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March 15, 2012 / Robert Ross


Last fall purchased an electronic reader. A nook color from Barnes and Noble. I had resisted for a while, after all, you can’t turn the pages. One of the reasons (justifications/rationalizations) was it might be a novel way to engage the kids with reading. In reality, I decided I just wanted it! Isn’t that enough?

For some reason, this process got me ruminating about what it was about reading that I really enjoyed. The storyline that transports you to another world or takes you on an adventure was first level thinking. The chance to learn about things outside my usual path, or along it for that matter, was another.  When you have a 9 year old who seems to resist reading, you have these thoughts. This started me thinking about why? And for that matter, why didn’t I read as much as I used to. Even in college with a full load I somehow managed to find some time to unwind with a book.

Then reality hit. The TV, the computer, smartphones, Facebook, blogs, and a myriad of other intrusions into our daily lives that didn’t exist when I was learning to read.  The 24 hour cartoon/news channels, computer games, wii, x-box, nintendo DS. On demand programming! All of these distract and somehow give us permission to buy into the myth of multitasking. And it is a myth.

When I was young I read ….a lot. I remember being able to sit in a room full of family with the TV going and intensely reading a book. I had the capacity to tune everything out and focus specifically on the storyline held in hand,  oblivious to everything around me. My mind was fully engaged with the task of visualizing what I was reading. Reading is perhaps the best training tool for the brain. It allows you to develop your capacity to focus. Video game marketers will claim that for their products as well, but I would argue that the creative effort of taking an author’s words and mentally “seeing” the story a much greater exercise.

Today I have friends and colleagues who consider multiple screens at their workstation a necessity. Personally I can’t direct my eyes …or my brain….at more than one at a time! On the other hand, they seem to become unglued if the connection to any one of 6  tasks is lost! Perhaps the greatest luxury in this age of over connectedness is intentionally choosing to turn it off!  No one wants to spend time with someone who is constantly checking their email, or interrupting a real life conversation by texting, tweeting or taking a phone call. All of the instant connection has thrown civility out the window. People are becoming incapable of communicating in other than soundbites or thought blasts of 140 characters or less. A recent phone service ad from Sprint has capitalized on this phenomenon by having a woman breaking up with her date by texting, emailing and then calling him-  they are sitting at the same table. The phone service is advertising free text messaging!

I don’t often seem to be able to reach that level of self engagement anymore. Too many life distractions! There are still moments at work where I become so immersed in a design challenge or in making a detail work that I manage to hit that intensely focused state. It is simultaneously draining and reinvigorating. Time stops. Perhaps the most disquieting thing about a video world is that the act of imagination is removed. We are no longer required to actively engage those creative portions of our brains. It has been done for us. I wonder what it means for the future that the visual has replaced the intellectual.

Back to the nook. I finally finished up some reading I was doing in traditional books and able to actually start using it. So far, I like it. It allows you to “carry” hundreds of books in the space of one. Because it is a lit screen, I’m not dependent on the light level in the room to use it. This is great for when the kids are watching a show with dim lighting and I want to be with them, but not necessarily watch the umpteenth viewing of the current favorite.  I also downloaded a couple of games to make trips to the doctor easier. The downsides are the battery runs down and unlike a “real book”, you can’t just leave it lying on the seat of your car. After all, I don’t think many thieves want to steal a book! I also wouldn’t read it in a bath, but who has time for a bath! And I still find traditional books satisfying. While I don’t think it will replace my library altogether, it will prevent  reduce the piling up of paperbacks

Has it helped the 9 year old? The jury is still out, but there is still time.

Photo from ihtatho’s photostream from Flickr and is used under the creative commons license

One Comment

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  1. Life Should Be 3D / Mar 15 2012 4:47 pm

    “Reading is perhaps the best training tool for the brain. It allows you to develop your capacity to focus.”

    I agree 100% with this statement. I wonder how this shift in what constitutes mental “play” will ultimately affect design, thought, creativity……

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