Changing the Subject Book Summary - Changing the Subject Book explained in key points
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Changing the Subject summary

Sven Birkerts

Art and Attention in the Internet Age

4.1 (44 ratings)
12 mins

Brief summary

Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts explores how digital technology is changing our attention span and sense of self. The book questions what we lose and gain in the digital age, offering insight on the importance of mindful reading and deep thinking.

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    Changing the Subject
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    Easily accessible information makes our experiences less gratifying and our lives less meaningful.

    It’s pretty amazing to think about just how much information is available on the internet. Equally amazing is the fact that, nowadays, the answer to nearly any question is literally at our fingertips.

    But having all this knowledge so readily available comes at a price.

    First off, this convenience can make acquiring knowledge through first-hand experience seem less relevant and meaningful, which, in turn, can make life feel less gratifying.

    Consider GPS. While this tool is very helpful when you find yourself trying to navigate a new city, it also keeps us from becoming familiar with our surroundings. We come to rely on it, instead of maps and our intuition.

    Prior to the advent of GPS, people studied and interpreted maps and used their imaginations to picture the landscape around them.

    This allowed you to see for yourself a variety of different routes and how far you needed to travel. You could then immerse yourself in the details so you’d know where you’re going. And when you finally got there, you’d experience a substantial reward that following GPS just doesn’t provide.

    There’s a sense of gratification that comes with acquiring your own knowledge and putting it to use.

    The author used to experience this gratification by discovering new music. He would study the liner notes of albums he liked, reading about other artists who played on them, and then search for good radio stations and get recommendations from people he trusted.

    All of this would take time. But when he finally did hit musical pay dirt, the discovery would feel truly rewarding. And it wasn’t merely gratifying; it made music more personal. The extra work and effort made him feel connected to the musical scenes and artists that were around.

    In order to feel this kind of gratification, you need to feel like you’ve earned it by working for the knowledge you’ve gained. But this doesn’t happen in today’s digital age, with music services like Spotify and Pandora that just expose you to everything, one click at a time.

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    What is Changing the Subject about?

    Changing the Subject (2015) takes a critical and concerned look at how the internet is affecting our lives. In these blinks, you’ll find out how our constant connection to the digital world is causing us to lose our individuality, our attention span and our intellect. Are we headed for one giant hive mind, or can we put down our phones for a moment and reconnect with our own emotions?

    Best quote from Changing the Subject

    It is through the earning, the work of achieving, that we establish our psychological claim on our experience.

    —Sven Birkerts
    example alt text

    Who should read Changing the Subject?

    • Tech junkies addicted to their smartphones
    • Readers who are easily distracted
    • Luddites who oppose the internet revolution

    About the Author

    Sven Birkets is an essayist, literary critic and champion of the importance of reading. He is the author of many books, including The Gutenberg Elegies, published in 1994, which issued an early warning about how technology could adversely affect our reading habits.

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