By Cogito Ergo Sum
Take a train or bus ride on any route in Singapore. Chances are you will notice commuters fidgeting with their mobile devices or with heads wrapped in the various ear buds or headphones.
Occasionally, you do notice the odd passenger reading a book, fully engrossed in its pages.
So, has reading a book become obsolete in this fast changing society? As a sometime itinerant teacher of the craft of journalism, I certainly hope not.
The information onslaught and images on the net, the video explosion, television and computer monitors fed by cable networks and recorders seem to signal the end of the age of the book.
Our fads and fashions, politics and morals, entertainment and leisure time are all shaped by whatever is transmitted or downloaded from the diode or LCD screen. As electronic communication gets developed at an exponential rate, who can say that such arcane skills such as reading, writing and thinking can survive?
One thing is certain. Reading should never die out among today’s youth or those contemplating a higher education. Or, for anybody else, for that matter.
If this ever happens, we would end up with a group of unread young people, transmitting an incomprehensible message to the rest of society.
Reading keeps us alive, relevant and takes us out of our tunnel vision of narrow speciality or biases that come with our own world views. Reading can take us on intriguing journeys of thoughts and processes never before encountered and can never can be emulated by the images on TV, the Net or the phone.
The Net, for all its diversity and plethora of images, merely informs us for the fleeting moment. Don’t get me wrong. I am glad that we have the World Wide Web. I am able to get instant news and be informed of the current trends and am able to transmit what I know via stories and pictures with the speed never imagined before.
And I get the visuals from my cable TV about events that occur thousands of miles away almost instantly.
But it’s not permanent. Switch the computer or TV on and continuously something new pops up on the screen fed by editors and producers who want to tell us what we need to know in order to serve a commercial agenda someone has cooked up. We are not accounted for in that equation.
And we are crammed with a different set of images and words that takes us away on another roller-coaster of events which, more often than not, has absolutely no relevance to any of us.
Nothing is permanent on the electronic screen. With books, on the other hand, when ideas and thought can be written down on a page, they are in effect, stored permanently. We are no longer bound by our own limited insights and experiences or images.
Word centred society
We can draw on the sages, the masters, the thoughts of geniuses, or take a ride into a different historical or geographic dimension that can only happen in the mind of the reader.
Instead of continually starting all over again, we can build on what others have already discovered and written down. Technological, economic and social progress becomes a possibility and reality because we have written records.
Let’s be brutal. The impact of writing and reading can be plainly seen by comparing non-literate cultures, many of which exist on the Stone Age level, with those that have the gift of writing.
The unread tend to exist in static, unchanging states of mind whereas the literate societies tend toward rapid change and technological growth.
Universal education, with reading as the foundation of all studies, has led to the breaking of the class systems, the ability of individual citizens to exercise political power, and a great pooling of minds that would result in technological achievements of the last five hundred years.
It is no exaggeration to say that reading has shaped societies more than almost any other factor and a major impetus to reading has been the thirst and quest for knowledge and progress.
Reading has been essential to our civilisation, yet today its centrality is under attack by the new electronic media. If reading has had vast social and intellectual repercussions, we should wonder about the impact of the new media.
Can democratic institutions survive without a literate, that is, reading populace, or will the new modes of thinking lend themselves to new forms of governance?
Can educational and intellectual progress continue if visual imagery supplants reading, or will the new information technologies, ironically, subvert the scientific thinking that created them, resulting in anti-intellectualism and mass ignorance?
Such issues are critical as a whole, but they are especially urgent for students in colleges and universities who are being nurtured to lead the next generation.
Is it possible for our undergraduates and college students to flourish in a society that no longer values reading, or will the newly dominant electronic graven images lead to new manifestations of the most primitive forms of mass ignorance?
Studies have shown a distinct connection between media and the cultures they have spawned. Word-centred people think completely in a different mode from “image-centred” people. The mental process involved in reading and that in watching images are different.
Reading demands sustained concentration, whereas looking at the computer screen or watching TV cultivates a very short attention span. One promotes logical reasoning, the other purely emotional responses.
Reading fosters continuity, the gradual accumulation of knowledge and sustained exploration of ideas. TV and entertainment websites propagate fragmentation, anti-intellectualism and a craving for instant gratification. They lead to a loss of a sense of history, hostility to science and pleasure centredness.
‘I want it and I want it now’
The new media, while having its uses, directs us to search for “time-compressed experience, short-term relationships”, and present-oriented accomplishment, simple and immediate solutions.
It’s a “I want it and I want it now” culture fundamentally driven by a disbelief in long-term planning, in differed gratification, in the relevance of tradition and in the need for confronting complexity.
The Western social acceptance of sexual immorality, the soaring divorce rates and the pathology of drug abuse may well be related to the pursuit of instant pleasure at all cost.
The untrammelled emotionalism, the isolation and the fragmentation of mind encouraged by the image-driven culture, leads to a dimming of the intellect, subversion of critically thinking and eventually emotional collapse.
Media scholar Neil Postman has warned of “a future in which we have people who are in touch with their feelings, who are spontaneous and musical and who live in an existential world of immediate experience, but who at the same time cannot think in ways we customarily use the word.”
In politics, this is manifested in rational debate of important issues being replaced by “sound bites” media events that can be played on the websites or the evening news. Political campaigns are managed by image consultants and candidates chosen for their charisma and appearance rather than for their ideas and policies.
If a nation’s tradition of freedom and democracy means anything anymore, it is worth pondering over the fact that an easily manipulated population that cares mostly for its own amusement may be more ready for tyranny (that can keep the masses happy with bread circuses) than for the arduous responsibilities of self-government.
(Cogito Ergo Sum is a veteran journalist and teaches journalism…now and then)