Summary of Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts

Do you know how much time you spend on your phone each day? Screen time apps have been known to scare a few people when they are faced with the amount of time they spend on their phone each day. But is it really that shocking? Think about it, either your phone, laptop or tablet are probably next to you at this very moment. The internet is just a touch away and with it comes social media. It isn’t a strange occurrence to look at your phone to check your email and then notice you have a notification from one of your social media apps. Next thing you know, 30 minutes have passed and you still have not checked your email!

The way in which social media has taken over our daily lives is remarkable. What did we possibly do to fill the time before? But running even deeper than that, social media shapes our lives, our habits and perceptions unconsciously. Is this dangerous?

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Being able to access information all the time is a blessing and a curse
  • How the digital world stops us from feeling
  • How we process information has changed
  • Learning in the digital world means we have no context
  • Why you should read a book

Key lesson one: Being able to access information all the time is a blessing and a curse

Anything you need to know is at your fingertips. Literally. There is no need to go to multiple sources to find the information you require. It’s all there, in one place, just waiting for you to ask for it. But, because information is readily available, there is an interesting and somewhat sad repercussion. Acquiring knowledge in this manner makes it less meaningful and less gratifying. 

Just take GPS as an example. Before this nifty invention came about, we had to study maps and work out a route that we could use. Along the route, we would identify landmarks that would let us know we were heading in the right direction. Hence, when we finally embark on our journey, seeing the landmarks in the way got you excited and reaching your destination gave you a sense of accomplishment. However, nowadays, that has all been removed. The GPS guides you on your journey which makes you less observant of your surroundings. It asks you to turn, but do you remember what the street name is? Well, to be honest, you don’t need to know because your GPS will just tell you the way, right? We become more and more reliant on GPS navigation and less and less observant. There sense of gratification at reaching your destination is also substantially less. 

The author also uses his personal experience with music. He loved to discover new music by simply listening to something new and then researching the type of music and similar musicians. He’d speak to people about it, getting their opinions and listened to new radio stations. As much as this was time-consuming, he enjoyed the process. He would be exposed to so many different types of music that he would normally not have heard of. And when he found something he truly loved, he felt as if it were a reward and made the music all the more personal. Now, there are apps we can use which automatically introduce us to new music, make suggestions based upon what we listen to and show us what our friends are listening to. There’s no need for any human interaction.

Key lesson two: How the digital world stops us from feeling

Life is an interesting balance of internal and external experiences. Externally, there are adventures and accomplishments but that is not what is affected by the digital world. With a growing obsession with constant connection, our ability to know and be by ourselves diminishes. Just think about it. The introduction of instant messaging apps makes us available 24/7. Yes, it is very convenient but it also makes us expect that others will be available to chat all the time as well. This leads to us waiting for replies and seeking the approval of others instead of just trusting our own thoughts. Also, the thought of being alone is suddenly uncomfortable and depressing. We no longer know what it means to be self-sufficient. 

This also means that we are never really present in the moment. Instead, we are constantly seeking outside distraction instead of internal reflection. How many time have we pulled out our phones when we are feeling bored or lonely? We try to avoid uncomfortable feelings instead of trying to understand their origins and confronting them. A smartphone is a very convenient distraction, but it is also the source of much unhappiness, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. We browse through our friend’s photos looking at all that they are doing and suddenly question ourselves. The irony of this is that in most instances pictures are posted to fool us and everyone else into believing that we are living our best lives when in fact it is just a facade. 

Key lesson three: How we process information has changed

Our ability to concentrate on anything is greatly affected by the internet and mobile devices. We are constantly fighting against the clock, so anything that saves time is a blessing, or is it? In order to read a book or study something, we need not only time but focus. The internet provides a distraction. With every click, we are taken further away from the path we actually started on. 

In addition, how our brain processes information has changed. Instead of focusing and understanding concepts, we now quickly scan over information picking up the bits we find useful, However, there is no need to understand and retain this information, it can be easily found again. We move at such a fast pace because the digital world has provided faster processing. Even walking is no longer just walking. You take a walk down the street, looking at your phone, checking the news headlines, answering emails and checking social media. We have no time to be by ourselves let alone concentrate. 

If there is no longer time to learn, our brains stop working optimally. A study of taxi drivers showed that prior to the introduction of GPS fitted taxis, drivers had to know their routes, street names and alternate routes in their city of operation. As a result, their hippocampus was larger than normal. Now, by not using this part of the brain as much as we should, it could be negatively impacted and permanently affect our ability to memorize.

Key lesson four: Learning in the digital world means we have no context

Learning in the digital age is pretty easy. Whether it is a new skill, language or simply about a subject, all we have to do is use Google, YouTube or Wikipedia. It is extremely convenient but it poses one major problem. We have no context of the subject matter.

The information provided on the internet is by no means objective. Most sites do not offer a critical and independent point of view. An objective view can only come from a knowledgeable author who has studied the subject matter and considered multiple perspectives. Only then, will you have context and truly understand the subject. This is simply not how the internet works. They are working to improve it though. Google is hoping to scan every single book in the world in its universal library project. This would allow information to be cross-referenced for our benefit.

As much as this project would be amazing, it would change the way in which we learn. The concept of a book would be further destroyed and, quite frankly, that is not what we need.

Key lesson five: Why you should read a book

When last did you pick up a book? The very concept of written text is slowly excluding any printed form. Paper is a thing of the past, even in schools where there is an increased number of digital textbooks and online submissions. The repercussions of this have been felt on multiple levels.

Firstly, publishers are downsizing in order to survive. The only books that are published are those that have already have an audience. Sadly, young people are reading less and less as they no longer understand the importance of reading a book. It is much easier to watch a video or listen to an audiobook. This, unfortunately, has a negative impact on our imagination, our ability to reflect and our ability to contemplate ideas. People who read books use their imaginations to create the world they are reading about. It also allows them to be more in touch with their own reality and understand themselves as individuals. 

Reading nowadays takes extra effort. Not only do you have to find the time, but you also have to find the concentration and focus needed to read the book and understand it. As much as you may be tempted to try easier formats such as audiobooks and ebooks, these digital formats may just provide a distraction and barrier to progress. It will not allow you to connect to your intellect and engage your imagination as a printed book would. 

The key takeaway from Changing the Subject is:

The digital world is evolving so fast we are struggling to keep up the pace. In being so absorbed with the internet and social media, we are fast forgetting ourselves, changing the way we learn and the way in which our brains process information. The digital world may be convenient but it also alters us in ways that could be detrimental to our overall well-being. Understanding this and finding balance in our digital and real lives is key to leading a fulfilling life.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Changing the Subject:

Decrease your screen time. Try to remain present in moments and not reach for your phone to keep you company. Instead, be conscious of your surroundings and the people you are with. Read a newspaper instead of headlines on your phone, read a book instead of watching a show and maybe try to learn a new skill without using the internet at all. Take these small steps to decrease your screen time and reap the rewards in the long run!

🤙 Your Next Step… 🤙

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