Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Erosion of Deep Literacy by Adam Garfinkle

Deep literacy (deep reading) is the beginning of legal reasoning and analysis.  If our society losses it in general, what does this mean for the law?

The Erosion of Deep Literacy by Adam Garfinkle.  Excerpts:

"Deep literacy is what happens when a reader engages with an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author's direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows in a dialectical process with the text. The result, with any luck, is a fusion of writer and reader, with the potential to bear original insight."

"Deep literacy has wondrous effects, nurturing our capacity for abstract thought, enabling us to pose and answer difficult questions, empowering our creativity and imagination, and refining our capacity for empathy. It is also generative of successive new insight, as the brain's circuitry for reading recursively builds itself forward. It is and does all these things in part because it touches off a 'revolution in the brain,' meaning that it has distinctive and describable neurophysiological consequences."

"But it is also clear that something else has been lost. Nicholas Carr's 2010 book, The Shallows, begins with the author's irritation at his own truncated attention span for reading. Something neurophysiological is happening to us, he argued, and we don't know what it is. That must be the case, because if there is any law of neurophysiology, it is that the brain wires itself continuously in accordance with its every experience. A decade later, Carr's discomfort is shared by growing legions of frustrated, formerly serious readers."

"In her 2018 book, Reader, Come Home, Wolf uses cognitive neuroscience and developmental psycholinguistics to study the reading brain and literacy development, and in doing so, helps identify what is being lost."

"But beyond the addiction debate, few cognitive scientists doubt that so-called multitasking is merely the ability to get many things done quickly and poorly. And no one doubts that heavy screen use has destroyed attention spans."

"Beyond self-inflicted attention deficits, people who cannot deep read — or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned — typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can't, or don't, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention — what Wolf calls "cognitive patience" — on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it."

"We know that prolonged and repetitive exposure to digital devices changes the way we think and behave in part because it changes us physically. The brain adapts to its environment. The devices clearly can be addictive; indeed, they are designed to be addictive."

"The knock-on issue thus becomes clear: It is hard to sustain the attention necessary for deep reading when we are distracted and exhausted from being both sped up and overloaded."

"A sadder and more troubling knock-on effect also reveals itself: If you do not deep read, you do not cultivate a capacity to think, imagine, and create; you therefore may not realize that anything more satisfying than a video game even exists."

"In science fiction, the typical worry is that machines will become human-like; the more pressing problem now is that, through the thinning out of our interactions, humans are becoming machine-like."

"The skimming and speed-reading in Z or F patterns that is characteristic of surfing the internet — the new norm for many — does not help enable critical content, if there is any, to sink into working memory. As reading method goes, it is the anti-deep; one barely gets wet at all."

"Only in the printed word can complicated truths be rationally conveyed."


Henry Kissinger noted one consequence of this development in the context of strategy:

Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships....A book is a large intellectual construction; you can't hold it all in mind easily or at once. You have to struggle mentally to internalize it. Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up again on the computer. There is no context, no motive. Information is not knowledge. People are not readers but researchers, they float on the surface....This new thinking erases context. It disaggregates everything. All this makes strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve."

"But Kissinger is getting at something else here: namely, the sources of original thought. The deep-reading brain excels at making connections among analogical, inferential, and empathetic modes of reasoning, and knows how to associate them all with accumulated background knowledge. That constellation of sources and connections is what enables not just strategic thinking, but original thinking more broadly. So could it be that the failures of the American political class to fashion useful solutions to public- and foreign-policy challenges turn not just on polarization and hyper-partisanship, but also on the strong possibility that many of these non-deep readers are no longer able to think below the surface tension of a tweet?"

"Absence of thought as a mode of cognition likewise stifles imagination and feeds cultural insularity. Along with the technology-enabled prevalence of mediated interactions as opposed to face-to-face ones, insularity in turn conduces to the narrow "tribal" emotions of identity politics."

"Indeed, our developing the ability to deep read is part of what made us human."

As Hermann Hesse pointed out, "[w]ithout words, without writing, and without books there would be no history," and so "there could be no concept of humanity."

"Deep reading alone creates the possibility of a private internal dialogue with an author not physically present."

"In order for deep reading to exist there also must be deep writing."

"The capacity for abstract reasoning, too, is integral to liberal-democratic politics."

"The decline of deep literacy, combined with the relative rise in status of the superficially educated, may well be the main food stock for the illiberal nationalist forms of the contemporary populist bacillus . . ."

Conclusion: "The phenomenon of deep literacy can be a powerful explanatory factor for a range of theoretical and practical questions. No single factor explains anything entirely when it comes to the spiraling universe of social and political life, and it would be a stretch to claim that any of the above arguments amounts to a proof. But to omit deep literacy from the range of considered variables seems unwise. We should continue to generate new and more interesting questions to pose about deep literacy, and the meaning of its possible erosion, or transformation by novel means, in our own country and beyond."

(Scott Fruehwald)

| Permalink


Post a comment