A World of Diminished Sensation

I have been reading a journal by Rodney A Smolla entitled “The Life of the Mind and a Life of Meaning: Reflections of Fahrenheit 451.” In his paper, he remarks that “our world today is increasingly a world of diminished sensation.  We trade physical reality for virtual reality.”  He talks about how we are so connected to our technology that we see everything via our laptops, and we lose the physicality of books.  For example, we don’t go to the library like we used to–we forget the journey of the senses that takes place when we open a book, smell the paper, feel the texture of the pages.  We don’t have to make a trip to check out a book, or browse the library shelves for a title that catches our eye. 

I remember when I was a little girl in elementary school.  Every Friday afternoon we went to the school library where the Librarian would gather us at her feet.  We sat cross-legged in a semi-circle around her while she read us a book.  When we were older elementary kids, we took field trips to the public library.  We all signed up for library cards and learned how to find the books we wanted to read.  Then we were allowed to go get them and check them out.  I remember the smell of the library–and every library has the same smell.  Books smell a certain way.  There is a feeling in the air of a library, one of quiet and peace.  If you look around at the people reading in a library, they are all people visiting another place and time.  They are all on a mental vacation. 

Reading is the one of the most important of leisure activities.  We slow down to a disciplined pace, and our thoughts become directed by what we read.  We go along, still and relaxed, yet alive in our minds.  Our minds are moving, reaching, learning, experiencing, and feeling.  We find meaning in reading because reading connects us to the world.  This is what CS Lewis meant when he said that “we read to know we are not alone.”  Yet, this is exactly what Bradbury is warning us about in Fahrenheit 451.  Smolla says that “an overly virtual world will ultimately become sensorially deprived, thought depleted, and meaning impoverished.”  Without books to link our senses to our thoughts, we disconnect from the world, and loneliness follows. 

My husband still goes to the public library.  He spends time there wandering through the stacks and reading in a corner.  I once asked him why he didn’t just order the ebook and his answer was “it’s not the same.”  And he’s right.  It’s not.  It’s not the same at all. 


Author: Linda

I am a writer, poet, blogger, calligrapher, chef, and morning shower songstress. I am wife, best buddy, and partner in crime to Peter. Together, Peter and I are enslaved to a small yet fierce Shih Tzu Overlord.

5 thoughts on “A World of Diminished Sensation”

  1. It’s true – ebooks aren’t the same as pbooks (paper books), and going to the library is nothing like browsing the Library to Go. However, curiously enough though, reading ebooks on my Kobo has had a beneficial effect on my reading behaviour: it’s forced me to really READ, slowly, page by page. In an ebook, I can’t just quickly skip through the pages, jump ahead over boring passages, as I’m wont to do with pbooks, because I can’t turn ten pages at once. So that’s actually been good for me and my reading.

    I hear what you’re saying (and what you’re saying Smolla is saying – I say!), and on the whole I agree, but I’m always leery of writings that claim that new technology leads us down the path of corruption. I’m sure that when the printing press arrived, oral storytellers bemoaned the loss of people’s ability to retain stories in their memories, and complained about how this new activity, this “reading”, isolated people from each other and from the real world. Or if they didn’t, they should have. Books led to a loss of communal storytelling, the physicality of the auditory story delivered in the storyteller’s unique voice, the communal experience of sitting in a circle, listening together and sharing the narrative experience. Maybe that wasn’t so great either? It’s just that five hundred years later, we don’t know any different any more. And books have given us so much, would we want to turn back the clock and return to oral storytelling by way of transmission of narrative?

    Just because something leads to change, and even to a certain amount of loss, does that mean it’s necessarily bad? (Just playing Devil’s Advocate here for a bit…)


    1. Hi Amo. Actually, I’m with you on this. Technology makes on-line education possible and I would be a hypocrite if I ‘dissed’ that technology. And ebooks are certainly more accessible today than waiting in line for books borrowed before you. I get that.

      I think Smolla is not as much anti-tech as he is anti-virtual reality. I think he’s using paper books vs literature on-line as an example of how people are giving up their ‘intellectual’ leisure time in favor of hurry up and rush, rush, rush. I think he is likening it to baking a cake from scratch compared to using a cake mix. It’s true that times change and we evolve ‘up’ to different levels and speeds of learning, and while I think that this is ultimately necessary under most circumstances, something is always sacrificed along the way. I think Smolla is remarking that our “joy in leisure” doesn’t have to be.

      After all, who doesn’t like a great campfire story? Lol.

      Thanks for your post.


  2. To add to the prior comment, I would just like to share two links that expand on the critique of claims like Smolla’s, claims that there is a binary opposition between “the virtual” and “real life” that privilege (and romanticize) the latter.
    Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson describes this kind of position as “digital dualism” and he argues it is a fallacy: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-irl-fetish/

    More relevant to literary studies, the scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes (like the previous commentator here) that statements of hostility to new media technologies have an ancient history, and – more importantly – ignore the dynamic explosion of reading and writing that the “read-write web” has catalyzed; see my summary of and commentary on her argument at https://landing.athabascau.ca/blog/view/242730/on-the-digital-transformation-of-the-literary-and-on-the-need-for-doing-our-work-in-the-open


    1. Hi Mark, thanks for those links, very interesting! “Digital dualism”, indeed.
      On the topic of reading and the internet, one of my kids literally learned to read by playing computer games (which became evident when he saw the word “comb” and asked “Shouldn’t there be an a-t at the end?”). He learned to read because it was useful to him, thanks to the internet.



    2. Hi Mark,

      I read your suggested piece by Nathan Jurgenson, “The IRL Fetish”. Something occurred to me as I read it. When radio was first invented and introduced into homes as forms of entertainment, there was a backlash. Some ultra religious groups said that radio was “from the devil.” But here’s the thing, as radio expanded to include radio shows, families were found across North America, in their living rooms, huddled around the radio for Jack Benny. My dad told me he used to sneak his radio into his bedroom, hide under the blankets and listen to “The Shadow”. After a while, everywhere people went, radio was playing in the background. And people believed in it–it became their reality. Remember the “War of the Worlds” scare after Orson Wells read the story over the radio? Then came television, and the whole of North America (practically) became slaves to their idiot boxes. Then came PCs. Now we have Facebook.

      What I’m getting to is that we are running to catch up in a way. In my home growing up, and this was the same in the homes of almost everyone I knew, there were rules around the technology. No phone calls during suppertime. The television was off during special meals such as Thanksgiving or Christmas or when we had company. The rules were a bit more relaxed on average days. No television until homework was done. No television after “lights out”. If we feigned sick to get out of going to school–no television. (Better off going to school. Lol.) Basically, there was something like telephone and television etiquette.

      I think that sort of thing is starting to happen now with social media and cell phones. There’s a “silence cell phones” in classrooms, offices, boardrooms, movies, theaters, gyms, churches, and in hospitals now–to name a few. There’s a no phone/text while driving law in effect–at least there is in BC. It’s becoming socially inappropriate to pick up a call during lunch with friends–unless it’s an emergency. We’re starting to normalize the technology as part of our everyday lives, and so we are also beginning to regulate it. I don’t think it’s about social media changing our outlook on reality as much as it is making a place for social media within our reality.

      Jurgenson talks about the fetishization of “off-lineness” saying people are now beginning to boast about all the time they spend away from Facebook. Well, it’s just that the pendulum is swinging back. I agree that the emerging attitude toward “being on-line is now NOT off-line” is a weird bit of pretentious idiomatic claptrap that some people sensate as reasonable. When really it’s not. I am working my blog right now. Does that mean I am off-television? He mentions that people are always thinking about Facebook, and their experience in the interlude away from Facebook will certainly become their statuses shortly. Well, of course. What’s the difference between posting photos on Facebook that record our life’s experiences and running down to one hour photo, getting a roll of 24 developed, and arranging all the photos in an album to show people? It’s the same thing. But why do all that when it takes a second to snap a photo and post it to the photo album on the Facebook page?

      Anyway. I also understand concerns about an entire generation of kids who walked the beaches of their youth and never once looked up. It’s sad, but I don’t think it’s going to stay that way forever. I think social media will fall into its slot just like radio did, and we will move on to the next big thing.


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