The Hedonism of the Digital

This is about the weirdest book trailer I’m come across in a while. For those without the patience or ability to view it, it is the trailer for a kids’ book – It’s A Book! by Lane Smith. The trailer presumably rehashes the story in the book; that is, a tech savvy donkey asking a series of questions of an increasingly frustrated chimp. “Can you scroll down?” asks the donkey. “Can you blog with it?” Inevitably, the donkey ends up playing with the book and is utterly sucked in, sitting and reading it for hours – promising to “charge the battery” when he is done.

Aside from the bizarre irony of a one minute internet book trailer about a book advocating reading paper over ephemeral electronic distractions it’s quite cute. And it underlines one of the things I’ve been banging on about over the last few weeks. The essential nature of reading. I’ve argued before that in order to leap into the digital age, publishers need to be prepared for new kinds of reading – the kind that people do while queueing up to buy a beer, while standing on public transport and while sitting on the toilet. It is a matter of debate whether this kind of reading privileges a certain kind of writing – the easy to pick up and put down, disposable experience. This is what dead tree enthusiasts fear will be lost if paper books go the way of the dinosaur.

These arguments, of course, are not without its advocates. I came across the video above last week, and again, aside from the irony of a TED talk about the perspective of time being summarised in an animated infographic to make it easier to concentrate on, it is fascinating viewing. The premise of the video is this: different people experience time in different ways. Some of us are future oriented, some past and some present. The current crop of electronic distractions, Professor Zimbardo argues, is turning us into a culture of present-oriented people – particularly young men. This has consequences for education, as in order to learn difficult things – like how to read – one must be able to delay gratification: do hard work now in order to fulfil the promise of greater things in the future.

While I disagree more specifically with some of Zimbardo’s points (like the fact that the average teen male has spent 10,000 hours playing video games and is therefore a hedonist without social skills), I find the overall point of this discussion comes with an in-built bias. Let me give you an example – reading. There’s no doubt that Professor Zimbardo has no problem with books and reading – these are part of traditional schooling and presumably all about delaying gratification. But my experience of the kind of wholly absorbing reading depicted in the It’s A Book! trailer above has nothing at all to do with delaying gratification. My most treasured and absorbing reading experiences are completely hedonistic. My experience of time vanishes, and hours go as if they were minutes. This experience has happened to me with reading on and off screen.

While I don’t pretend to know for certain that digital distractions aren’t transforming the newer generations into anti-social sybarites, my feeling is that these arguments come from fear rather than fact. They make emotional arguments using apparently self-evident truths that are anything but self-evident. “Digitally rewiring”, my ass. Just because the youngest generation is demanding that, for example, publishers give them the ability to read books when and where and how they want them does not, ipso facto, mean that they are incapable of being absorbed in the longform experience of reading. Digital is not a synonym for disposable. Sometimes you need to learn to read the signs in a different way.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.