February 9th, 2008
I was thinking last night about books and why I don’t read them anyone — I was a lit major in college, and used to be voracious book reader. What happened?
I was also thinking about the panel I organized for the O’Reilly TOC conference on Blogs as Books, Books as Blogs — do I do all my reading online because I like blogs better than books now? That doesn’t seem meaningful on the face of it.
Then I read this really interesting post by Evan Schnittman at the OUP Blog about why he uses ebooks only for convenience but actually prefers to read in print.
So do I do all my reading online because it’s more convenient? Well, it is, but it’s not as if I don’t have opportunities to read books. (And I do read a lot of Disney Princess books to my daughter.)
But the convenience argument seems to float on the surface of a deeper issue — there’s something about the print vs. online dialectic that always seemed superficial to me. Books, newspapers, and other print media are carefully laid out. Online content like blogs are shoot from the hip. Books are linear and foster concentration and focus, while the web, with all its hyperlinks, is kinetic, scattered, all over the place.
I’ve heard many times online reading cast in the pejorative. Does my preference for online reading mean I’ve become more scattered and disorganized in my reading?
I’ve also spend a lot of time thinking and talking recently about how understanding the future media on the web is so counterintuitive from the perspective of traditional media — about the challenge of making the leap from thinking about linear distribution to network effects.
After reading Evan’s post and struggling with the convenience argument, I read this Silicon Alley post speculating on a possible lack of demand for ebooks, despite the Kindle reportedly selling well. If I’m such a digital guy, then why do I have no interest in ebooks?
I was eating some peanut butter last night… and then suddenly something clicked. (Don’t know if the peanut butter caused it.)
What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?
What if the networked nature of content on the web has changed not just how I consume information but how I process it?
What if I no longer have the patience to read a book because it’s too…. linear.
We still retain an 18th Century bias towards linear thought. Non-linear thought — like online media consumption — is still typically characterized in the pejorative: scattered, unfocused, undisciplined.
But just look at Google, which arguably kept our engagement with the sea of content on the web from descending into chaos. Google’s PageRank algorithm is the antithesis of linearity thinking — it’s pured networked thought.
Google can find relevant content on the web because it doesn’t “think” in a linear fashion — it takes all of our thoughts, as expressed in links, and looks at them as a network. If you could follow Google’s algorithm in real time, it would seem utterly chaotic, but the result is extremely coherent.
When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I started. Sometimes I backtrack to one content “node” and jump off in different directions. There are nodes that I come back to repeatedly, like TechMeme and Google, only to start down new branches of the network.
So doesn’t this make for an incoherent reading experience? Yes, if you’re thinking in a linear fashion. But I find reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to “connect the dots,” thinking about ideas and trends and what it all might mean.
But am I just an outlier, or just imagining with too much peanut butter on the brain some new networked thinking macro trend?
Then I remembered — or rather arrived at in nonlinear fashion — a contrarian piece in the Guardian about an NEA study that bemoaned declines in reading and reading skills. The piece points out the study’s fatal flaw — that it completely neglected to study online reading.
All Giola has to say about the dark matter of electronic reading is this: “Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”
The only reason the intellectual benefits are not measurable is that they haven’t been measured yet. There have been almost no studies that have looked at the potential positive impact of electronic media. Certainly there is every reason to believe that technological literacy correlates strongly with professional success in the information age.
I challenge the NEA to track the economic status of obsessive novel readers and obsessive computer programmers over the next 10 years. Which group will have more professional success in this climate? Which group is more likely to found the next Google or Facebook? Which group is more likely to go from college into a job paying $80,000 (£40,600)?
But the unmeasured skills of the “digital natives” are not just about technological proficiency. One of the few groups that has looked at these issues is the Pew Research Centre, which found in a 2004 study of politics and media use: “Relying on the internet as a source of campaign information is strongly correlated with knowledge about the candidates and the campaign. This is more the case than for other types of media, even accounting for the fact that internet users generally are better educated and more interested politically. And among young people under 30, use of the internet to learn about the campaign has a greater impact on knowledge than does level of education.”
What I’d be most curious to know is whether online reading actually has a positive impact on cognition — through ways that we perhaps cannot measure or even understand yet, particularly if we look at it with a bias towards linear thought.
Is there such a thing as networked human thought? Certain there is among a group of people enabled by a network — but what about for an individual, processing information via the web’s network?
Perhaps this post hasn’t been an entirely linear thought process — is that necessarily a bad thing?