The world is lost because we've stopped reading books.

I wish I could say the title is sarcastic but after reading a blog post from Margot Bloomstein earlier today it seems like a logical conclusion.

We talk of empathy and experience design in content strategy and beyond, but what if we’re getting it all wrong? If we replace the deep, focused reading of books with the skip-and-scan experience of screens, what’s the cost? I see the impact in my own reading and writing and attention span, and it’s not pretty—even as I feel complicit, as a content strategist working in the broader UX design industry.

I haven’t been able to shake Johann Hari’s perspective on all this since I read this piece yesterday, an excerpt from his new book, Stolen Focus.

From the book:

People understand and remember less of what they absorb on screens. There’s broad scientific evidence for this now, emerging from 54 studies, and she explained that it’s referred to as “screen inferiority.” This gap in understanding between books and screens is big enough that in elementary-school children, it’s the equivalent of two-thirds of a year’s growth in reading comprehension.

For many of us, reading a book is the deepest form of focus we experience—you dedicate many hours of your life, coolly, calmly, to one topic, and allow it to marinate in your mind. This is the medium through which most of the deepest advances in human thought over the past four hundred years have been figured out and explained. And that experience is now in free fall.

Anne Mangen is a professor of literacy at the University of Stavanger in Norway, and she explained to me that in two decades of researching this subject, she has proved something crucial. Reading books trains us to read in a particular way—in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period. Reading from screens, she has discovered, trains us to read in a different way—in a manic skip and jump from one thing to another. “We’re more likely to scan and skim” when we read on screens, her studies have found—we run our eyes rapidly over the information to extract what we need.

As she spoke, I realized that the collapse in reading books is in some ways a symptom of our atrophying attention, and in some ways a cause of it. It’s a spiral—as we began to move from books to screens, we started to lose some of the capacity for the deeper reading that comes from books, and that, in turn, made us less likely to read books.

Margot’s conclusion:

If Marshall McLuhan cautions “the medium is the message,” that the channels in which we consume content change that content, and Douglas Rushkoff warns “program or be programmed,” Johann Hari adds to this canon. As we choose among books and screens, longform writing and terse bits on Twitter, our channels are reprogramming our ability to learn from content—and ultimately, each other.

Back to Hari:

Between 2004 and 2017 the proportion of men reading for pleasure had fallen by 40 percent, while for women, it was down by 29 percent. The opinion-poll company Gallup found that the proportion of Americans who never read a book in any given year tripled between 1978 and 2014. Some 57 percent of Americans now do not read a single book in a typical year. This has escalated to the point that by 2017, the average American spent seventeen minutes a day reading books and 5.4 hours on their phone.

We are so screwed. At this rate I don’s see how we avoid achieving full Idiocracy four hundred years earlier than previously predicted.