Okay, my response to reading (re-reading, actually) the first couple of chapters of Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World is as follows:
Steve Jobs was a jerk.
Well, that got your attention. See what I did there? Anyway, I wasn’t just being provocative to get you to read this post. I seriously have long questioned the “genius” tag that got affixed to the late Mr. Apple, but his comment, quoted by Baron in chapter 1 that eReaders don’t matter because “people don’t read anymore” (p. 8) is so obtuse (deliberately? provocative for the sake of?) about what his own technological innovations have wrought with regard to reading (and writing). Digital technologies, like the personal computer, smart phones, tablets, have actually increased reading (notably among younger demographics), though, admittedly, perhaps not the kind of reading Jobs was considering AS reading in that quote (the kind of immersive reading that Baron herself is privileging in this text).
As Baron relays in a very simplified (in a good way) narrative in these two chapters, the history of reading and writing and technology shows that all three are inextricably bound up in each other. You can’t pick one strand out of the knot – it’s too knotty.
That’s one of several things I want to highlight for Writing for the Web:
- Writing is facilitated by technology (but also culture, per Bolter).
- Technology affects the kinds of writing (and texts) that are produced.
- Texts are products of technologies and cultures and activities that produce technological innovations (like the codex).
- Those texts generate particular kinds of literacies and reading practices.
- Reading practices influence cultural practices and attitudes.
- Cultural attitudes begat more attitudes about new technological innovation.
Which brings us to the big question (problem? not sure I love that term here) Baron’s concerned with in this book – how are we responding to (at various levels) the changes wrought by digital technologies on our reading/writing/textual/technical practices.
For me, this all leads to the big design problem I want the class to grapple with this semester both theoretically and practically. If we accept the above enumerated premises and that the multimodal affordances of digital media “open up far more possibilities” (p. 37) for writers and readers, how can we, as writers, make use of the medium effectively. The Scalar project is going to be the design challenge that I hope will help us figure out how to generate extensive and intensive reading of digital texts (as opposed to mere scanning and skimming) through thoughtful exploitation of the medium’s affordances.
But we also have to attend to the fact that the kinds of reading facilitated (and culturally valued) by particular kinds of writing/technologies are bound (see what I did there?) to change. Just because we value intensive and extensive reading now does not mean we will continue to. That will have consequences both positive and negative, but we will adapt. That’s what we do. Or die.*
*Last line of this post possibly brought to you by existential/apocalyptic thoughts as I write by flickering Georgia Power light during Hurricane Irma.