#ReadAhead. Or, an unconference conversation

At an unconference it’s almost impossible to just observe.

When asked for suggestions for sessions, I just wrote down what’s been worrying me recently: What’s the future of immersive reading? Is digital snacking killing concentration? Being slightly slow on the uptake, I hadn’t realised that this effectively volunteered me to lead a session. But with people like @lisag33, @ifbook, @walkley, @praymurray, @suw, @juliakingsford (to name but a few), this was never going to be a chore (if a non-chore difficult to keep on track). We went a long way in 40 minutes, and here’s a roundup of what we covered, in a hybrid of chronological and thematic order… (with apologies in advance for misquotations and misattributions. We were going at pace….)

I explained I’ve become increasingly concerned that my online life is fracturing my concentration. I’m even more concerned that my teens aren’t learning to concentrate in the first place, let alone have that ability fractured. And then asked for people’s views.

Neural pathways were first up. Reminding ourselves that unlike learning to talk which is hardwired into the human brain, learning to read isn’t. It has to be taught. Our brains are plastic, which makes reading possible, but not inevitable, and just as we can learn to read, the ability to read (and concentrate) can be over-written. Recommended reading on this point included Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. (NB @suw expressed some reservations about the scientific robustness of latter.) Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble was also mentioned in regard to the way algorithms we are unaware of can serve to narrow our fields of interest.

@suw talked about her research & writing on the subject of concentration. (If you don’t follow her chocolateandvodka you should.) In her view our environment is based on distraction. There’s research around how often people check email, and how long it takes to refocus afterwards, which leads to the conclusion that many people spend a working day a week thinking “now where was I?” And when it comes to deep focus, she mentioned that programmers take about 15 minutes to regain deep focus after interruption.

Talking of interruption, and our increasing willingness to be interrupted, and our expectation of being interrupted led us on to B F Skinner and theories of gambling addiction and the attention “hit” of online life (as in being a recipient of attention not a giver of attention). Which took us to the question “is there a difference between daydreaming and being on Facebook”? Someone suggested daydreaming is more like Pinterest. (Only if you are a visual thinker, in my view).  @praymurray posited there is more agency in daydreaming than in distraction. (Which interested me as I have never thought of daydreams as something my conscious mind has agency over, more my subconscious mind exploring what I don’t know I know & think).

@suw (characteristically) took this to another level by asking “is the period of “focus” an aberration in human history?” I don’t know the answer to this, but I think it’s worth some thought. And I wondered if the “period of focus” exists as a definable era, whether it correlates to the Gutenberg Parenthesis.

In a group with writers and publishers, no conversation on focus is possible without the D-word rearing its head. “How do you focus (any more) without a deadline?”, someone asked. Which took us to the “social fix” that online can provide as a panacea to the writer’s isolation. “What’s the difference between distraction & procrastination?” I asked. “You can only tell afterwards”, replied @lis4g33. @ifbook commented that as a writer he’s in search of a “personal practice” to strike a balance between distraction and focus, and asked if creating & interacting are replacing consuming (content). I remarked that this reminded me of a “pre-session” conversation I’d had with @lis4g33 who posited that there’s a massive assumption in the thought that moving away from immersive reading equates to a loss of concentration. She cited her own sense that she focuses more deeply when she is writing not reading (so – my paraphrase – synthesis is more absorbing than consumption), and also her daughter’s formulation of deeply held social & moral convictions through interactions online.

“What’s the difference between immersive and compelling?” someone else asked. Author Lizzy Edmonson remarked that Amazon point to 15,000 words as a sweet spot, whilst someone else noted the blossoming of sites such as Medium, Matter, Longreads, Atavist focussed on reading and creating longer reads. I mentioned that I’d been incredibly heartened by the widespread media coverage of such a “difficult” book as French academic Thomas Piketty’s new book (published by Harvard University Press) Capital in the Twentieth Century. A conversation with the UK marketing department last week tells me 30,000 copies sold already, and difficulty getting enough stock over to meet demand. Talking of the surprisingly large audience for this book, @praymurray pointed out that buying a book isn’t reading it. This could be the new A Brief History of Time. Nontheless, the advice from Smashwords is “write an epic”. @juliakingsford made the cogent point that in the scheme of things, 30,000 is a remarkably small portion of the overall population, and that there’s an important distinction between entire publishing output and overall book audience. The two rarely meet.

Heading back to focus and distraction, @suw asked if there’s a difference between good distraction and bad distraction. @walkley suggested you could draw a diagram of it. “Go on”, I said. “OK, he said”

The authors amongst us made a case for the white noise of social media as being a creative and stimulating resource and recreation, that was both relief from focus and, as @ifbook put it, “part of the creative process”, picking up on his earlier question, “do we need new ways of measuring (or perhaps better, appreciating) immersion. @lis4g33 remarked there are more reflective surfaces online. (I avoided references to Narcissus).

And of course that got us on to portfolio careers, and environmental factors affecting our ability to concentrate. The never feeling secure syndrome leading us to take on too much, feel overwhelmed and seek relief in distraction. We talked about the difference between “want to do” and “have to do”, and the loss of control that comes with, which took us back to @praymurray’s point about agency.  @juliakingsford pointed out that our multi device habits (which book publishers have not come to terms with) fragment our reading experience and work against immersive reading. Which took us to matchbook, and how bundling is less about perceived value than competitive value.

The final line note my flip chart is “altered states of consciousness”. How we got there I don’t know, so altered was my own state of consciousness by this time. But its such a nice phrase I thought I should mention it. It is after all what concentration and distraction are both about, in different ways (back to the subjective axes on @walkley’s chart). If nothing else I’ve come away from the conversation with a massive research and reading list. And the awareness that I should challenge my assumption more closely. Or @lis4g33 will hang them out to dry.

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