TLDR: The Loss of Reading & Knowledge
[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.
Posted in critical theory, epistemology, essays, social change, social theory
Tags: critical reading, death of reading, death of the book, digital alienation, information is not knowledge, on screen reading, reading, shallow reading, tldr