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What we lose by reading 100,000 words every day (washingtonpost.com)
197 points by pepys 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 105 comments





> “My grafted, spasmodic, online style, while appropriate for much of my day’s ordinary reading, had been transferred indiscriminately to all of my reading, rending my former immersion in more difficult texts less and less satisfying,” she writes. Wolf soon tried again, forcing herself to start with 20-minute intervals, and managed to recover her “former reading self.”

Translation: I stopped reading novels and then found it difficult to start again.

The problem isn’t the fluff we read online. The problem is that when you go long periods without reading novels, it’s harder to pick up a novel and enjoy it. Reading fluff online doesn’t make you stop reading novels, though, any more than watching TV makes you stop reading novels. It’s entirely possible to do both, with the caveat that everyone’s time is limited. But there’s nothing about browsing online that intrinsically makes it hard to read novels.


This. I consume books endlessly and almost always have... Unless I stop. A few times in my life I've started reading a book and when it didnt hold my interest I stopped picking it up. 3 months to a year later I would come across an interesting book and then it was back to constantly reading.

To help avoid this situation I've made it part of my morning routine to read for 15 minutes every morning (keeps the world/story alive in my head) and if I don't pick up a book for 7 days I move on to another book.

Using this method I'm at 27 books for the year and I've moved on from 2.


I actually limit my exposure to novels because I find it extremely hard to stop reading once I start. I'll stay up way too late, and sneak reading in throughout the day, basically doing whatever I have to to continue and finish the story. I enjoy this process, as it keeps me immersed, but it's not healthy.

Someone should create a book that helps us manage this harmful technology! We should, at least, keep novels out of the reach of children.

Indeed "Is It a Book That You Would Even Wish Your Wife or Your Servants to Read?"

This is a Quote from the LadyChatterley’sLover Trial in the 60's


This has always been the thing for me - I hate reading a novel and not going cover-to-cover. I get so immersed and coming out of it feels like ruining the experience.

I got in trouble in high school for reading the Dragon Reborn novels during class. Mostly band class.

Carai an Ellisande! Tai'shar Manetheren! Tai'shar Malkier!

Tai'shar Cualquier!

Oh wow I have exactly the same problem. I really dislike putting down a novel half read I usually won't start reading until I know I'll be able to spend a large amount of uninterupted time on it. Which typically means a weekend. Long distance flights are good too.

It also does mean a lot of late nights.

Perhaps as a result of this I am a very fast reader. My former housemate would lend me novels to read sometimes and would be astonished when I'd return them to him a few hours later read.


Binge reading was serious problem with the Stieg Larsson Millenium novels, starting with 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'. I didn't sleep much until I finished them.

I remember that. Nothing else was done while I was reading them.

Seriously, that's why I read so few books - it's like jumping on a long-haul express train, when I really need to get off in 30 minutes to do all that I need to do. But nooooooooo.

I'm very thankful to authors that have chapters with a small sense of closure, it somewhat alleviates the problem.

The last book I read was "To Say Nothing Of The Dog" by Connie Willis - a great sci-fi - and it had this property, along with a brief summary of the chapter preceding it (a summary that somehow was not a spoiler!), in the style of "Three Men In A Boat (to say nothing of the dog)" -- yet another great brook that inspired this one.

It really helped me to put it down and go to bed at night, and I wish other authors followed suit.


You may find webserials interesting. They're novels (generally multiple novels in length) published a couple/few chapters a week. You may get into the binge mood if you're reading one already completed or catching up with one currently publishing but once you're at the point waiting it's really nice to be forced to stop and wait.

I actually deleted my second paragraph before posting, which was about how recently a couple webserials have made this even worse. According to their estimated page counts, I've read something like 10,000 pages in less than 3 months.

Now I went to law school more than 15 years ago, so the web was a little different then than today. However, I went three years without reading a single novel or any other significant piece of non-legal anything, for fun or not, for that whole three years. So it wasn't the web keeping me away from reading.

As soon as I was done, I read Les Miserables, then Player of Games by Ian Banks, then few (2-3) other sci fi novels that I don't specifically remember, and then a bunch of random stuff.

I loved it all. I will grant that this is possibly because I had been denying myself that pleasure in order to focus on the grueling pursuit of law school, and that I had wanted to be reading novels the whole time.

I am not convinced that the problem is only going long periods of time without. I have done that. My wife did the same when she went to law school. Maybe that's part of it, but I would guess that training your brain on fluff for that period of time is not an insignificant part of it.


> The problem isn’t the fluff we read online. The problem is that when you go long periods without reading novels, it’s harder to pick up a novel and enjoy it. Reading fluff online doesn’t make you stop reading novels, though, any more than watching TV makes you stop reading novels. It’s entirely possible to do both, with the caveat that everyone’s time is limited. But there’s nothing about browsing online that intrinsically makes it hard to read novels.

First, the issue isn't that what's being read is "fluff", but rather that online reading promotes that "grafted, spasmodic" style of attention.

Second, you're completely wrong that the media formats we consume don't affect the other media formats we consume.


> Second, you're completely wrong that the media formats we consume don't affect the other media formats we consume.

Provide some evidence for this claim. People have been decrying the short attention span that “new media” creates for as long as there has been anything that could be described as “new media”.


>Provide some evidence for this claim.

This is exactly what Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf (i.e., the book being reviewed here) does.


Does it? I don’t have the book, but it sounds from the review that this is a pet theory with no scientific backing.

> The problem isn’t the fluff we read online.

There are some alternative theories linking deep immersive reading and short sporadic reading to different parts of the brain. Spending significant time online does seem to lead to shorter attention spans.

https://www.wired.com/2010/05/ff-nicholas-carr/


>The problem isn’t the fluff we read online. The problem is that when you go long periods without reading novels, it’s harder to pick up a novel and enjoy it.

Can't it be both? If our brains adapt based on the way we consume information, wouldn't it make sense that both abstinence from reading novels and reading through a drastically different medium would potentially degrade performance in reading novels?


Maybe, but many people read tweets and novels, just as many people watch short clips on YouTube but also watch 3-hour films and binge watch entire drama series on Netflix.

I don’t see much evidence that consuming fluff significantly impacts our ability to consume material with depth. With the exception that they are competing for time.


It's less about depth vs fluff than sustained focus and engagement vs scattered, rapid micro-doses of information. Yes, many people read both tweets and novels, but they have different demands and the brain adapts. Somebody who exclusively reads tweets could be less adapted to effectively engaging with a novel than somebody who reads both novels and tweets, and both people would be less effective than somebody who exclusively reads novels. That hierarchy would in turn be inverted with respect to effectiveness at consuming rapid, scattered chunks of information.

I'm not a neuroscientist, I just don't think it makes sense to say "well that can't be true because not reading novels for a while also makes you worse at reading novels". Identifying an additional cause for a given symptom doesn't disprove the validity of all other causes.


The problem is the utter lack of evidence for the claim. The assertion that reading tweets makes it harder to read novels is not supported by any evidence I’m aware of.

You can find plenty of people saying “I stopped reading books because of [X,Y, or Z] and now it’s harder to read books”. But the common thread there is not X, Y, or Z. It’s “I stopped reading books”.

The idea that “adaptation” to one type of reading makes other types of reading harder doesn’t sound unreasonable but that doesn’t mean it’s actually true. Adaptation to running doesn’t exactly make walking harder.


> The idea that “adaptation” to one type of reading makes other types of reading harder doesn’t sound unreasonable

This is all I'm saying. Neuroplasticity is fairly well-documented and the author's theory seems plausible based on what we know about it.

> You can find plenty of people saying “I stopped reading books because of [X,Y, or Z] and now it’s harder to read books”.

Unless those people are all living off the grid, they were also reading through different mediums during the time that they weren't reading books. Again, seems reasonable that both have an impact, but you can hardly claim this as evidence for your theory and reject it as evidence for the author's theory given that both suggested factors were imposed simultaneously.


Stepping back for a second, do you agree with the statement “Not reading books for an extended period of time makes it harder to start read books again”?

If so, how do you establish causal effect for some other action coupled with no longer reading books? Literally any action coupled with “I don’t read books anymore” will lead to “its hard to read books now”. The secondary action could be “I read Twitter” or “I got married” or “I lost 50 pounds”. It doesn’t matter because the condition for “hard to read books” is already met. This “X and Y implies Z” is a common pattern for falsely attributing effect Z of X to Y.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “I still read books an hour every night, but it’s really hard now that I also read Twitter.“ I have heard plenty of people say “it’s hard to read books now that I stopped actually reading them consistently for reason X.”

Maybe reading fluff online is a factor, but it’s probably a pretty small factor relative to the fact that you’re allowing a skill to atrophy when you don’t use it.


You didn't provide any evidence for your claim either: "The problem is that when you go long periods without reading novels, it’s harder to pick up a novel and enjoy it. "

Also, even if correct, you didn't address the risk factors involved that may cause "go long periods without reading novels".

It's intuitively attractive (but I'm not going to research the research right now) to presume that "junk" content -- stuff that provides immediate stimulatio (be they pictures, sounds, foods, or text) that are highly stimulating in a small package have a tendency to crowd out slower-stimulating content.


I think it’s generally agreed (and supported by endless research) that no longer using a skill (in this case “deep reading” or whatever you like to call it) will result in the atrophy of that skill.

But you’re right that I didn’t present evidence. I don’t think this subject has been meaningfully studied. So what I presented was an argument for why concentrating on “sporadic reading” is missing the forest for the trees. People used to say that TV resulted in a decline in reading. Now they say that reading crap results in a decline in ability to read books. If you want to be good at reading books, then read books and stop worrying about the other stuff. Reading crap on Twitter might make you a worse book reader, or a worse runner, or a worse painter, or a worse whatever. Practicing the skill you supposedly care about will do a lot more than giving up Twitter, regardless.

> It's intuitively attractive...

Intuition is the road to junk science. Don’t rely on intuition if you cannot support it with data or logic.


There's something ironic here about how you felt the need to do a "translation" of two perfectly intelligible English sentences...

This reminds me of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Many people believe the story to be about censorship, but Bradbury himself (in his later years) publicly claimed it was about peoples' increasingly short attention spans. In Fahrenheit 451, people were afraid of books because the stories, thoughts, and concepts were more than mere sound-bytes and were thus unintelligible to the masses with shortened attention spans.

Radio has contributed to our ‘growing lack of attention.’ .?.?. This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people. ~Bradbury

Source: https://www.laweekly.com/news/ray-bradbury-fahrenheit-451-mi...

[Edit] Punctuation & typos.


I tried reading 451 once, since it seemed up my alley. I got about a chapter in, put it down and never picked it up again. It wasn't that I didn't like the book (I don't remember if I did), but I just happened to get really busy right after that and just forgot that I ever started reading.

Maybe if I had read it I would understand the importance of having an attention long enough to finish the book. Thing is if I had that attention span the lesson would be lost on me since I'm already reading the book.

In other words, a book teaching the importance of reading books is teaching a pointless lesson.


Good point. I enjoyed it, but never picked up on the attention-span lesson at all; I read it thinking it was about censorship. I know now that the author's intent was to write a story about attention-span. I now take it to be a social commentary. Side-note: after reading the book, I rented the movie on DVD. The DVD had a scratch on it -- a scene faded out, the player hit the scratch and skipped ahead... it landed on a fade in scene. I didn't even notice. The movie I watched was only about 20 minutes and I thought "man, they left out a lot of stuff".

bradbury's stance on Fahrenheit 451 is what convinced me that authorial intent is irrelevant.

Funny, that was how I read it too. The book burning didnt seem to be the emphasis as much as the way everyone was being actively distracted away from more complex thought. Books were just the vessal.

Hopefully, some aspiring psychologist or neuroscientist will be able to quantify the effect. My hypothesis is that this is driven by an information seeking dopamine reward cycle and that for some reason we lose the capacity in our executive function to regulate it. Much like an addiction. There is so much digital distraction. Similar to ADD perhaps? You can also see this in modern movies, shows and cartoons where the pace has quickened. It's hard to watch old movies or older cartoons etc... Watch old episodes of Sesame St vs new episodes and you can see the shift. And even then kids get bored of new episodes with the ultimate addiction being youtube. I actually don't find youtube too bad in moderation because kids do take ideas and try to play with them in the real world. You just have to be sure they aren't overexposed and exposed to ideas that are not healthy. What I am saying is that I do see imaginative play despite youtube or that incorporates youtube.

So in this hyper digital world it feels like we have less time. Even though time remains the same. There is always something seeking our attention and for the most part it is unimportant but we can't ignore it.


After the 2016 election, during which I spent an inordinate time online, constantly searching for some 'new' piece of information like a smoker lighting up a cigarette before the last one had finished burning, I realized that I was having a harder time than usual getting through the books I was reading. The effect was two-fold: not only was I spending more time online, I was fragmenting my attention; when I sat down to read a book, I found my brain was pausing for interruptions. I was training myself to self-interrupt. The book, "The Distracted Mind" goes deep into the science behind this phenomena, and is really worth checking out.

It sounds a bit silly to assume that reading a hundred reddit posts a day would interfere with my reading of a good novel. I haven’t encountered anuthing even close to it, but I guess it might be different for others?

I've definitely noticed it myself. I have a much harder time reading novels or any long-form content these days, and I suspect it's due to consuming lots of very-short-form content on a daily basis. On HN and elsewhere on the internet you can consume a huge number of distinct ideas in a very short time. This causes me to now be impatient with long-form pieces where I find myself wanting to just "get to the point already". It's a quantity vs. quality problem. The internet tends to favor quantity.

It's something I'm trying to work on because there's obviously immense value in books and long-form reads (and a lot you get out of them that you can't get out of little snippets and quick articles).


I’ve experienced this off and on but I disagree with the cause.

The only reason that HN and Reddit interfere with my ability to read books is because they both compete for the same ~100 waking hours each week that I don’t spend at work. If I don’t read any novels for a few months it’s hard to pick one up and actually get through it. If I just finished reading three books in the Dresden Files or Vorkosigan Saga, picking up book #4 is a no-brainer and with Kindle it’s easy to slip into the habit of binge-reading. Like, I’m halfway through the book but if I call in late tomorrow I can probably finish the book tonight. And then a couple months later, if I haven’t been reading books, book #5 can seem like a total chore.


What kind of long-form content do you have problems with? All kinds, or just long-form articles/journalism we're told we're supposed to enjoy?

I have huge problems with the latter, but that's just because I hate fluff, and most of those articles are 10% content and 90% offtopic musings about boring things (like life stories and emotions of people tangentially related to the main theme). Wanting a piece to "get to the point already" is healthy IMO, as it's a natural defense mechanism against wasting time.

There is an invalid assumption that I believe underlies a lot of those "kids these days have no attention span" observations - that all content is automatically deserving to be consumed. It's not. On the contrary, most content is pure waste of time. Given how limited our lives are, and how flooded the world is with content these days, being extremely selective and intolerant of bullshit is the right, healthy thing to do.


> 10% content and 90% offtopic musings about boring things

The worst problem I have with them is the structure. It is bait and switch, structured a bit like US TV Shows:

"Coming Next - you will learn the extraordinary conclusion X reached", but first let's go back 20 years to X formative years. Back to the present, X started working on Y where he made his huge discovery, but before talking about it let me give some context. And now you know why it is important, and X has been taking an original approach, to really understand how original, let me explain you all the other approaches first, except I won't explain any of those fully, just jump back and forth from one to the other, not necessarily in chronological order, just to build some sort of bullshit tension leading up to ... the sister of X explaining what she thinks of X and now we are back 40 year to learn about X grand parent living in the rigour of communist somewhere would create the core family value X is the present culmination of ...

You can't even reach directly to the end because the conclusion it is wrapped in pages of semi-intellectual musing.

edit: Make me think also of the semi-intellectual vocabulary. Nothing should be said clearly. X didn't have a dog, he "had a canine confident that contrasted with the rest of the family which was generally more attracted to the feline order"


Definitely this. I'm currently carrying a book (as always), and still here I am reading HN. I've long observed this happening, but the novel reading habit is surprisingly hard to re-establish.

>I've definitely noticed it myself. I have a much harder time reading novels or any long-form content these days, and I suspect it's due to consuming lots of very-short-form content on a daily basis

I'm curious. Is your difficulty reading long form in paper form, or on a device? Have you tried reading actual paper (or even an ebook that is not "connected")?

When I switch to physical paper, it's almost as if my brain goes into a different mode.


I think it might be a bit easier on paper but I still struggle with it regardless of the medium.

"there's obviously immense value in books and long-form reads"

Is there? Or are you just saying that because it's expected and you'd feel embarrassed if you said otherwise?

Humans are pattern matchers, what if we see patterns more easily from many examples, rather than one? What if we extract patterns more easily seeing them from many points of view instead of just one author?

Is a neural network better trained on one high detail photo, or a dataset of many photos?


Someone's got to have a better comeback than a downvote. You know where there's "obviously immense value"? Oil fields. People literally kill to control them.

Nobody kills to take control of a library.

At best you could say people get into massive debt for education. But at the same time, education is clamouring for online courses, videos, conferencing, teachers, interaction, and textbooks are widely considered a problem - low priority, low quality, a racket, going back years since Richard Feynman's famous story about reviewing them at least.

Books, especially academic books, are increasingly given away for free online - when people will pay for entertainment.

How many people learn from a teacher, a course, or learn by doing, vs how many actually learn from books?

People don't treat books the way they treat things they value. There may be immense value in books, it's not "obvious".


> Is there?

In my experience, yes. Some of the best & most memorable stuff I've read were in books both novels and non-fiction.


In my experience, it's very real. Years of social media pushed me out of the habit of reading real books. Two problems - first, social media started filling the time I might spend knocking off a chapter in a book. Second, it got me used to the fortune-cookie size of writing, making it hard to switch gears to reading big ideas developed over many pages.

Earlier this year, I quit my core social media (FB, Twitter), and focused on reading real books, which was wonderful. I got in the habit of putting books that could be read in small doses on my phone's Kindle app for small breaks like walking or bathroom breaks.

Then I let myself have FB and Twitter on the phone again, because I "needed" them for something or other, and I was right back to the Likes addiction and wasting time. Then one day I realized I hadn't read a book all day, I was just checking FB. So the apps are removed from the phone again.

But yeah, reading books - especially difficult books - is such a different experience from social media, that reading social media actively interferes with at least my own ability to read them. Then again, I have a taste for pretty heavy books.


I think I'm a bit opposite in that I find web / short form reading difficult. Most of it is of low or negative value due either to narcissism (no, your tech howto doesn't need 600 words about your breakfast or social life) or to gaming search engines with various techniques. (Do you know how to do keyword stuffing? Many people are interested in keyword stuffing. They ask themselves, how can I stuff keywords, and you've come to the right place folks because everyone tells me I'm the greatest keyword stuffer of all time, everyone says it, and where should they be stuffed? It's a tremendous thing, believe me folks.) This extends to Youtube videos as well. Want to learn how to do good cuttings of some plant? First 8 minutes of the video are about how they scored free movie tickets and then omg last night the bbq was great and blah blah blah. It is garbage, and I've come to assume that any short-form reading or Youtube video has a 98% chance of being a huge waste of time. So before the 15MB of bloat has finished downloading, and before the multiple screen redraws, my eyes are already darting around the page looking for exits.

Side note: a result is that I tend to stick to no-BS sources and since there aren't that many, I invariably lose some diversity of thought. Sigh.

Books are still great though! All my love to the public library.


It's hard for me to switch between skimming and reading intently. If I've been browsing news aggregator sites, I have to consciously slow down and stop skipping around when I sit down to read a book. Personally it's not as hard as what Wolf describes.

First off, I haven't studied Maryanne Wolf's neuroscientific research on "deep reading" and its claimed benefits. But, as a person who has read most of the major thick books like Moby Dick, War & Peace, Les Miserables, Middlemarch, Proust, and reading cover-to-cover the old computer books like the 3-ring binders of C Language[1], my lifetime reading experience could offer counterpoint to why "deep reading" seems to be a lost activity:

Most of the text out there is just not good quality that deserves or rewards deep reading.

My pet theory is that the rampant skimming or "shallow reading" is basically the brain performing a hidden Bayesian probability that any random text put in front of us isn't worth the effort of deep reading.[2] This is why many of us go to HN comments first instead of reading the actual article. The Bayesian priors told us that the "tldr" in the comments got to the point where the article all-too-often had a self-indulgent author that meandered all over the place and wasted our time. Therefore, "shallow reading" isn't bad for us... it's our way of optimizing against "information overload".

Even college professors who are used to heavy reading workloads skim new work. I'd argue this is another manifestation of Bayesian priors.

To back to my C Language example. I didn't really learn C by reading those binders cover to cover. (Deep reading.) I really learned it when I did shallow reading across fragmented sources like USENET comp.lang.c forum and playing around with toy programs. So maybe deep reading isn't the answer but the attention restriction from not being distracted with Twitter and Instagram notifications. In other words, maybe we're conflating benefits "uninterrupted study" with "deep reading".

[1] https://www.betaarchive.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=33794

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law


This is why many of us go to HN comments first instead of reading the actual article.

Now I'm a bit ashamed haha.

Anyway, I've read her book, and have to admit that I skim quite a bit. Her writing style is deep and informative, but with a lot of literary allusions. I found my knowledge and life experience is still inadequate to understand everything she wrote. Overall an interesting read though!


I was going to highlight the same exact sentence, and then realized you did it too. Funny, no?

You mean half of HN reader? :p

For anyone who found the above too long, basically she means that deep reading often wastes too much time and you don’t know ahead of time what to read. She didn’t mention that you can check other shorter sources before you commit to reading, like reading this comment before hers.

>, basically she means that deep reading often wastes too much time

I apologize that you found my text length was too long but I thought the extra background was necessary to state why deep reading is often a waste of time.

If I only state a 1 sentence punchline in my original post, it can seem like a cheap hit-and-run comment and therefore not really engaging with the article's arguments. (Or the extreme brevity would just invite snark such as "you probably don't have deep reading skill". Therefore, a writer's reflex is to defensively preempt that with extra words that try to establish street cred.)

I thought it would be interesting to share that many of us can do "deep reading" and yet we don't bother with the effort -- and that behavior is not a contradiction. Instead, it's an optimization of limited reading time. This tradeoff doesn't seem to be reflected in Maryanne Wolf's research.

>She didn’t mention that you can check other shorter sources before you commit to reading,

I actually did and I specifically used "HN comments" as an example of readers trying to find a tldr summary and why it's a rational strategy.


> I apologize that you found my text length was too long but I thought the extra background was necessary to get state why deep reading is often a waste of time.

I read @EGreg as poking a bit of fun, rather than raising a legitimate complaint: simultaneously supporting your point, but also gently pushing at the limits of shallow reading.


<sarcasm> We need a digest of HN comments for people don't have time to read the comments about an article regarding people not having time to read everything that they come across </sarcasm>

I was just making a joke, with a few layers :)

Part of that joke was that I probably got your gender wrong while summarizing, and I made it like I missed what you said about the “HN contents” because I skimmed too fast before I summarized in my own comment.

Kind of meta that the comments which we may look to, before reading the article, may themselves have skimmed it and missed the point!

To make the joke more obvious I also replied to my own comment!


TLDR: Read short HN comments before articles / parents.

That was a long paragraph, but I agree with the general premise that a lot of books are tripe worse than TV shows and video games, so we shouldn't put them on a pedestal.

> a lot of books are tripe worse than TV shows and video games

I've never been a fan of this line of thinking. There are plenty of people who use critical thinking skills and participate in mentally stimulating activities throughout the day. When it's over, they just want to relax. So they watch shows like Family Guy, read basic action novels, or play Grand Theft Auto for an hour or two.

Why does everything have to be in pursuit of knowledge or something that contributes to a community?


I don't think anyone would disagree that the vast majority of content in any medium is tripe. And that doesn't assert that it fails to make "a positive contribution to knowledge". IMO "tripe" implies only: 1) it fails to achieve its intended end, usually through incompetence, or 2) it achieves its intended end, but it's aesthetically or ethically vile (like hate speech or child porn), or 3) it's a time filler, a mindless distraction, usually a palatable cliché.

I think it's fair to say the vast majority of popular media belongs in classes 1 or 3. To deride such fare as "tripe" isn't unfair. Tripe has utility too. It's just bowel meat.


I am not a fan of "basic action novels", because at that point you can go play GTA or play paintball, and you would get way more entertainment out of it. I guess I am arrogant in the sense that I like reading books that at least have a competent human being as the author, i.e. not Sanderson or whoever wrote that supernatural detective series that a certain demographic used to read.

But I see what you mean - there is a time and a place for anything.


> I haven't studied Maryanne Wolf's neuroscientific research

I thought I'd call out that the author is not a scientist and that her "neuroscience" is a soft science like political science or social science. The author has a degree in Literature and not in Psychology or any biological sciences.


fwiw, one thing I've learned is to just ditch books early if they aren't rewarding. Someone's rule of thumb is to give a book 50 pages to engage you. Yeah, you may miss out on some good stuff, but every minute you spend reading something is a minute you spend not reading something else that may be better. We'll never, ever, ever run out of good things to read.

answer is: time :)

It's more like 'thinkjuice'. The act of making all the perceptual discriminations required to consume 100,000 words cuts into the cognitive budget.

Also might just be easier and more convenient to read the articles online. We have laptops, phones, tablets, emails as mediums to read "100,000" words but a novel (preferably on canvas) is physical and limited by nature. I can read hacker news at work but I cannot just whip out Oliver Twist when I'm 'sneaking' a break.

the average person “consumes about 34 gigabytes across varied devices each day” — some 100,000 words’ worth of information - seems like an odd and misleading statistic.

Yeah, that's silly. 34 gb is 34 billion bytes, so if each byte is a character and the average word about 5 characters, 34 gb should be more like 6.8 billion words.

Also, most of that 34 gb is probably video anyway, in which case we may as well say the ancients consumed many gb of information per day in the form of looking at the world around them.


That number could be made arbitrarily high... an hour of 720p TV is 1280 * 720 * 3 * 60 * 3600 is 238GB

Granted my eye averages/summarized the pixels and my brain ignored a lot of the content (i.e. I don't notice the clock ticking in the corner while the hero is fighting the bad guy), yet still an argument could be made that that's the amount of data I'm exposed to while watching an hour HD movie through my HD display.


You are mistaking words for information. This message has few dozens words but much more information :)

Oh, no way. The information conveyed through human language is an abysmal drip compared to the actual number of letters used to spell it out.

Even without knowing anything semantic, compression algorithms can squeeze text down to much fewer bits. And both of our minds together have a shared dictionary of concepts and thoughts gzip doesn't have access to. The actual number of bits conveyed is rather low.


English contains around one or two bits of information per character, so actually they are basically correct. See http://www-isl.stanford.edu/~cover/papers/transIT/0413cove.p... and http://www.anthology.aclweb.org/J/J92/J92-1002.pdf.

Yea, to put it in somewhat manageable terms, War and Peace in plain text is about 3.2mb (Project Gutenberg). I know damn well I am not consuming anywhere near that much daily. Doubt anyone is on a regular basis.

If the 34gb is in terms of the "video" you intake, even just going outside and bird watching or sitting in a park... I guess? Sure? Still, misleading really.


It’s also demonstratively untrue.

100,000 words is, by itself almost certainly under a megabyte.

(Avg word length (let’s say 6) * number of words = number of bytes)

If you count -everything- then you’re basically insinuating that people on data caps are either consuming less (and because it’s an average, everyone else consumes much more) or outright claiming that you can quantify data that is consumed outside of a computational device.


Agree. Also, even watching videos for 24 hours it seems unlikely that you'd go through 34GB worth. Maybe the size of video files has gone way up since I was a movie downloader, but 12 2 hour movies is probably < 34GB..

At 1080p60 it's probably doable (heck, I wouldn't be surprised if I've beaten 34GB when sick), but it's still a rather absurd figure. Are they counting each site visited, including javascript and CSS, without caching, and every video loaded on Facebook, even if unwatched? I doubt even such a measurement would approach 34GB on average.

It really depends on where you measure it. A 4k BluRay is somewhere around 60-80GB for a single movie. But then when that is uncompressed and sent to the actual screens you are talking multiple gigabits a second. With 4k60 being somewhere in the 12 to 18 gbit range at the peaks. If it were at 16gbit for 2 hours, that would be ~14TB of information transferred.

If you are talking streaming bandwidth, Netflix says 25mbit is required for 4k video streaming. If it were to use all of that for 2 hours that is 22GB for a movie. Though its likely only using half that. I haven't actually measured it. And then there is the same inflation to what is sent to screen.


As a point of interest, there are audio- and cinephiles who prefer 10bit color depth, 5.1 FLAC audio. I'm not one of them, but I stumble across their files sometimes, and I have seen stuff like Blade Runner (~2h run time) to the tune of 20-30GB (IIRC).

10bit h.264 was actually introduced as a way to reduce file size. I'm not familiar with the details, but apparently it reduces noise in the compression algorithm.

You can even find 4K remuxes weighing in at over 50 GB.

a blu-ray rip with no reencode can easily be 20-30GB. even the higher bitrate 1080p encodes found on public trackers can be 8-12GB. pretty easy to go through 34GB of high quality 1080p movies on a domestic plane flight (if you have the storage).

seems it stems from a study called "How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers"

from the management summary :

"In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. (...) We defined “information” as flows of data delivered to people and we measured the bytes, words, and hours of consumer information. Video sources (moving pictures) dominate bytes of information, with 1.3 zettabytes from television and approximately 2 zettabytes of computer games."

I found a copy here : http://group47.com/HMI_2009_ConsumerReport_Dec9_2009.pdf


The only way I could think of to interpret this, is to take the content in 1 hour of video and figure out how many words it takes to give you that same knowledge. This will vary based on the type of contents (nature documentary, vs a thriller move, etc). But to start with, assuming watching a regular drama. An 80,000 word novel can turn into a 2 hour movie, so each our of video is worth 40,000 words. But a lot is left out when making a novel into a movie, so you may need to take the Reader's Digest version, which gives you 20,000 words per hour. That means that people take in about 5 hours worth of video content a day.

Note, these numbers are my best guess, would like to see better numbers filled in.


Especially when we consider that the computer is the one consuming bytes. English's information entropy per character is quite low, & we consume text, not bytes

https://cs.fit.edu/~mmahoney/dissertation/entropy1.html


If I consumed that much per day on average I’d have major bandwidth overage charges at the end of the month. (In Canada, at least, where caps are often ~200-300GB)

The precise number doesn't really matter. The strongman interpretation is that we just read and skim too much each day.

If so, the title of the article is meaningless clickbait. From reading the article it seems to me the author takes the phrase at face value as they imagine skim reading a third of Middlemarch in a day. I'm surprised they describe different modes of reading as a skill future people will have, since afaik it's normal for most people to approach different types of texts at different speeds and paying attention in different ways. I can skim quickly over comments and articles just building an understanding of the context and basic information and conclusions people are using, while I will read a scientific article anywhere between ½ and 3 pages per hour if I'm actually trying to understand a difficult concept.

That statement makes about as much sense as saying that on average, a human being consumes 4 million droplets of water a day. That is, it's off by 2+ orders of magnitude, and a stupid comparison in the first place. There's nothing to strongman here, IMO.

It's clear what the author meant, yeah, but the fact that they blithely throw around big numbers while clearly not understanding what they mean does affect their overall credibility.

There is no way we skim _billions_ of words every day, on average. Remember one word every second is about 30 years for a billion, so even at ten words a second, you are still taking about 3 years.

So even assuming almost all of that is video, I will still have to question it -- at 2gb/hr that is constantly watching video for more than 16 hours.


It might be accurate if you include every tracker on every article page. If that still doesn't get you there, you can pad it out with youtube and netflix.

And it's not at all clear what "consumes" means here.

If I flick through a news feed of some kind, skimming for headlines that might interest me, am I "consuming" every image and video that scrolls past?

I clicked the link but didn't read the article; have I "consumed" it?


Odd and misleading is WaPo’s MO.

Reading that "online content destroys the old way we used to consume information" kind of observation always remind me of that : https://xkcd.com/1601/


I was just thinking a service like this would be useful, and the large sum I would pay to not be inundated with animated ads when reading articles.

If it's just the articles, ad blockers work, as does reader mode(s). Even AMP would if they offer it, but AMP is an evil hostile takeover attempt from Google.

If it's the subscription paywall, just get the subscription. Else, don't read it on a site infringing on copyright - you're not entitled to the content.


How about illegally charging more if you don’t want to consent to their tracking regime?

How is it illegal to charge?


Thanks a lot, never heard about Outline before.

to me, that looks almost exactly the same as the regular version with an adblocker... nice service though



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