Deep (sixed) literacy?

Conservative mag National Affairs is worried “deep literacy” is dying out in America. Hell, have you been paying attention to the state of affairs down there? We should be worried about basic literacy. But I digress. Seriously, though: what is your take on the idea that digital devices are ruining our ability to think? I wrote a whole book about this that no one read. Seems to check out. (Yes, it’s a conservative journal, but every now and then it’s good to bug the locker room of the other team to see what they’re up to. Sometimes you find some interesting stuff.)

Deep literacy has wondrous effects, nurturing our capacity for abstract thought, enabling us to pose and answer difficult questions, empowering our creativity and imagination, and refining our capacity for empathy. It is also generative of successive new insight, as the brain’s circuitry for reading recursively builds itself forward. It is and does all these things in part because it touches off a “revolution in the brain,” meaning that it has distinctive and describable neurophysiological consequences. Understanding deep literacy as a revolution in the brain has potential payoffs for understanding aspects of history and contemporary politics alike.

Deep reading has in large part informed our development as humans, in ways both physiological and cultural. And it is what ultimately allowed Americans to become “We the People,” capable of self-government. If we are losing the capacity for deep reading, we must also be prepared to lose other, perhaps even more precious parts of what deep reading has helped to build.

In science fiction, the typical worry is that machines will become human-like; the more pressing problem now is that, through the thinning out of our interactions, humans are becoming machine-like. That raises the possibility that the more time we spend with machines and the more dependent on them we become, the dumber we tend to get since machines cannot determine their own purposes — at least until the lines cross between ever smarter AI-infused machines and ever less cognitively adept humans. More troubling are the moral issues that could potentially arise: mainly ceding to machines programmed by others the right to make moral choices that ought to be ours.

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