Why don’t we actually read anymore?

492908123_e3a840ef88-150x150I still remember the good ‘old’ days in which I would go weekly to the library, sit there for hours and bring home a huge pile of often non-fictional books. I would get caught in the narrative, loose myself in the material and read the books I borrowed in less than a week. Unfortunately this isn’t the case anymore. Nowadays I don’t seem to get through a book easily. I get bored, can’t focus myself, get frustrated when in my opinion the author doesn’t seem to get to the point fast enough, loose the author’s argument(s) and miss CTRL+F so I can search on keywords in the book. What has happened? Let’s face it: we aren’t used to read anymore

Blame the WWW

For all that has been written about the Internet, little consideration has been taken in account about the way the Internet reprograms us [1]. Nowadays we have become surfers, trippers from one link to another, navigators of the WWW through search engines. With a few Google searches, some clicking on result pages you have the right piece of information you were looking for. While working we most likely interrupt ourselves to respond incoming e-mails (viva the e-mail notifiers!), scan RSS-feed, look at videos or listen to podcasts and react to messages from colleagues or friends on IM clients. According to Nicolas Carr:

The Net has become a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through the eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. [1]

How Internet use affects our cognition

But this development has a price we have to pay for. According to media theorist Marshall McLuhan [2] technology shapes the process of thought. And this is basically what is going on right now. Search engines like Google are chipping away our capacity for concentration and contemplation of information. We expect to take in information just like the Internet (read: Google) distributes and presents it to us ‘in a swiftly moving stream of particles’. [1]

A study – conducted by scholars from the University College of London – covering among others our online reading and research habits, suggests that we, the ‘Google Generation’, are in the middle of huge changes considering the way we read and think. We are exhibiting more and more a form of skimming activity, read horizontally through titles, content pages and abstracts to search for the quick wins, ‘scan, flick and ‘power browse’ our way trough digital content, hop from one source to another and rarely return back to the original source. Besides, we make very little use of advanced search facilities assuming that search engines ‘understand’ our queries and read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before we loose our focus and hop to another website. ‘It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.’ [3]

We are not really readers

brain-150x150This kind of reading suggests that behind it lies a different kind of thinking. And unfortunately this may weaken our capacity to develop a deep kind of reading. According to Maryanne Wolf, development psychologist at Tufts University, we have become ‘mere decoders of information’ [4]. Our ability to interpret text, to make rich mental connections that are formed when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged [2]. But actually we are dealing with a problem here that we have to cope with because our ancestors, like Plato, believed that writing and reading was a good thing.

But is it really so? Actually not. Reading is not an instictive skill for human beings [4]. It is not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to train our minds how to translate the symbolic characters on the screen into a language that we understand. And the media and the technology we use transform the way we write and read. And thanks to our brain we have the ability to reprogram ourselves on the the fly, altering the way our brain functions and adapts to the technology we use [3].

So, well I hope I was able to grab your attention until this last paragraph. And if not, I don’t blame you. Taking in account the way the Internet reprograms us may help e.g. webdesigners and webwriters understand better the importance of how we must write for the web. We have been saturated with the inheritance the WWW has given us. And due to this inheritance we have to be aware of how we make information available for the ‘Google Generation’.

As posted on Dancing Uphill.

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For further reading on this subject, take a look at the following sources:

[1] N. Carr (2008), ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ Atlantic Monthly, July / August.

[2] M. McLuhan (1994), Understanding media: the extensions of man, MIT Press.

[3] Ian Rowlands et al (1998) ‘Information behaviour of the researcher of the future.’ University College of London

[4] M. Wolf (2007). Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Icon Books Ltd.


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