This Is Your Brain on the Internet

I have no “In” tray on my desk, and aside from the PDFs I print out to read offline, I don’t let much paper stack up around my work area. But every day when I get to work, my Google Reader, now holding just under 100 subscriptions after a recent purge, screams at me. Read me! Now! There is new information! It is demanding, insistent, bullying.

I have three email addresses that I check constantly, two of which receive numerous e-newsletters. I have a Facebook inbox. I have text messages on my Blackberry. Along the side of my computer screen, I run Google Desktop’s RSS reader gadget and its news gadget, both of which update every few minutes. In the kitchen at the office, cable news chatters away for hours. At home, magazines pile up on my bookshelf. People send me links through instant message throughout the day, expecting response and commentary.

Most days of the week, I read nearly all day. Yet I never, ever manage to get to it all, or even to most of it. It’s a daily battle, and I always, always lose.

Stephanie Zacharek, Salon’s brilliant, underappreciated film critic, wrote about this a few years back:

Skimming is the new reading. As newspapers scramble to hold onto their dwindling audience, magazines shrink the size of their articles down to caption size (or replace them altogether with “charticles”) and bloggers compete to capture whatever shards remain of our already fragmented attention, one thing is clear: The act of reading — of hunkering down and focusing on one piece of writing at a time, all the way through — is quickly becoming a luxury we can’t afford, at least not if we’re pretending to fight that losing — and increasingly pointless — battle known as “keeping up.

That doesn’t stop many of us from trying. We read, and we read frantically. And we type back just as frantically, and click forward, one post, one article, one comment at a time.

It’s information gorging.

I am always slightly confused when I hear warnings about the death of reading. I know that I and many of the people I know are outliers in our reading habits, but this still strikes me as somewhat insane.

And there’s a flip side too. What about the producers? Sure, a lot of what we read is written by journalists, academics, wonks, and nerds who by most standards live very leisurely lives. On the other hand, it increasingly feels – to me at least, and to a few others with whom I’ve mentioned this – that online journalism is becoming a contest to simply see who can produce the most copy each day. That’s not to say that this always means boring material; there are a good handful of bloggers who consistently produce a couple thousand words of interesting ideas and arguments every single day.

But this is a very new thing. Isaac Asimov, for example, was one of the most prolific writers in history. After he died, his wife found a note he’d written:

Over a space of 40 years, I sold
An item every ten days on the average.
Over the space of the second 20 years, I dold
An item every six days on the average.
Over a space of 40 years, I published
an average of 1,000 words a day.
Over the space of the second 20 years, I published
An average of 1,700 words a day.

Now, there are any number of writers who produce this much or more on a regular basis. Is this sustainable? The infoglut will go on, no doubt – the exaflood is coming! – but how long can most people really do this? Reading and writing and thinking at the speed of skim, typing before thinking. Can this frantic, frenetic pace last? Will technology continue to deliver more information, faster, in more places? Will Apple release an iBrain, streaming RSS feeds directly into our cerebral cortexes? Will our very thoughts be overtaken by the yammering minds of a thousand others, broadcasting their every synaptic impulse via an impenetrable haze of connections? And if so, will we become lost in the din, literally unable to hear ourselves think?