Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading on Reading

With all due respect to Mr. Carroll, his op-ed in Boston Globe's February 12 edition is one of such columns that risk to -but hopefully will not- be left -entirely or in part- out of the average reader's reading of the paper. The lack of 'hot', sensational, 'buzz' content [echoing Wolfsfeld's thesis/explanation on why peace negotiations are more often than not 'less attractive' to the media industry] along with the limited time one allots to reading in a clock-dictated world are a few explanations - by no means justifications. How ironic really this is, since Mr. Carroll undertakes the very same issue of our (changing) reading habits in what is another interesting viewpoint of his.

Focusing on the self primarily, James Carroll surveys our reading habits from childhood on, underscoring the value of silent reading and specifically the internal/intellectual process that accompanies it. Such highly beneficial process -it promotes growth- is violated -if not negated- by modern technologies: interruption of the reading process is the fundamental difference here as a variety of simultaneous electronic processes (email, IM among many) often interfere with reading. And while the net impact of this 'change' is perhaps too early to assess, Carroll concludes by cautioning against a possible change even retrogression of our reading skills.

And while there may be no sufficient scientific evidence of potential biological consequences of "interrupted" reading, one finds reasons to be alarmed. Next to the "democratic dissemination" of knowledge that Internet embodies and people advocate, one wonders if not the rhetoric is not taking us "too far". Simply put, while it is undeniable that the Internet and the modern technologies have contributed to an unprecedented spread of knowledge at relatively low cost (especially in the western world), one needs not to assume that the mere existence of knowledge makes every "surfer" a scholar. Of the many factors that determine one's absorption of information, distraction or interruption are classified as obstructive.

Regardless of how successful the Internet truly is to its goals or human expectations on its educational mission, it comes as no news that interruption brings also segmentation and may even jeopardize cohesion [referring here exclusively to the readable material]. Interruption can be temporary, in which case the reader resumes reading but may also be long-term or even permanent if the reader never goes back to finish the article. My inability to calculate probabilities of different types of behavior (along with of course estimating the impact on perception and other neurobiological processes) does not allow me to draw specific conclusions.

However, to the extent that the reading experience becomes compromised in some manner (for example lack of concentration or abandoning of reading altogether) unease should ensue. This is particularly important when it comes to readings that extend beyond entertainment and involve political or other such issues. To avoid what can amount to a lengthy discussion on opinion formation, media influence and democracy, suffice here to say that partial information and fragmented knowledge over a given issue of some stake can have equal if not worse consequences to lack of knowledge altogether - as a reader may be anything from vulnerable to information extraction to unreasonably confident and vocal. Of course one must turn to specific studies in order to substantiate further such claims; that one makes better and wiser choices if well-informed is however considered common knowledge.

Some five and a half years ago, a very good friend of mine said (and wrote) that "modern technologies [referring to Internet and computers more broadly] entered our lives silently, with out any drum roll" Inasmuch as I tend to agree with him, I cannot help but think that part of this reality is because we also chose to shut our eyes and close our ears. Would this have changed anything? Perhaps not, but it would have certainly made us more aware of what is going on around us, as opposed to our childish almost experimental and certainly empirical understanding of reality.


The Boston Globe Editorial: Silent reading in public life

Gari Wolsfeld. Media and the Path to Peace. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

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