The Tech Threat: Literary Journalism in the Age of Interruption

Digital tools can benefit their users as long as they do not overpower personal relationships and social bonds.

You could be doing so many other things besides reading this essay: You could be shopping online, updating social media, or responding to text messages. You could be playing Words With Friends or asking your electronic assistant to add milk to your grocery list. You could be watching the next episode of your favorite television series through a streaming service on your tablet or giving in to the urge to check your email.

If you really do feel like reading, you could be Googling any work of literary journalism and likely finding it — or some part of it — at Longreads.com, some other publisher’s website, or even on Google itself.

It has never been easier to read anything you want to read — and it’s never been harder to actually find the time.

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While choosing to spend time in a more instantly gratifying way online is not an acceptable excuse for putting off doing the Hiroshima assignment, it is a believable one. Many people are sacrificing things they need to do in order to shop online or scroll through Facebook.

In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technologies and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter outlines the biological, cultural, and behavioral reasons so many of us find it difficult to distance ourselves from our devices. Yet, technological advances also allow access to more knowledge than ever before, freeing us from having to rely on memory, personal experience, and in-person networks. In Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson argues that technological changes are more positive than negative, and that by learning to use technology we can learn more and do better. None of the five books discussed here is examined as literary journalism. Rather, this essay explores the effects of technology on literary journalism. These books will be of interest because of the authors’ takes on the cultural shifts technology has set in motion, and how those shifts may impact literary journalism in an era of unprecedented access, communication, and distraction.

Literary journalism requires a commitment from both writer and reader. The reporting and writing demands exceed those of most other kinds of journalism. The reader must summon the attention span needed to engage with written works that are both long and meaningful. The fictional equivalent is not the airport novel but the work of literature. An investment in literary journalism presents its own rewards for readers. In his 2016 IALJS keynote address, William Dow explained this succinctly and well: “Literary journalism is foremost a pairing of literature and journalism — a combination perhaps more intimately related than any other two narrative genres because it is a way of posing problems and pursuing solutions in ways that no other paired or interfused genres can.” Literary journalists have always taken on the social, cultural, and political problems of their times, captivating their readers with exhaustive reporting and innovative approaches to writing. They take us into the experiences of people living through difficult things, such as war (cue Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, John Hersey, and Michael Herr), poverty (so many from which to choose, from Jack London to Barbara Ehrenreich), even guarding prisoners (enter Ted Conover and Shane Bauer). Through these true tales comes an understanding of pressing issues as well as of the human condition, one that can’t be achieved through poems or novels, inverted pyramids or data visualization.

Among the positive developments of technology, Longreads.com and startups, such as Latterly and Catapult, deliver excellent works of long-form and literary journalism to your inbox. Facebook makes these works easy to share. When stumbling across an intriguing article while browsing social media or clicking a link on another web page, free tools, such as Pocket, allow you to save the story, as does Facebook, to read later. In this fast-moving, technologically enhanced world, however, “later” may never come.

This essay pulls from Nicolas Carr’s landmark work, The Shallows, in which he examines research into neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to one’s environment and experiences. Carr explains that the brain continually changes in response to environments. Early humans adapted to the use of tools. In the current age, our brains are becoming adept at dealing with environments developed by technology, becoming better at skills such as multitasking and worse at focusing attention. As a result, our brains might be changing so it is becoming harder to read longer texts. The average person’s attention span was 12 seconds in 2000; it was only eight seconds in 2013.

“Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” Carr wrote. “Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”

In Irresistible, Alter writes an even darker conclusion. Not only is technology making us shallow, it is making us addicted. In our tech-immersive culture, the signs of addiction creep up slowly and are easy to miss. According to Alter, the six ingredients of behavioral addiction are “compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” Behavioral addictions have increased rapidly over recent decades, thanks to entrepreneurs’ electronic engineering for increasingly addictive behaviors propagated by the psychological and social rewards that come with the swiping, feedback, and fun experiences provided by an ever-evolving galaxy of affordable gadgets. While companies that make these devices continually promote the impression that the consumer is in control and that life is better because of the ability to look up anything, watch anything, and communicate with anyone, the personal and social costs of the near-constant interaction with screens are irrefutable. Alter is sure the technology entrepreneurs who have engineered truly addictive digital devices and activities knew what they were doing. Some of their greatest innovators, he notes, including Steve Jobs and Evan Williams, kept their creations out of the hands of their own children.

Alter draws a parallel between behavioral addiction and chemical addiction. How easy it is to look back at the early proponents of cocaine, including Sigmund Freud, with superiority. Today we know of the drug’s dangers. “But perhaps our sense of superiority is misplaced,” Alter writes. Just as cocaine charmed early adopters a century ago, “today we are enamored of technology. We’re willing to overlook its costs for its many gleaming benefits: for on-demand entertainment portals, car services, and cleaning companies; Facebook and Twitter; Instagram and Snapchat … and the rise of a new breed of obsessions, compulsions, and addictions that barely existed during the 20th century.”

Proponents of literary journalism should also be concerned about findings Alter relays about the decline in empathy among college students. Instances of online bullying and harassment are well documented, with teenage girls being especially cruel to one another on social networks. Literary journalism requires an interest in other people’s lives. Whereas the New Journalists of the 1960s “called attention to their own voices” in pushing the boundaries of journalistic writing, as Robert Boynton has noted, the “new, new journalists” distinguished themselves from the literary journalists of Tom Wolfe’s heyday through their reportorial feats, some of which included spending months or even years with their subjects. Conover spent nearly a year as a prison guard for New Jack, and Adrian LeBlanc spent almost a decade reporting Random Family. With online communication and texting overtaking face-to-face interaction, it is unclear how the changes in communication patterns will affect empathy: that is, can it develop adequately in the digital world? How will the next generation of literary journalists work in a culture that places little value on trying to understand other people’s experiences? Will the next generation of literary journalists have the conviction to pursue such deeply reported work?

As did Alter, Matthew B. Crawford in his book, The World Beyond Your Head, characterizes technology, especially the creators and marketers of technology, as a threat, but not because of technology’s addictive nature. Crawford believes technology is making the world too easy for us. In The World Beyond Your Head, he describes the disturbing forms many technological advances are taking, separating who we are from what we do in the world. Autonomous automobiles, near-constant electronic stimulation, and on-demand entertainment distract us from the difficult work of becoming individuals who make things and make mistakes. “Silence is now offered as a luxury good,” Crawford writes.

To realize one’s potential as an individual, each person must engage with the world. Crawford gives examples of individuals who mastered their environment, reaching their potential: The motorcycle driver who develops connections to both the motorcycle and the road, the short-order cook who achieves a well-orchestrated arrangement of ingredients and implements, and the hockey player who wields the stick as if it’s another body part. As engineers and other technologists develop more ways for people not to engage with the real world, however, easiness, not excellence in our individual areas of aptitude and interest, becomes the goal.

In The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford cites his own inability to focus on Aristotle when he knows he could just watch Sons of Anarchy, a television series he could talk about the next day with friends. “There is, then, a large cultural consequence to our ability to concentrate on things that aren’t immediately engaging, or our lack of such ability: the persistence of intellectual diversity, or not. To insist on the importance of trained powers of concentration is to recognize that independence of thought and feeling is a fragile thing, and requires certain conditions.”

Dan Lyons and Antonio García Martínez, in their respective memoirs, further the argument for not surrendering our culture to the whims and whiz-bang products of technology companies. Despite the appearances and hype, they learned that the technology startup world does not champion independent thought as much as it rewards moxie and marketing. Their accounts characterize the leaders of technological innovation, not as people with altruistic intentions nor, for the most part, remotely deserving of the hero status contemporary culture bestows on them. Instead of being evangelists for social and intellectual progress, the people at the helm are, in Lyons and Martínez’s experience, opportunists seeking personal wealth and status.

In Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, former Newsweek writer Lyons chronicles his experiences while aspiring to become a “marketing wizard” at a Boston-area software startup. Lyons’ hopes crest and fall in this classic fish-out-of-water story as he realizes the hip, venture capital-infused company with candy dispensers in the walls was more cult than business. “HubSpot is like a corporate version of Up With People, the inspirational singing group from the 1970s, but with a touch of Scientology. It’s a cult based around marketing. The Happy!! Awesome!! Start-Up Cult, I began to call it.”

Lyons came to HubSpot after being laid off at Newsweek. “I think they just want to hire younger people,” his boss had told him. “They can take your salary and hire five kids right out of college.” He finds a job at HubSpot after a stint at a technology news website. He makes it through several rounds of interviews, including with the company’s cofounders, who seem excited by his ideas and hire him to help improve the company’s place in the marketing world. Or so he thinks. “The work I’m doing will exist in a gray area — a mix of journalism, marketing, and propaganda. Halligan and Shah don’t know what this will look like, and neither do I. But it could be an interesting experiment.” Along with the work, he anticipates his stock options will turn into lots of cash once HubSpot goes public at some point in the future. What he finds is a company built on smoke and mirrors — and run by “bozos” who now “hire bozos.” Its product is sold to businesses the owners have decided need marketing software. Lyons finds that HubSpot’s sales and marketing workforce outnumbers that of its software development staff. He becomes a recorder of the hype — from the trainer who tells him and the other new hires, “HubSpot is changing the world,” to Fearless Fridays doing arts and crafts or anything, as long as it’s not their actual job.

This is the kind of company Lyons and Martínez see attracting venture capital in the United States today.

Other kinds are chronicled in Martínez’s memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. While Lyons gives an outsider’s look at start-up culture, Martinez immerses us in the sausage making at the factory floor level. But Martínez makes sure the readers know he’s not the typical technology entrepreneur: Lacking fortuitous “happenstance” or “membership in a privileged cohort” — paths others have taken to success in Silicon Valley — he succeeded through pure “skullduggery.” His views on just about everyone in that space, from venture capitalists to his old boss, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, are cultural-myth shattering. His is a tell-all, no-holds-barred, in-your-face memoir with lots of explanation breaks. (This is how Google makes money selling ads. This is the definition of a derivative.) Martínez’s Silicon Valley is a haven for sociopaths with work addictions, a mostly male bastion of ego-infused tech culture where women are either hot receptionists and/or sexual conquests.

Chaos Monkeys is part ego trip, part how-to book. Although Martínez doesn’t seem to be a trustworthy sort of person who has the reader’s best interest at heart, his approach to his subject matter is lively, authoritative, and unconventional. His book is definitely a worthwhile read.

Both memoirs make clear that tech culture doesn’t reward introspection, empathy, or other attributes required for literary journalism to be written and read. Of the five books reviewed here, only Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think is hopeful, making the argument that technology may be changing us for the better. Humans can use — and are using — technology to enhance their thinking, communicating, and problem-solving skills. He rightly points out that new technological shifts in media have always caused anxiety. Scholars worried the printing press would result in huge quantities of books without any way for the truly great ones to stand out. Instead of imperiling writing, however, the Internet has led to more people doing it. “They were all writers who were reading each other’s stuff, and then writing about that too.”

Thompson qualifies this rosy picture with an acknowledgement that he is choosing to focus on the positives technology offers. He agrees with Carr that new digital tools are making it more difficult to concentrate, that it’s up to individuals and institutions to know when and how it’s most beneficial — and least destructive — to use them. “At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive.”

Among the positive developments for literary journalism has been the explosion of multimedia-infused, long-form journalism sparked by the New York Times’ “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing in 2013. Over the years, developers have streamlined these presentations for easy viewing on mobile devices, where news consumers, especially Millennials, are spending much of their media time. But the phone is a distracting technology, especially when used in public spaces filled with other electronic stimuli, such as television. Crawford says we need an “attentional commons,” urging us to fight for distraction-free zones with the same urgency with which we preserve public spaces like libraries and parks.

To “reclaim the real” in a more general sense, however, Crawford recommends shifting focus from technology to “the intention that guides its design and its dissemination into every area of life.” As we learn more about the siren song of addictive technology, we are becoming more suspicious of it. For literary journalism, the warnings sounded by authors such as Alter bode well. He believes the answer to behavioral addiction lies with consumers reining in their own use and that of their children. Digital tools can still benefit their users as long as they do not overpower personal relationships and social bonds. Corralling technology’s reach is also important on a personal level. While we often watch, swipe, and interact with social media to amuse ourselves, we read literary journalism and other thoughtful, well-crafted texts to achieve greater things. “It matters,” writes literary critic Harold Bloom, “if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves.”

It’s not more time we need to get to that great read, or even fewer devices. It’s a different outlook.

Follow our Continuing Education section for discussions with academics concerning narrative reporting in the classroom and the state of media in colleges and universities; syllabi, reading lists, and coursework to continue your own education; and coverage of other topics in the study of journalism.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Collaborate: Partnership Credit

A version of this story was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).

Meet: About the Author

Jacqueline Marino joined the journalism faculty at Kent State University after spending more than a decade writing non-fiction stories and essays for magazines, newspapers and alternative newsweeklies. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Plain Dealer, and the literary journal River Teeth, among other publications. She is a former associate editor of Cleveland magazine and the author of the book White Coats: Three Journeys Through an American Medical School.