In the Internet Age, Will We Still Read?
This essay was written by Yang Hengjun. We’ve translated a portion of it here outlining his opposition to the internet’s alleged role in reducing China’s appetite for real reading.
The internet has changed everyone’s reading habits. Or, you might say, the internet as a medium has replaced traditional reading. I would like to congratulate those who have put down traditional paper-and-binding books and started to use computers (and cell phones) for reading purposes. Compared to the number of books we can buy on the mainland, the number of books we can download on the internet is virtually limitless.
But I would like to address a different set of netizens. They’ve put down regular books (or they never picked them up in the first place) and got online, but they’re not reading; at least they aren’t reading in the traditional sense of the term. They use forums, look at blogs, then go ahead and send something out on Twitter. The result is that a few hours of each day are passed in this way.
While interacting with some netizens, I feel that quite a large group of them are this type of “reader.” This group has been lured by the various wonders the internet holds, and entered into a sea of brand-new information and knowledge. Thus they feel that traditional reading is out of date and can’t keep up with modernity.
In my opinion, this is an enormous mistake, even a negative side-effect of the internet itself. The number of people in our country that like to read has been small all along, and now that we have the internet, a portion of our readers are getting online. I don’t want to claim that reading and internet use are opposites: nothing can replace the internet for those that want to read news and gain better understanding of all types of information and new types of knowledge. Yet for young people that are absorbing knowledge, there is really nothing that can replace reading – what I mean is reading actual books, not just aimlessly glancing over materials online.
Nowadays, the development of the internet’s “anything goes” nature, I’ve gradually come to feel that many of the young netizens I come cross are of the “onion-shaped” variety. On the outside they’re great, but inside they’re empty. They seem to be omniscient about everything going on in the world, and they have quite novel viewpoints. But if you talk with them just a bit you’ll discover they’re completely empty on the inside, and nothing can pull them from the viewpoints they found online. Naturally, this type of young person’s most important quality is impulsiveness. They think that typing a search into Baidu and playing around online means they can go anywhere.
Not surprisingly, Yang Hengjun is not the only person out there talking about the supposed evils of the internet. In 2008, Nicholas G. Carr published an article in The Atlantic with a similar theme. Carr’s thesis is essentially that the way we read on the internet is negatively affecting how we read other media as well. That is to say that the quick skimming we tend to do online (like you’re probably doing right now!) impairs our ability to understand Tolstoy novels and other deep, ponderous pieces of literature.
These concerns are as old as the internet itself, but China is relatively late in developing widespread internet access. While now a generation of young adults now graduating high school in America may have had internet access in their homes as long as they’ve been able to read, this is not likely to be the case in China. Should Yang’s warning be heeded by educated Chinese attempting to raise children to keep in contact with the (physical) written word, or are Yang and Carr just neo-Luddites? Should parents have their children dive with abandon into the electronic world so as not to hinder their functioning in society?
In a society like China’s, the written word has had particular importance. Its traditional place in society is immense. If China fully embraces a fundamentally new type of written word, what will become of the traditional respect given to masters of the old script? The equalizing, democratizing nature of the internet makes me think that there can be no equivalent to the traditional scholar on the internet. Whether this is a good or bad thing isn’t as clear.