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review by Sophie Haigney: 'Reader, Come Home,' by Maryanne Wolf
This series will resume on February 11, 2019 with a discussion of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.