Does reading online change the way we think? Definitely. But did print change the way we think, too? Yep. Just as much.
My senior year in college I found myself tangled up in a big question. How did we come to treat texts as property? What happened in the development of Western civilization that allowed words, once spoken and as free and unfettered as the wind, become locked-down objects, commodities subject to the logic of other wares in the market?
The culprit responsible for this shift from speech to property is a familiar one indeed. The printing press did a lot of it. But I argued that the printing press, or print in general, was significant for different reasons than often thought.
Rather than just saluting it as the catalyst of increased literacy and subsequent challenges to known authorities like the church and state, I argued, the printing press spurred the commodification of language. The rise of print coincides, if not directly led to, the dissolution of language into discrete units. Letters and words, once flowing wholly in speech and pre-print manuscripts, became divisible blocks, small atoms or particles, rather than waves, that gave the written word a mass and physical properties it had never before known.
Did you know that before printed books became commonplace, most texts were read aloud? That’s because pre-print era manuscripts were written in an uninterrupted stream of letters and words with little or no punctuation to guide the reader. Backthenmanuscriptswerewrittenlikethiswithoutanyspacesthestyleiscalledscripturacontinua. So in order to know where a word began or ended, you had to actually say the text aloud and audibly identify a word’s beginning and end. With the invention of print, however, letters became separate and more uniform, allowing for greater standardization and predictability in the reading experience. For the first time in recorded history, you could visually skim Western texts. Imagine that! Before the printing press, because you had to read a text aloud to know what it said, you couldn’t jump around. You didn’t know where a word began or ended because there weren’t any spaces or paragraph breaks. You had to sound it out. But then with printed texts, the first time, quick visual reading was possible.
The consequences of this radical change from audible to visual reading are immense. It changed the way we (I keep saying “we”, but it’s mostly the Western world) imagined the world and ourselves. As reading shifted to a visual activity, institutions changed; libraries became places of silence rather than recitation, where patrons carried out their reading in private carrels, and the mumbling of other visitors became an oft lamented disturbance. Monasteries began to link silent reading to mental prayer, and they encouraged their monks to live quiet, contemplative lives. Reading and writing, once loud and communal, became private and intimate activities, spurring the Romantic movement, the rise of the novel, and even the proliferation of erotic texts.
Now, in the internet age, we are entering a new phase of reading. Most of us are now the most skilled of skimmers; we can process unfathomable amounts of information a day, wading through innumerable formats and fora to cull out interesting tidbits and thoughts. But there has been some research lately questioning the consequences of this style of reading and warning of an unprecedented shift in neurological activity.
Nicolas Carr is the author of the upcoming book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains. I’ve only read the summary (typical internet reading!) in WIRED, but it got me thinking about some possible parallels that new, dramatically different reading practices may unleash. Carr rightly identifies several challenges that I, and some friends confirm for themselves, have experienced as we shift more and more into visual-spatial, partial reading. How well can you retain the information of the countless news items that scroll by your screens every day? Can you summarize the major points of the author, where you even first found the link, and how it is relevant? Can you remember the full names of all your Facebook friends, not to mention all of your accounts’ login details? It’s not an information overload we in, but a gap between one type of literacy and the next. Online reading is as radical a shift from linear print as visual reading was from auditory reading.
These different modes have pros and cons. This isn’t about value judgements or nostalgia, but about using these modes strategically, switching between them for maximal effect. I see audio books as an important, modern analog to auditory reading, and looking at successful companies like Audible or initiatives like Librevox confirm that others think auditory reading is valuable and practical, too. And linear, focused print reading, like in most books, is powerful as well. That’s why tools like Ad Blocker are important. We are already struggling enough to dedicate shreds of our attention to a long article; a flashing click-the-monkey ad does not help. And we should think of linear reading as a design element in things like textbooks. Having just completed an online course whose major mode of interaction was creating in-text links and annotations for the other students, I now appreciate the need to turn off links, restricting the possible connections outside of the current text and letting the mind focus a bit. Of course, an enormous advantage of the online world is that information is linked, but there are cases where links should be meaningfully limited, unobtrusive, and optional.
Which brings me to the question: what are the characteristics of “internet-style” reading? It seems the best way to describe it is visual-spatial. Like working with CSS, we can extract and frame texts in a staggering, unlimited number of ways. Media such as video and photography are integral to many texts and contribute to the richness, and distraction, of internet reading. This reading mode is attention-poor, meaning information needs to be conveyed in digestible nuggets, easy to skim and understand in the blink of an eye. Not to mention becoming more tactile and spatial with the rise of touchscreens. Which is why, in the grande finale of this little fuelliton, the info-graphic seems to be one of the most internet-y reading tools available. Visually engaging and quick to comprehend, its facts brief and illustrative, the form integral to the message and data-driven, infographics are one of the best literacy tools of the digital age. But like all good things, they require balance and reflection. Before we skim our way into a Fahrenheit 451 world of colors, numbers, and graphic novels, we should also take a moment to acknowledge other modes of reading and how those effect our brain. This is not a print vs. online debate, but an invitation to appreciate the importance of sustained attention. You could’ve clicked away ages ago, and maybe you did and check your identica stream 12 times and your inbox 6, but there are some upsides to a good, long focused read, and as designers and users of the web, we should remember and embrace those, too.
Thanks for reading. ^_^