The myth of the endless ladder


“Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle,” declares economics reporter Annie Lowrey in a Times Magazine piece on the job-displacing effects of automation technologies, “because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.” The challenge today, she writes, a few paragraphs later, “is for humans to allow software, algorithms, robots and the like to propel them into higher-and-higher-value work.” The idea is an old one. Aristotle compared tools to slaves: both provide their masters with time for more refined activities. Thinkers as various as Marx, Keynes, and Oscar Wilde said similar things during the industrial revolution. It remains a common refrain today, as automatons and software take over more of the work people used to get paid to do. “We need to let robots take over,” wrote Kevin Kelly last year. “They will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.”

There’s something deeply comforting about the notion that labor-saving technology inevitably pushes workers to higher pursuits. It salves our anxieties about job losses and wage declines — everything will work out fine, “ultimately” — while playing to our unbounded sense of self-importance. The ladder of human occupation goes forever upward; no matter how high our machines climb, there will always be another rung for workers to clamber to. But like many of the comforting things we tell ourselves, it’s no more than a half-truth. And when trotted out as a pat response to contemporary unemployment and underemployment problems, it becomes a dangerous fallacy. By promoting a reassuring fantasy about the future, it relieves us from grappling with the possibility that new, structural problems are opening up in the economy.

The problem with the endless-ladder myth begins with the fuzziness of its claims. What exactly is a “higher-value task”? Are we talking about value for the employer, or value for the employee? Are we measuring value in terms of productivity and profit, or in terms of worker skill and satisfaction? Not only are those two things different; they’re often in conflict. One way that a machine can improve labor productivity is by reducing the number of workers required to produce something. Another way is by reducing the skill requirements of the worker’s job and hence reducing the worker’s pay. As analyses of the employment impacts of industrial machinery show, the use of technology to automate a job tends at first to enhance the skills of a worker, making the job more challenging and interesting, but as the machine becomes more sophisticated, as more job skills are built into its workings, a deskilling trend takes hold. The highly skilled craftsman turns into a moderately skilled or unskilled machine operator. Even Adam Smith understood that machinery, in enhancing labor productivity, would often end up narrowing jobs, transforming skilled work into routine work. At worst, he wrote, the factory worker would become “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

That’s not the whole picture, of course. In evaluating the long-term effects of automation, we have to look beyond particular job categories. Even as automation reduces the skill requirements of an established occupation, it may contribute to the creation of large new categories of interesting and well-paid work. That’s what happened, as the endless-ladder mythologists will eagerly tell you, during the latter stages of the industrial revolution. The efficiencies of assembly lines and other mechanized forms of production pushed down the prices of all sorts of goods, which drove up demand for those goods, which led manufacturers to hire not only lots of blue-collar workers to operate and repair the machines but also lots of white-collar workers to manage the factories, design new products, market and sell the products, keep the books, and so forth. The  resulting expansion of a consumption-minded, experience-seeking middle class ratcheted up demand for all sorts of other workers, from retail clerks to doctors and nurses to teachers to architects to pilots to journalists to government bureaucrats to etc. A virtuous cycle it most definitely was. What it wasn’t was the manifestation of some universal virtuous cycle, some inevitable dynamic in the economy. It was a virtuous cycle very much contingent on its time, and one of the most important of the contingencies was the limited capacity of industrial machinery to take over human work. Even a highly mechanized factory needed lots of people to tend the machines, and most professional and other white-collar jobs lay well beyond the reach of technology.

Times are different now. Machines are different, too. Robots and software programs are still a long way from taking over all human work, but they can take over a lot more of it than factory machines could. It seems pretty clear now that that’s one of the main reasons we’re seeing persistently depressed demand for workers in many sectors of the economy. What’s perhaps less well acknowledged is the spread of the deskilling phenomenon into so-called knowledge work. As computers become more capable of sensing the environment, performing analyses, and making judgments, they can be programmed to take over more white-collar skills. Professionals and office workers start to look more and more like computer operators, tenders of machines.

There will always be opportunities for individuals to design cool new products, make new scientific discoveries, create new works of art, and think new thoughts. But that says little about the prospects for the labor market in general. There’s no guarantee that the deployment of computers is going to open up vast new swathes of interesting, well-paid jobs the way the deployment of factory machines did. Recent experience suggests that computers may have very different consequences. What they seem to be particularly good at is concentrating wealth rather than spreading it, narrowing the work that people do rather than broadening it.

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is revealing. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. It “frees us” for higher-value tasks and “propels us” into more fulfilling work and “helps us” to expand ourselves. We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. They’re motivated, as Adam Smith also pointed out, by a desire to make money. Jobs have always been a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

The biggest beneficiaries of the endless-ladder myth are those who have gained enormous wealth through the profit-concentrating effects of commercial computers. The myth helps them feel good about themselves. They, after all, are the ones who are setting in motion the virtuous cycle that, in the fullness of time, will bring us all to the nirvana of “higher-and-higher-value work.” It suits their business interests, too, by conflating those interests with society’s interests. Software and algorithms and robots will solve our problems, if we allow them to.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that we’ll soon be blessed with all sorts of great new jobs. The world’s complicated; the economy’s complicated; no one knows what the future’s going to bring. I’m saying that we can’t take it as a given that that’s going to happen, and we certainly shouldn’t assume that machines have the best interests of workers at heart. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle — except when it’s a vicious one.

Image of ladder-climbing robot: DARPA.


Filed under The Glass Cage

Introducing “The Glass Cage”


The text has been fine-tooth-combed, a working cover is making the rounds (see above), and barrels of black ink are being mixed. My next book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, will be published in the U.S. on September 29, and international editions will begin appearing shortly thereafter. I can now exhale.

“Software is eating the world,” Mark Andreessen observed a couple of years ago. The Glass Cage is my attempt to describe what a software-eaten world looks like, and what it feels like to live in such a world. There’s been a lot of speculation and debate recently about the  effects of automation on jobs and wealth. I use that discussion — which is really the latest round in a two-century-long discussion of the economic effects of technology — as the jumping off point for an examination of automation’s human consequences. I look at how advances in computing, analytical and decision-support software, and robotics are reshaping the way work is done in all sectors of the economy, from factories, to professional offices, to the creative trades, and how the changes influence people’s jobs, roles, talents, and even their sense of self. In addition to the professional effects of automation, I also look at its more intimate, personal consequences. I examine how our growing reliance on computer gadgets, apps, and related media is transforming our daily routines and giving our lives a new and very different rhythm and texture.

I try to show how these immediate trends, which are playing out very quickly and often without our full awareness, are part of bigger historical narratives: the story of humankind’s often fraught relationship with machines of production, the story of the value society places on work and labor, the story of the development and loss of human skill, and the story of our shifting psychological and physical relationship with the world in which we live. More practically, I tie automation’s effects, both intended and unintended, to design decisions made by engineers, programmers, and marketers, decisions that for decades have placed technological and business interests ahead of human ones.

I end the book with an attempt to describe and promote a more humane philosophy of technology, a way of reconnecting ourselves with the true joy of tools. I don’t want to give too much away, but I draw here on the work of Robert Frost, John Dewey, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

I’ll post more thoughts  about the book and its concerns in the coming months. In the meantime, here is the blurb on The Glass Cage from its U.S. publisher, W.W. Norton:

What kind of world are we building for ourselves? That’s the question Nicholas Carr tackles in his important and absorbing followup to The Shallows. Digging behind the headlines about factory robots and self-driving cars, smartphone apps and computerized medicine, Carr explores the hidden costs of allowing software to take charge of our jobs and our lives. Weaving together insights from science, history, and philosophy, he makes a compelling case that the dominant Silicon Valley ethic is sapping our skills and constricting our horizons.

The Glass Cage is not just a timely critique of society’s growing dependence on computers. It’s a riveting story of humankind’s entanglement with machines. From 19th century textile mills to the cockpits of modern jets, from the frozen hunting grounds of Inuit tribes to the “augmented reality” of Google Glass, Carr takes us on an unforgettable voyage of discovery culminating in a moving meditation on how we can use technology to expand life’s possibilities rather than narrow them.

And here are links for advance orders:

Preorder US:
Barnes & Noble

Preorder UK:


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The bus


Mobile and Social: Before the app, before the smartphone, before the network, there was the bus. And the bus headed south from San Francisco toward a new world.

“There are going to be times,” says Kesey, “when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.” And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: “You’re either on the bus . . . or off the bus.” –Tom Wolfe

In a richly allegorical incident that took place on a San Francisco street on December 9 of last year, a young Google employee harangued a group of protesters who had blocked a Google bus from making its rounds between the city and the company’s Mountain View campus. “This is a city for the right people who can afford it,” yelled the Googler, irate over his inability to get to the Googleplex and his free breakfast buffet. “You can’t afford it? You can leave. I’m sorry, get a better job.” There was a video, of course, and it exploded into virality:

But the guy wasn’t really a Googler. In a second virality surge, triggered just a couple of hours after the first, the news spread that the whole event had been staged. The irate man was a union organizer named Max Alper, who described his stunt as “street theater.” A happening! Alper seemed at that moment a direct descendant of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Rather than being on the bus, though, Alper was most definitely off the bus.

But if the Prankster was off the bus, who exactly was on the bus? Was it The Man? Had it always been The Man?

“I think there’s always been a tension between the countercultural rhetoric of Silicon Valley and its insurgent but ultimately corporate ethos. … Google treats its engineers extremely well, offers extremely flexible work spaces, has built essentially a culture of collaboration and creativity that looks very communal and very wonderful, even as around those engineers it has cafeteria workers who are making something very close to minimum wage, and often lack the ability to get proper health insurance. That’s the kind of old communal mindset right there, where you bring together a kind of elite, give them a shared mindset, all the resources they need to live in that mindset, and yet surround them with folks who are relatively impoverished, often racially different, certainly members of a different class. In that sense, the communes were already The Man. And we’ve inherited their legacy.” –Fred Turner


So there it is: The Kesey bus, through a kind of hallucinogenic  transmogrification, has become the Google bus. The makeover is, on the surface, radical. The Kesey bus was a 1939 International Harvester school bus bought for peanuts; the Google bus is a plush new Van Hool machine that goes for half a million bucks. The Kesey bus was brightly colored, a rolling Grateful Dead poster; the Google bus is drab and anonymous, a rolling Jos. A. Bank suit. The Kesey bus was raucous and rocking; the Google bus is hushed and slightly funereal. The Kesey bus carried a vat of LSD for connecting with the group mind; the Google bus has wifi. There was rabid balling on the Kesey bus; the most you’ll find on the Google bus is “some ‘light PDA.’” The Pranksters named their bus Further; if the Google bus had a name, it would be Safer.


Yet, despite all the differences, both buses are vehicles of communalism. As Turner suggests, they carry elites eager to distance themselves from the reigning culture, to define themselves as members of a select and separate society that is a model for the superior society of the future. The existing culture is too corrupt, too far gone, to be reformed from within. You have to escape it in order to rebuild it. You have to start over. You have to get on the bus.

“Migration to North America was self-selective,” observed Timothy Leary in Musings on Human Metamorphosis. “The Pilgrim mothers and fathers fled from England to Holland, mortgaged their possessions, and sailed the Mayflower, because they wanted a place to live out the kooky, freaky reality that they collectively shared. And there’s no question the experiment is a success. Americans are freer than Europeans, and Westerners are a new species evolving away from Americans.” Having bumped up against the Pacific, the next step for those Westerners—i.e., Californians—would be to rocket off into the heavens to set up an experimental “mini-world” in outer space. “Within ten years after initiating space migration,” Leary wrote, “a group of a thousand people will be able to get together cooperatively and build a new mini-world cheaper than they could buy individual homes down here. When you’ve got new ideas you can’t hang around the old hive.”

During the seventies, Leary had plenty of company in calling for the establishment of elite experimental colonies beyond the bounds of established society. Buckminster Fuller, Gerard O’Neill, and Jerry Brown, among others, argued for the necessity of expanding the American frontier to create zones of technological and social experimentation where innovation could proceed unhampered by outdated laws and traditions. The migration of the self-selecting elite would eventually help the more timid who chose to stay behind, Leary argued, as it “allows for new experiments—technological, political, and social—in a new ecological niche far from the home hive.”

That idea, scrubbed of its psychedelic origins, has today become the bedrock of Silicon Valley utopianism. 

“I mean, the laws when we went public were 50 years old. Law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old. Like, it’s before the Internet. … Maybe we should set aside some small part of the world, you know, like going to Burning Man, for example. Which I’m sure many of you have been to. Yeah, a few Burners out there. That’s an environment where people try out different things, but not everybody has to go. And I think that’s a great thing, too. I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out: What is the effect on society? What’s the effect on people? Without having to deploy it into the normal world. And people who like those kinds of things can go there and experience that.” —Larry Page

Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk dream of establishing Learyesque space colonies, celestial Burning Mans. Peter Thiel is slightly more down to earth. His Seasteading Institute hopes to set up floating technology incubation colonies on the ocean. “If you can start a new business, why can you not start a new country?” he says. “The reason the seasteading question’s been so interesting is that a lot of people do think that we can do much better as a society. And if you run the thought experiment — could we be doing things better in our society? — people may disagree on the particulars, but an awful lot of people think things can be done dramatically better.” The institute has even come up with a nifty retelling of history to explain how its colonies will, in short order, raise the poor out of slums and into luxury high-rises:

In a notorious speech last fall at the Y Combinator Startup School, Balaji Srinivasan channeled Leary when he called for “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit”—the establishment of a new country beyond the reach of the U.S. and other failed states:

[When] a company or a country is in decline, you can try Voice, or you can try Exit. Voice is basically changing the system from within, whereas Exit is leaving to create a new system, a new startup. … We’re a nation of emigrants: we’re shaped by both Voice and Exit, starting with the Puritans. You know, they fled religious persecution, the American Revolutionaries which left England’s orbit. Then we started moving west, leaving the East Coast bureaucracy … What do I mean by Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit? It basically means: build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology. And this is actually where the Valley is going. This is where we’re going over the next ten years. … The best part is this: the people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology—they won’t follow you out there.

The Kesey bus dead-ended somewhere in Mexico, its allegorical gaskets blown. The Google bus continues on its circuit between the City and the Valley, an infinite loop of infinite possibility.


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Against frictionlessness


One of the pleasures of writing The Glass Cage was discovering the works of the American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, particularly the 1934 book Art as Experience. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” I had that feeling often while reading Dewey. There was this passage, for instance:

An environment that was always and everywhere congenial to the straightaway execution of our impulsions would set a term to growth as surely as one always hostile would irritate and destroy. Impulsion forever boosted on its forward way would run its course thoughtless, and dead to emotion. For it would not have to give an account of itself in terms of the things it encounters, and hence they would not become significant objects. The only way it can become aware of its nature and its goal is by obstacles surmounted and means employed; means which are only means from the very beginning are too much one with an impulsion, on a way smoothed and oiled in advance, to permit of consciousness of them. Nor without resistance from surroundings would the self become aware of itself; it would have neither feeling nor interest, neither fear nor hope, neither disappointment nor elation. Mere opposition that completely thwarts, creates irritation and rage. But resistance that calls out thought generates curiosity and solicitous care, and, when it is overcome and utilized, eventuates in elation.

Among other things, Dewey here provides us with a powerful way of examining and interrogating technologies. A tool that simply smooths and oils our way, that speeds us to the execution of an impulsion, has a deadening effect. It removes us from the world and hence from the struggle with the world and its objects that gives definition to the self. The best tools are the ones that expand and extend our contact with the world, that give us more not fewer frictional surfaces.

Dewey’s teaching runs directly counter to our assumption that we should seek out the technologies that offer us the greatest convenience and ease. Imagine, for instance, if software developers, and users, embraced Dewey’s philosophy. The entire software industry would evaporate in an instant, and along with it many fortunes, and a new industry would emerge in an entirely different form.


Filed under The Glass Cage

Silicon Valley Reads

I’ll be in Silicon Valley this week for the opening events of the 2014 edition of Silicon Valley Reads, a three-month-long community reading program that takes place throughout Santa Clara County. The theme of this year’s program is “Books and Technology: Friends or Foes?” My book The Shallows is the nonfiction selection for the program, and the fiction pick is Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The program kicks off on Wednesday evening at the Heritage Theater in Campbell, California. Robin and I will be interviewed by Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy, and the actor Ron Campbell will do a star turn in the role of Buckminster Fuller. The event’s at 7:30 and is free and open to the public.

I’ll also be speaking or reading at the following times and places:

Jan. 23, 4 p.m. at Educational Park Branch Library
Jan. 23, 7 p.m. at Saratoga Library
Jan. 24, 7 p.m. at Los Altos Library
Jan. 25, 2 p.m. at Santa Teresa Branch Library
Jan. 25, 4 p.m. at Berryessa Branch Library
Jan. 26, 2 p.m. at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library
Feb. 27, 4-5:30 p.m. at Santa Clara University
Feb. 27, 7 p.m. at San Jose City College Technology Auditorium
Feb. 28, 2 p.m. at Almaden Branch Library
March 1, 2 p.m. at Willow Glen Branch Library
March 1, 4 p.m. at Evergreen Branch Library
March 2, 1:30 p.m. at India Community Center
March 27, 11 a.m. at Mission College Sorenson Hall
March 27, 3 p.m. at Edenvale Branch Library
March 27, 6:30 p.m. at the Tech Museum
March 29, 11 a.m. at Calabazas Branch Library
March 29, 2 p.m. at Seven Trees Branch Library
March 29, 4 p.m. at Bascom Library & Community Center
March 30, 1:30 p.m. at the Cupertino Community Hall (closing celebration)

You can find the full Silicon Valley Reads schedule here. It’s a wonderful program, with readings, discussions, movies, and an art exhibit, and if you’re in the area I hope you’ll come out and participate. There’s also a companion program for kids that you can read about here.


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The Reverse Turk


Tim Wu sketches an intriguing scenario:

A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.

The traveller’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveller asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.

Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveller would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence.

What the time traveller doesn’t see, of course, is that the woman behind the curtain is equipped with a smartphone. Her extraordinary memory is a parlor trick, a ruse.

Mechanical Turk, the chess-playing automaton, amazed eighteenth century audiences with his prowess at the game of kings — until it was revealed that a small-statured human chess master, hidden inside the automaton, was actually making the moves. And so now the roles are reversed:  the superintelligent human hides a small-statured, question-answering automaton! Knowledge seems such a drab thing beside the fireworks of its simulation. Baudrillard: “Everywhere we see a paradoxical logic: the idea is destroyed by its own realization, by its own excess.”

Well played, Mr. Turk.


Filed under The Glass Cage

The dreams of readers


Spermatic. There’s a word you don’t come across much anymore. Not only does it sound fusty and arcane, as if it had been extracted from the nether regions of a moldy physiology handbook, but it seems fatally tainted with political incorrectness. Only the rash or the drunken would dare launch the word into a conversation at a cocktail party.

It wasn’t always a pariah. In an essay published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1858, the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson chose the adjective to describe the experience of reading: “I find certain books vital and spermatic, not leaving the reader what he was.” For Emerson, the best books — the “true ones” — “take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate experiences, so medicinal, so stringent, so revolutionary, so authoritative.” Books are not only alive; they give life, or at least give it a new twist.

Emerson drew a distinction between his idea of reading and one expressed a few centuries earlier by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who termed books “a languid pleasure.” What was medicine for Emerson was intoxicant to Montaigne. If my own experience is any guide, both men had it right. Like Montaigne, I’ve spent many happy hours under the spell of books, enchanted by the beauty or wit of the prose, the plot’s intrigue, the elegance of the argument. But there have also been times when, like Emerson, I’ve felt a book’s metamorphic force, when reading becomes a means not just of diversion or enlightenment but of regeneration. One closes such a book a different person from the one who opened it. In his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Robert Frost, one of Emerson’s many heirs, wrote of the rare moments in life when “love and need are one, / And the work is play for mortal stakes.” That seems to me a good description of reading at its most vital and spermatic.

My life has been punctuated by books. The Lord of the Rings and The Martian Chronicles added mystery to my boyhood, opening frontiers to wander in and marvel at far beyond my suburban surroundings. The tumult of my teenage years was fueled by rock records, but it was put into perspective by books as various as Kerouac’s On the Road and Hemingway’s In Our Time, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. During my twenties, a succession of thin volumes of verse—Frost’s A Witness Tree, Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, Seamus Heaney’s North—were the wedges I used to pry open new ways of seeing and feeling. The list goes on, decade by decade: Hardy’s Return of the Native, Joyce’s Ulysses, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and, recently, the wondrous voyage that is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Who would I be without those books? Someone else.

* * *

Psychologists and neurobiologists have begun studying what goes on in our minds as we read literature, and what they’re discovering lends scientific weight to Emerson’s observation. One of the trailblazers in this field is Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto and the author of several novels, including the acclaimed The Case of Emily V. “For a long time,” Oatley told the Canadian magazine Quill & Quire, “we’ve been talking about the benefits of reading with respect to vocabulary, literacy, and these such things. We’re now beginning to see that there’s a much broader impact.” A work of literature, particularly narrative literature, takes hold of the brain in curious and powerful ways. In his 2011 book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, Oatley explained that “we don’t just respond to fiction (as might be implied by the idea of reader response), or receive it (as might be implied by reception studies), or appreciate it (as in art appreciation), or seek its correct interpretation (as seems sometimes to be suggested by the New Critics). We create our own version of the piece of fiction, our own dream, our own enactment.” Making sense of what transpires in a book’s imagined reality appears to depend on “making a version of the action ourselves, inwardly.”

One intriguing study, conducted a few years ago by research psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, illuminates Oatley’s point. The scholars used brain scans to examine the cellular activity that occurs inside people’s heads as they read stories. They found that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative.” The groups of nerve cells, or neurons, activated in readers’  brains “closely mirror those involved when [they] perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.” When, for example, a character in a story puts a pencil down on a desk, the neurons that control muscle movements fire in a reader’s brain. When a character goes through a door to enter a room, electrical charges begin to flow through the areas in a reader’s brain that are involved in spatial representation and navigation.

More than mere replication is going on. The reader’s brain is not just a mirror. The actions and sensations portrayed in a story, the researchers wrote, are woven together with “with personal knowledge from [each reader’s] past experiences.” Every reader of a book creates, in Oatley’s terms, his own dream of the work — and he inhabits that dream as if it were an actual place.

When we open a book, it seems that we really do enter, so far as our brains are concerned, a new world — one conjured not just out of the author’s words but out of our own memories and desires — and it is our cognitive immersion in that world that gives reading its emotional force. Psychologists draw a distinction between two kinds of emotions that can be inspired by a work of art. There are the “aesthetic emotions” that we feel when we view art from a distance, as a spectator: a sense of beauty or of wonder, for instance, or a feeling of awe at the artist’s craft or the work’s unity. These are the emotions that Montaigne likely had in mind when he spoke of reading’s languid pleasure. And then there are the “narrative emotions” we experience when, through the sympathetic actions of our nervous system, we become part of a story, when the distance between the attendee and the attended evaporates. These are the emotions Emerson may have had in mind when he described the spermatic, life-giving force of a “true book.”

Readers routinely speak of how books have changed them. A 1999 survey of people who read for pleasure found that nearly two-thirds believe they have been transformed in lasting ways by reading. This is no fancy. Experiencing strong emotions has been shown to cause alterations in brain functions, and that appears to hold true for the feelings stirred by stories. “The emotions evoked by literary fiction,” Oatley reported in a 2010 paper written with psychologist Raymond Mar of York University in Toronto, “have an influence on our cognitive processing after the reading experience has ended.” Although the full extent of that influence has yet to be measured in a laboratory, and may never be, it seems likely that the unusual length of time that we spend immersed in the world of a book would result in particularly strong emotional responses and, in turn, cognitive changes. These effects would be further amplified, argued Oatley and Mar, by the remarkably “deep simulation of experience that accompanies our engagement with literary narratives.”

A 2009 experiment conducted by Oatley and three colleagues suggests that the emotions stirred by literature can even alter, in subtle but real ways, people’s personalities. The researchers recruited 166 university students and gave them a standard personality test measuring such traits as extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One group of the subjects read the Chekhov short story “The Lady with the Toy Dog,” while a control group read a synopsis of the story’s events, stripped of its literary qualities. Both groups then took the personality test again. The results revealed that the people “who read the short story experienced significantly greater change in personality than the control group,” and the effect appeared to be tied to the strong emotional response that the story provoked. What was really interesting, Oatley says, is that the readers “all changed in somewhat different ways.” A book is rewritten in the mind of every reader, and the book rewrites each reader’s mind in a unique way, too.

What is it about literary reading that gives it such sway over how we think and feel and maybe even who we are? Norman Holland, a scholar at the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida, has been studying literature’s psychological effects for many years, and he offers a provocative answer to that question. Although our emotional and intellectual responses to events in literature mirror, at a neuronal level, the responses we would feel if we actually experienced those events, the mind we read with, Holland argues in his book Literature and the Brain, is a very different mind from the one we use to navigate the real world. In our day-to-day routines, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone. But when we open a book, our expectations and attitudes change. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work. We read the author’s words with “poetic faith,” to borrow a phrase that the psychologically astute Samuel Coleridge used two centuries ago.

“We gain a special trance-like state of mind in which we become unaware of our bodies and our environment,” explains Holland. “We are ‘transported.’” It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature’s regenerative power. That doesn’t mean that reading is anti-social. The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties and vagaries of human relations. Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us at least a little more empathetic, a little more alert to the inner lives of others. A series of experiments by researchers at the New School for Social Research, reported in Science in 2013, showed that reading literary fiction can strengthen a person’s “theory of mind,” which is what psychologists call the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. “Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience,” one of the researchers, David Comer Kidd, told The Guardian newspaper; “it is a social experience.” The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.

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The discoveries about literature’s psychological and cognitive effects won’t come as much of a surprise to readers. The research will serve mainly to confirm their intuitions. But the science is important nonetheless. It arrives at a crucial moment in the history of reading, and perhaps of literature. Not only has a new medium for reading — the computer screen — become popular as an alternative to the printed page; the value of reading as an end in itself is coming in for questioning. A strangely distorted view of reading has gained currency in some quarters. A group of social-networking enthusiasts has taken to referring to the book, in its traditional form, as a “passive” medium, lacking the “interactivity” of websites, apps, and video games. Because a page of paper can’t accommodate links, Like buttons, search boxes, comment forms, and all the other spurs to online activity we’ve become accustomed to, the reasoning goes, the readers of books must be mere consumers of content, inert caricatures of Montaigne’s languid reader. Jeff Jarvis, a media consultant who teaches journalism at the City University of New York, gave voice to this way of thinking in a post on his blog. Claiming that printed pages “create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader,” he concluded that, in the internet era, “the book is an outdated means of communicating information.” He declared that “print is where words go to die.”

Anyone who would reduce a book to a “means of communicating information,” as if it were a canister for shuttling facts and figures among bureaucrats, is probably not the best guide to the possibilities of literary experience. But when foolish ideas get into progress’s slipstream, they can travel far. Some makers of e-reading devices and related software applications are embracing the notion that literature could do with a digital upgrade, that the experience of reading would improve if it were less solitary and more “social.” Books “often live a vibrant life offline,” grants a Google executive, but they will be able to “live an even more exciting life online.” Such views reflect more than just technological enthusiasm. Something deeper is going on. Society is growing ever more skeptical of the value of solitude. The status quo treats with suspicion  even the briefest of withdrawals into inactivity and apparent purposelessness. We see it in the redefinition of receptive states of mind as passive states of mind. We see it in an education system that seems uncomfortable with any “outcome” unsuited to formal measurement. We see it in the self-contempt of the humanities. We see it in the glorification of the collaborative team and the devaluation of the self-reliant individual. We see it in the general desire to make all experience interactive and transactional.

In a 2003 lecture, Andrew Louth, a theology professor at the University of Durham in England, drew a distinction between “the free arts” and “the servile arts.” The servile arts, he said, are those “to which a man is bound if he has in mind a limited task.” They are the arts of production and consumption, of getting stuff done, to which most of us devote most of our waking hours. The free arts, among which Louth included reading as well as meditation, contemplation, and prayer, are those characterized, in one way or another, by “the search for knowledge for its own sake.” They are aimed at no useful or measurable end, and by engaging in them we slip, if only briefly, the bonds of the practical. We open ourselves to aesthetic and spiritual possibilities. We embrace and inhabit an ideal that was once central to the idea of culture itself: “that there is more to human life than a productive, well-run society.” This ideal, Louth said, is now “under serious threat, and with it our notion of civilization.”

The computer exists to aid in transactions. It is never not processing. As society becomes more narrowly focused on the servile arts, the computer naturally becomes more central to its operation. The relationship becomes symbiotic, and the free arts, which are antithetical to the transactional, are pushed to the margin. Then again, it might be argued that the margin has always been the best place to relax with a book. As Norman Holland suggests, the deepest kinds of reading entail a dampening of our urge to act. They require a withdrawal from quotidian busyness and so are marginal to society almost by definition. Montaigne’s and Emerson’s views may actually be more in concert than in conflict. It may be that readers have to enter a state of languid pleasure, a dream, before they can experience the full spermatic vitality of a book. Far from being a sign of passivity, the reader’s outward repose signals the most profound kind of inner activity, the kind that goes unregistered by society’s sensors.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the book Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!


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