It’s undeniable that today, human beings have more access to information than ever before. Whether this is coming through 24-hour news channels, social media or other internet sites, information is constantly flowing and waiting to be consumed by avid observers. People then go about their daily lives, having formed opinions about political, economic, environmental and social issues defined by their particular media diet. Yet one thing we often fail to address is the quality of this information. I won’t spend time explaining the drawbacks of information emanating from social media or television, because most people are already aware of these deficiencies, especially given the recent revelations about Russian agents influencing the American election.
The problem is that quality is often confused with quantity. A preponderance of media consumption doesn’t make up for a lack of literary and empirical knowledge. In other words, we must not forget to return to the original, and, if I may boldly say, superior, technology: the printed book. It never needs to be recharged, it lasts forever and it’s incredibly cheap to produce and purchase. Books are the bailiwick of wise and learned people. Books show us how to run companies, lead countries, rescue economies, harness our creativity and promote the well-being of our bodies and souls.
The issue with books is that they require a deeper level of concentration, and a longer commitment of time. Books are an investment — but they pay incredible dividends. By reading, you not only gain a superior quality of information about whatever you’re studying, but you also force yourself to hone your reading and writing skills in the process. Like any exercise you might do at the gym, reading helps create (and then reinforce) positive feedback loops, making you come back for another dose of fantasy, excitement, and analysis.
Above all else, being able to read and write at a higher level is not only rewarding and pleasurable, it provides you with power. In a world where power games and competence dominate nearly all social hierarchies, failing to read published and peer-reviewed works promises to hinder individuals on the path to self-improvement, wisdom and enlightenment. Studies have also demonstrated that the number of books read per year is directly correlated to financial success, career development, as well as personal happiness and fulfilment. Whether this correlation can always be interpreted as causation is up for debate.
Depending on the studies you look at, the average Canadian spends between 350 and 450 minutes a day consuming modern media: that’s between 5.8 and 7.5 hours per day. Every day. Conversely, the average Canadian spends less than 6 hours per week reading — that’s around 50 minutes per day, at most. And roughly 18% of Canadians (and 28% of Americans) haven’t read a single book in the past year. These numbers have been relatively stable over the past decade, so it would be foolish to infer an epidemic of illiteracy. Furthermore, millennials are actually reading slightly more than their older counterparts (admittedly, excluding 50 Shades of Grey and Harry Potter might drastically alter this finding). Yet, while reading rates remain flat, more and more time is being devoted to the consumption of inaccurate and algorithm-driven information. This is what worries me.
Today, everyone seems to have an opinion about everything, but once you dig around and begin to test the structure and first principles supporting said opinions, most don’t hold water. This isn’t to suggest that people are becoming less intelligent, quite the opposite is true (average IQ scores having been slowly but steadily rising over the past several decades). What this does suggest is that citizens have now become nodes in a network of billions of connected individuals, instead of being relegated to some obscure and mundane task, as millions of serfs, slaves and peasants had been for thousands of years. Today, virtually anyone with an internet connection can access the near-infinite amount of knowledge gathered since the dawn of time with the click of a button. This is obviously a massive improvement over what Hobbes called the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” nature of life before the turn of the 20th century.
Yet we cannot take this growth and improvement for granted by forgetting to crack open a good book on a daily basis. How can our opinions and arguments survive the opposing philosophies and theories without a solid foundation of history, literature, economics and science to act as a bulwark against fear, greed and oppression? Notable polemicist and author Christopher Hitchens best defined the value of first principles and autodidactism in a Hart House debate back in 2006: Why do you know what you already think you know? How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else? It’s always worth establishing first principles; it’s always worth saying, ‘What would you do if you met a flat-earth society member?’ Come to think of it, how can I prove the earth is round? Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true; here’s someone who says there’s no such thing, that it’s all intelligent design… don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus.
A final caveat: read things you vehemently disagree with. For example, I disagree with about 99% of what conservative commentator Ben Shapiro talks and writes about. Nonetheless, I still plough through his work so that I can be better prepared to debate a neo-conservative on issues of abortion, capital punishment and many other subjects, should the opportunity present itself. Read fiction and non-fiction, from Dickens to dummy books. Read everything you can get your hands on, and then make up your own mind about the world, instead of receiving your information in seven-second soundbites and retweets. In a world where Kylie Jenner’s tweet leads to the obliteration of 1.5 billion dollars worth of Snapchat’s market capitalization in a single day of trading, new forms of media wield incalculable amounts of power over our daily lives. Perhaps it might do us some good to spend some of those 450 minutes reading Orwell, Faulkner, and Atwood instead.