TLDR: The Loss of Reading & Knowledge

3 year old with tablet, no toys

[The image is of a three year old with a tablet. This article is from a series I’m working on about what I call ‘digital alienation’. I’d like readers to perhaps monitor themselves a little while reading this on screen, and see if what I’m saying actually reflects their experience while ‘reading’ it or not. I’m aware of the delicious ironies of publishing this on screen. It’s meant to stimulate further reflection, no more.]

TLDR: The Loss of Reading and Knowledge

Digital information cannot be read. It can be browsed, surfed, scanned, skimmed and flicked. Despite the propaganda for e-books, reading the same text on the page and on screen is not the same neurological experience. The former entails a certain slowing down, the latter a speeding up, a ‘just-in-time’ form of reading, sometimes also accompanied by obvious distractions like hyper-links, side-bars, inserted videos. Screen reading is ‘shallow reading’ (Nicholas Carr).

The words invented to denote this experience, ‘browsing’ and ‘surfing’, confirm this argument. ‘Browsing’ connotes an attitude of non-commitment, of visually perusing goods on offer, of ‘trying before buying’. ‘Surfing’ connotes a movement across the wave or ocean of information, not an active immersion or engagement with it as in swimming or diving. These attitudes are antithetical to reading for deeper understanding and knowledge of anything. Why make the effort of immersing yourself in, slowly grappling with, i.e. reading, longer texts when you can quickly skim the summary at Wikipedia or watch a video version at YouTube. The new acronym TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read), a derisive comment on a text reflecting the neurological reality of screen ‘reading’, also confirms this argument.

Reading, print and the democratisation of the book are closely linked to historical individuation, the development of critical, independent thinking vis-à-vis unexamined authority. Will the slow death of print and the book entail the regression of critical individuation to uncritical group-think? Will the era of mass book reading have been a transient one as we return to a situation where book reading will again be an arcane hobby restricted to a small elite?

Screen reading is a material, vitreously visual abstraction from our five senses, and thus the material ground of our imagination, which are engaged when reading a book. Screens and e-books can provide no analog (holistic) touch and smell of page and cover, no personal appropriations through kinetic or accidental marking (annotations, dog ears, stains). Cherished books are rich texts that have been handled, thus lived through and with. Screen texts, unhandled, ungrasped, are vitrified, digitally impoverished reductions of such experience to cerebral ‘information’. Information is knowledge that has not been grasped, literally and figuratively.

The more time spent screen-skim-scam-flicking, the more our plastic brain becomes adapted to this process and comes to expect it from all reading. Our attention spans shortened to the summary and tweet, we will quickly become irritated with the length, slowness and multi-levelled complexity of literature or political essays. The less time spent reading books, broadsheet newspapers and literary or political magazines, the less the neural circuits geared to this activity will be used until they eventually decay and disappear.

In the end we will simply no longer be able to read novels, poetry, essays, history, philosophy, in fact any extended argument or layered text. Perhaps the majority of these kinds of texts will themselves change as digital readers become writers and produce shortened, dumbed down texts like the Japanese ‘cell phone novels’ modelled on text messages or new hybrids like ‘vooks’, e-novels with embedded videos. ‘Poems’ will be ‘written’ by algorithms. E-books generally will be filled with online chat, tweets, notes, comments all ‘expanding’ and distracting from the actual text. Solitudinous space, time and silence, the conditions sine qua non of immersive, concentrated book reading, will have been disappeared into the busy distractions and chatter of cyberspace.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 16, 2014.

4 Responses to “TLDR: The Loss of Reading & Knowledge”

  1. Thank you for putting this topic on screen. Let alone the haptic experience as inherent part of reading. Friedrich Forssmann uses the oeuvre of Arno Schmidt to think critically about the omnipresent e-book:

  2. I find this topic particularly interesting considering someone today was trying to inform me as to the various definitions of what “information” is and also my relationship with computerized music. Something I have been involved in, with, for over 30 years, since the early days of the drum machine and very early music making computers.

    I’m not sure I understand the opening sentence “digital information cannot be read”. Something displayed on a computer screen is being “read” by me. If it isn’t “information” then I don’t know what it is. E-books may not be the same neurological experience as reading a “book” with stains on it or creased and shit, but I am fairly certain I am “reading” and what I am reading is “information” ( I suppose it depends on the definition of information from a common sense perspective or from a more academic technical or formal sense). I have the same book by Robin Hahnel called For the People By the People, or something, and I have read both. No difference really. I have just reread Golding’s The Inheritors on Kindle and was reacquainted with a favorite that I read over 30 years ago. Enjoyed it no less. Am I missing the point here? Probably.

    I agree regarding digital technology affecting people’s concentration. Not being able to sustain focus for long periods. I am somewhat of the tendency to consider this issue to be something far more complex than an issue about digital technology. Something much deeper and possibly beren around a lot longer. Just a guess really. An intuition. So probably wrong. But I noticed, a long time ago, before digital technology, a similar thing.

    But perhaps I should stop here even though I am just getting started. The reflection is best left as a private matter. These comment thingies are reserved for brevity and concision.

    Suffice to say that this afternoons quite long conversation with members of Vic IOPS about my stance that the liars paradox, as formulated, “this sentence is false”, is merely incoherent, elicited considerable discussion but nevertheless an over riding feeling from my side, that I was taking a wrong position, that I wasn’t playing the game that the logician or philosopher wants to. I was merely playing the devils advocate. I was being a nuisance. I was having fun, but being quite serious. It all comes down to the idea of information and communication being comprehensible, useful and contextual. Hence someone’s attempt to give me a definition of what information actually is. Which by the way, I considered pretty much incomprehensible from a common sense perspective. He was trying to give me an academic, technical definition.

    “This sentence is false”, whether written on a page, digitalised, or spoken, is in coherent. As incoherent as “this sentence is true”, or “this coffee cup is false”.

    Already I’m off subject, but to me, not really. There is some connection. Already too long, but for me, not really. Just getting started and so much to consider on this subject which is important. But there is no time. Must do other things. So this conversation will remain in my head more than likely, to be unpacked very rarely, if ever, at times, and discussed using my actual voice in real time, until I am told or given the hint that enough is enough.

    Long live communication. It’s awesome isn’t it!

  3. Marshall McLuhan applies. Socrates too on what happened when people moved from preliterate to reading words, not as Homeric Greeks ( was it Phaedrus by Plato?)
    Interesting topic- anecdotal evidence is in support of this perspective, at first glance. more later…

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