In a recent phase of our five-year qualitative study into a group of 10 - 15 year olds, known as the Amaze Generation, we set out to explore this group's use of and attitudes towards digital technologies and the internet. The results have proved fascinating.
When we questioned the group on their digital habits, we received responses that included:
"I always used to read at night when I was younger but then I got a phone and a laptop so instead of going to read I just go on Facebook or something."
"I only like reading in English lessons when you have to read but I’d rather text people and go on Facebook."
Digital natives from the Amaze Generation seem to have little interest in reading for reading’s sake. Is this because a book requires too much concentration? Or is it that the immediacy of the technology at our fingertips is too appealing? Are we seeing the development of a generation of content snackers?
Much has been written about the way digital is changing our reading habits and many chime with Nicholas Carr’s findings in his book The Shallows. As Carr notes, new technology has always brought a fear of a loss of intellect, and a diminishing of our ability to reason.
Socrates saw the invention of books as an erosion of our ability to remember for ourselves. Readers were putting their trust in the written word rather than their own powers of memory.
Despite Socrates’ protestations, as Maryanne Wolf tells us in Proust and the Squid, the act of reading and learning to read is an amazing cultural invention that requires the use of many areas of the brain. Every individual has to learn to read from scratch, it is not hard wired but the advantages it has given us as a whole and as individuals are immeasurable.
As history rolled on, the new disruptive technologies of printing, radio and TV brought renewed warnings of the potential loss.
Today the internet is the bogie man purported to be ruining our minds, or at least seen to be changing the way we think and our powers of analysis and reasoning. By turning away from the book to the computer screen, the Amaze Generation is following a well-established trend.
The allures of digital content are many: the vast and effectively unlimited amount of content, the ability to link and follow either prescribed routes or self generated journeys, the diversity, the mixtures of media, the currency, the brevity and the depth.
Consumption of content via the internet still requires the employment of existing skills. The reading of a passage on the internet and the reading of the same passage on a printed page still require us to interpret that content through the filter of our own experiences.
The way we read, the skimming and scanning, may result in less retention, and a less critical analysis of the content. But the very act of reading alters our perception and our view of the world is changed.
Likewise with images, still and moving - they are interpreted using skills acquired through the consumption of TV, film, books, photographs and our experiences of the real world. The plasticity of the brain, which as Wolf explains allows us to learn to read in the first place, may also result in the digital generation rewiring their brains to develop new interpretive skills.
But despite Carr’s warnings and the evidence from the Amaze Generation as a whole, book sales and e-book sales are booming.
According to Neilsen BookScan, in 2001 162million books were sold in the UK. In 2011, despite the revolution caused by the Internet, or perhaps because of it, book sales were 229million. In terms of cash, even with the discounting from Amazon and the supermarket chains sales of young adult and children’s fiction doubled over the same period.
The mainstream success of Kindles, the iPad and other e-readers means that digital children’s books sales rose by 171% in the first half of 2012 compared to the same period in 2011.
Society is changing. Getting kids to read (or to read proper books at least) has always been a problem. In the past it was comics, now it is Facebook. There will always be distractions and easier to digest alternatives.
I do not agree with Wolf and Carr, I see the digital generation as a much more literary generation. Not in the traditional sense of the narrow medium of books, but in the wider sense of multi-media. Storytelling is all around them, be it in books, films, YouTube videos, music videos, music, poetry, computer games, Facebook sagas, and the spoken word.
An ability to navigate and interpret this melange of content sources, to take form and give back in kind are fantastic skills. Are we less intelligent than our parents’ generation because of TV, or theirs’ because of radio? Or course not.
Each generation embraces and uses new technologies to empower them and move forward culturally, creatively and intellectually. The digital generation is no different, in many ways they have far greater opportunity and potential than any before them. And at its heart will still be the need to read - be it words or images, and as they grow older, I suspect the Amaze Generation will read the written word more and more.
Tunde Cockshott, creative consultant, Amaze