The Kindle Fire in an Age of Distraction

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos debuted the Kindle Fire in September, the device was instantly heralded as a game-changer. Priced at just $199 compared to the iPad’s $499, the Fire democratizes handheld computing tablets by substituting smart design for high-end hardware, so that even regular folks can afford a tablet. Yesterday — only two weeks after the product’s launch — the Kindle Fire surpassed the iPad as Best Buy’s fastest-selling tablet. The Fire is also Amazon’s best-selling product overall, outpacing the lamer Kindle versions, which offer neither video nor the popular video game Angry Birds, but merely the written word.

Amazon seems to have learned a lesson from the late Steve Jobs, who derided the original Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” The company’s business model for the new tablet reflects the fact that Americans prefer to juggle a wide variety of games, apps, and videos rather than sit and focus on a book or essay. The case of the Kindle Fire demonstrates that today’s consumers embrace a lifestyle of interruption, multitasking, and limited focus. Unless we use the Fire and devices like it to read more books, our society may be driven to distraction.

According to a landmark study published in 2007, Americans are reading less than they were just a few decades ago. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that only half of young Americans reported reading a book for pleasure. No age group read as much or as often as they had previously in earlier years.

Unsurprisingly, as Americans read less, they are also reading less well. In a 2005 report, the Department of Education estimated that only 31% of college graduates were “proficient” at reading prose text. What does “proficient” mean? A proficient prose reader would be capable, said the report, of “comparing viewpoints in two editorials” or “interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity.”

However, Americans aren’t just reading worse because they’re reading less. More insidiously, the sort of reading that people do is more distracted. In the NEA study, what reading students still did competed with other media: 60% of middle and high school students reported texting, chatting, or watching videos while ostensibly reading.

Mind you, both of these studies predate the iPhone. The state of the American reader was disastrous even before Angry Birds was created and downloaded 500 million times. In 2005, we were distracted by digital media. Today, we are overwhelmed by it.

However, the Kindle Fire is not evil. Technology may be killing the paperback, but it isn’t killing reading. Our problem isn’t technology, but how technology combines with culture. Our problem is instead that we excuse and even celebrate the multi-tasker, who — Blackberry in hand — crams more work into every moment by deftly managing many streams of information.

The trouble here is that the successful multi-tasker is basically a myth. Only 2.5% of the population can juggle many simultaneous activities without performing less well at all of them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have demonstrated that people who focus can work with less stress than those interrupted frequently by emails, and that, in turn, repeated stress weakens short-term memory.

The multi-tasker is crippled by physiology. We have been programmed by evolution to respond to new information by dropping what we’re doing: With each tweet or e-mail notification comes a jolt of adrenaline — the same kind that got our monkey forefathers moving at the snap of a twig, before they’d even seen the stalking tiger. We privilege a model and live lives that are crippled by interruption.

We must prize reading — specifically, reading books and essays — for the sustained attention that they require. Certainly, reading correlates with a number of desirable traits (readers are not only more likely to graduate from college but also more likely to vote). But more importantly, books and lengthy prose are so valuable because we train our brains to do their most important work by sustaining attention and eschewing distraction.

“When you’re scattered and diffuse, you’re less creative,” says Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. “When your times of reflection are always punctured, it’s hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.”

Ultimately, the Fire — or a smartphone, or the internet — is just a medium, a way of consuming and sharing information. Even if new devices offer the potential for distraction, how we make use of them is a question of education and of discipline. On the one hand, this is a hopeful message: We can train ourselves to make time for contemplation each day and to prize diligent inquiry, to read The Atlantic as well as — but separately from Instapundit

On the other, I don’t expect our dangerous combination of technology and culture to change anytime soon. What we can see when we look around us are slipping standards in education and public discourse.

Still, a medium is what we make of it. A little birdie told me to expect a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I’ll stream movies and TV on it, sure. But the very first thing I’ll do is to read a big, fat (e)book.

 Photo Credit: Andy Inhatko

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Andrew O'Shaughnessy

A proud Brooklyn native, Andrew graduated from the University of Chicago, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and classical studies. He has worked for the Office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and for Alltuition, an education finance startup.

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