“Is this the new normal we want” (Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen, 235)
So Naomi Baron ends Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World – with a question and an admonition that the “ball is in [our] court”. As a tennis player, my first response to that last metaphor is to take a swing, but sometimes you have to “watch it!” to see if the ball is going out, in which case, hitting it would be a huge mistake.
Baron wonders if “length and complexity and annotation and memory and rereading and especially concentration” are too problematic in digital media and even plays the provocateur by suggesting that, if digital media doesn’t foster these habits of reading, then maybe they “aren’t so valuable after all.” I think most people are going to swing at that ball. Because we value those habits. They’ve developed over centuries of print technologies and the literacies that print fostered, so we value them. Perhaps we overvalue them. I’m taken back to Plato’s concerns about writing and the habits it would generate – forgetfulness, lack of learning and wisdom, etc.
Print technology facilitated certain kinds of reading practices. Digital media remediates forms/genres of print, but the reading practices are harder to remediate and maybe we should think more about not just replicating print reading practices, but developing new, “born-digital” reading practices. We’re currently working to develop born-digital texts in Writing for the Web, and I have emphasized the need for us to attend to the things Baron has been telling us about how people read (or struggle to read) onscreen in order to create texts that take the problems of reading onscreen into account. I do think that Baron’s “prescription” for reading digitally (233) is valuable, but it focuses on the reader and on print values (see above).
But maybe we need to think about how we can possibly manage reading at all in a world where we are inundated, overwhelmed, with things to read. We simply cannot read it all. And we’re pushing ourselves to constantly create more and more prose, most of which will never – can never possibly – be read. Here’s where AI might be key – will machines become our reading “partners,” helping us to read and parse all this information, filtering out what to feed us humans depending on what we need? Will we humans develop more of a “synthesizing” reading practice in which we make connections across a span of information rather than drilling deep into a single text or small specialized field?
I don’t know the answer. But I do know we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. I think answers come from experiences like the Device6 app and from thinking back to Plato and to McLuhan and forward with Lev Manovich and others who ask us to consider how technology always creates us as humans just as we create technology to serve us. What kind of humans do we want to be? – both Baron and Manovich are really asking this question.
“How does the software we use influence what we express and imagine? Shall we continue to accept the decisions made for us by algorithms if we don’t know how they operate? What does it mean to be a citizen of a software society?” (Manovich)
What does it mean to be a digital reader/writer? It means bounce/hit.