The Death of Critical Thinking Will Kill Us Long Before AI.

Joan Westenberg
7 min readSep 22, 2023

We have witnessed a multi-generational decline in reading comprehension. We read less, retain less of what we read, and struggle to engage in critical analysis. And if this trend continues, we risk undermining the very foundations of our society.

In the bite-sized content and viral media age, too many of us have lost — or are losing — the focus and patience for lengthy, complex texts. We skim and scan instead of closely reading. Our attention spans have shrunk to mere seconds. While technology has enabled the wide dissemination of information, it has also fragmented our thinking. We are overwhelmed by noise and sensationalism.

Clickbait headlines and social media posts appeal to our emotions rather than intellect, making us susceptible to misinformation. We share articles without reading them, simply reacting to provocative titles and abstracts. The context, nuance, and accuracy no longer matter. Objective truth has become secondary to subjective feelings and base impulses.

Without reading comprehension, we cannot thoughtfully process information and make reasoned decisions. We lose the ability to thoroughly analyse issues, think critically, understand different perspectives, spot logical fallacies, and weigh evidence. Our opinions get shaped by alarmist rhetoric and confirmation bias rather than facts. We consume information, but we do not truly digest it. This erodes the very foundations of a healthy democracy — an educated populace.

It may be overly simplistic to say that people have lost reading comprehension skills entirely. More accurately — we have forgotten how to apply close reading to modern media. We still retain the basic cognitive abilities but we don’tleverage them. We react to politically charged YouTube videos instead of watching, scrutinising and questioning them.

We scan online posts to find viewpoints confirming our biases instead of considering different perspectives. We allow our thinking to be influenced by loud voices on social media rather than reasoned discourse. We have become intellectually lazy, failing to exercise our critical faculties.

Reading is more than a utilitarian skill. It exposes us to new ideas, cultures, and experiences. Books allow us to imagine other lives, expanding our worldviews. Deep, thoughtful reading exercises our mental capacities. It develops focus, analytical skills, and abstract thinking. Reading builds empathy and compassion. Through stories, we gain emotional insights into the human condition. An erosion of critical reading hinders cognitive growth and emotional intelligence.

In the wake of ChatGPT, some argue that AI poses the greatest existential threat of our time. Advanced algorithms can automate jobs, enable manipulation through deepfakes, and weaponise disinformation. But AI systems are still designed by humans. Their capabilities are limited by what programmers develop. While potentially dangerous, current AI lacks sentience — the ability to think and feel.

In contrast, the death of critical reading harms the sentient minds of billions. Minds that design, build, regulate, and use technology for good or ill. Minds that make ethical judgments with global consequences. Losing the ability to comprehend the world around us and make sense of complex ideas is an existential crisis.

No algorithm can replace human wisdom and analysis. But no algorithm will need to if we have abandoned — wholesale — a millennium of critical reading and thinking skills.

Each of us can make an effort to read diversely, reflect deeply, and verify claims before spreading them. We can also consciously apply critical reading skills to modern media instead of reacting reflexively. But individual choices and actions are not enough.

The drop in reading comprehension is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be reduced to simplistic explanations like “technology ruined our attention spans.” And throwing blame at GenZ ignores the mass vulnerabilities to poorly structured misinformation demonstrated by older users who have flocked to Qanon in droves.

These reductive takes fail to capture the nuances. We cannot ignore that digital platforms now dominate modern media landscapes. While these technologies enable the rapid spread of information, they favour bite-sized content optimised to grab attention. Algorithms elevate sensationalist clickbait over thoughtful discourse.

Social networks provide fertile ground for misinformation, especially emotionally charged falsehoods. It becomes difficult for complex, truthful concepts to cut through the noise.

The modern digital media environment trains our brains in ways antithetical to immersive, contemplative reading. The endless stream of stimuli fragments our concentration into tiny shattered shards. We multitask across apps and sites, exposing ourselves to diverse ideas but grasping little. Our attention flits briefly from one post to another without diving deeper into any topic.

The design of apps and sites deliberately exploits our psychological vulnerabilities: Pull-to-refresh and auto-play trick our brains with endless novelty. Notifications interrupt our thoughts with external prompts. Clickbait headlines prey on emotions to hijack curiosity. Algorithms learn precisely which content keeps us hooked. Soon, our minds get Pavlovian trained to crave distraction.

Worse still, this environment often masks vapid content behind engaging interfaces optimised to maximise time on site. We endure boring, repetitive videos just to see how they turn out. We cannot look away from beautiful people peddling inane advice. Pages stuffed with ads and trackers crush our will to concentrate. Our attention gets monetised to enrich those who mastered distraction.

Meanwhile, lengthy texts full of substantive information struggle to compete. Their interfaces are not designed for addiction but for illuminating discourse. They respect readers’ agency instead of algorithmically ensnaring them. Their creators are more concerned with truth than clicks. But these oases of deep reading feel increasingly foreign to modern minds accustomed to constant sensory stimulation. Their depth requires patience and analytical effort that feels unnatural after years of skimming and scrolling.

Digital media also offers many positives, like exposing people to diverse perspectives they may never otherwise encounter. But the collateral damage to attention spans is real.

Studies confirm that heavy multitaskers struggle to filter out distractions and focus on cognitively demanding tasks. People who consume lots of online media graze broadly but possess less knowledge depth. Digital natives think and read in fragmented ways very differently than literate scholars of the past.

While causal links need further research, the correlations are concerning enough to warrant intervention. The very structure of modern media threatens these capacities, but a shift in policies, education reforms, and individual habits can help revive deep reading.

But it would be unfair to blame technology alone. The economics of the news industry have evolved to prioritise profits over public service. As traditional revenue models collapsed, many outlets pursued clicks and shares over quality journalism. They flood feeds with distracting miscellany instead of substantive writing. The 24-hour news cycle promotes speed over accuracy. These institutional pressures make it harder for nuanced, investigated stories to thrive.

Schools face immense pressure to teach to standardised tests. Educators drill math and science facts over critical thinking skills. Expository writing is emphasised less than formulaic essays. Students often get rewarded for rote memorisation more than original analysis. This system discourages the intellectual curiosity and patience needed for deep reading.

Beyond that, poverty and inequality play major roles. Reading proficiency strongly correlates with socioeconomic status. Those struggling to meet basic needs have less time and energy for books. Poor areas suffer underfunded schools with overcrowded classrooms and limited resources. These environmental disadvantages become roadblocks to literacy.

Cultural stereotypes also have an effect. Many wrongly dismiss reading as an uncool, intellectual pursuit, especially for men. Even avid readers get labelled as nerdy. Social stigma creates psychological friction against reading. Especially among youths hyper-concerned about their image.

This issue intertwines many complex societal threads — technology, media, economics, education, demographics, and culture. There are no singular causes or solutions.

The decline of reading comprehension carries worrying implications for society at large. The tools needed to make sense of an increasingly complex world are at stake. Without the ability and inclination to read deeply, we lose foundational capacities to understand issues, weigh facts, debate respectfully, empathise with different views, separate truth from falsehood, and engage intellectually with media.

The consequences permeate several facets of public life. In politics, discourse gets diluted to thoughtless slogans, sensationalism, and tribalism. Without nuanced analysis, parties propagate misinformation to confirm their biases. Voters make uninformed choices. Media coverage devolves into horse-race coverage and outrage porn instead of rational issues analysis. Partisan divides widen as we lose shared sources of information and ways to communicate across differences — society fragments without a common baseline understanding of truth.

Civic engagement suffers as citizens lack the desire to read policy analyses and long-form journalism. Misinformed by activists and political ads, people grow apathetic, disengaged, and cynical. Complex social challenges get oversimplified into stereotyped wedge issues. Protest slogans replace thoughtful debate and educated activism. Movements make well-intentioned but misguided demands due to shallow understanding. Without a citizenry capable of comprehending nuance, democracies cannot function healthily.

Business decisions are made reflexively based on executives’ gut reactions instead of studying data, analysis, and viewpoints. Policies are formed to benefit short-term goals rather than long-term societal impacts. Ethical considerations fall by the wayside if leaders lack philosophical frameworks. Uninformed investors make choices biased by rumours, hype, and heuristics rather than economic fundamentals. Financial engineering trumps tangible innovations that require scientific literacy.

In medicine, avoidance of health literature enables quackery and pseudoscience to spread. Patients cannot weigh statistics, risks, and expert guidance. People refuse beneficial vaccines, pop unnecessary supplements, undergo unneeded procedures, and make ill-informed lifestyle choices. Public health suffers without comprehension of epidemiology.

Across fields, we lose shared bases to communicate ideas precisely. Without reading complex literature, vocabularies shrink, discourse gets emotion-driven, and analogies replace facts. We lose touch with history, arts, and culture. Anti-intellectualism rises as reading gets dismissed as elitist and irrelevant instead of empowering.

A society that cannot patiently read long-form texts struggles to make sense of the world in ways that enable wise judgment, empathy across differences, effective policies, technological progress, economic justice, scientific reason, and fact-based truth to prevail over misguided beliefs. Reviving reading comprehension may be among the most urgent priorities for the future of civilisation.

I’m Joan. Transgender. Solopreneur. Tech writer.

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