Reading revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe — A (very informal) review

Submitted by gwolf on Fri, 06/10/2011 - 16:50

It's been a long time since I last took some time to read First Monday — A great online publication, if you are not familiar with it, that I would categorize (and no, I'm not probably well-informed in it to be authoritative) as dealing with social, psychological aspects of the cultural shifts the online world has brought upon us (often dealing with topics related to Free Software communities, the reason I first met the publication). Firstmonday is an Open Access champion from early on. It follows an approachable but academic format (this means, it is peer-reviewed, its articles give extensive lists of references, and the articles are not the short reads we have got used to finding on the net, but, quoting from their audience profile, English is not the first language of many First Monday readers; A large percentage of First Monday readers are not a part of academia; Cultures, educational backgrounds, and fields of study vary greatly among First Monday readers.) This means, it's at least a great publication for me to follow :)

Anyway — After a long time not following it, I have just read Reading revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe, by Barry W. Cull; First Monday, Volume 16, Number 6 - 6 June 2011 Nice, interesting read. As I was planning on telling about the article to a couple of friends more into the subjects than myself, I'll comment+quote some bits on it. Before going any further: The article makes several references to Maryanne Wolf. No relation to her — I'm not lulling my (two? are you both still reading?) readers towards her work ;-)

The article talks about the differences –social, even dips into some physiological aspects– that the activity of reading is sustaining due to the shift from an activity done mainly from books (or other similar printed material) to the computer screen. Of course, we all know from our own experience many of the basic traits — Shorter attention spans, a different reading pattern (skimming instead of reading; browsing through several related items instead of in-depth reading a single text as a knowledge unit).

The article begins with an overview of reading and humankind. Cull quotes Maryanne Wolf's phrase, «despite the fact that it took our ancestors about 2,000 years to develop an alphabetic code, children are regularly expected to crack this code in about 2,000 days». An interesting point I never thaught of is the start of reading as a purely mental activity, detaching reason from verbalization, ~1200 years ago:

Interestingly, these early scribes first did their work by reading out loud to themselves. Not until the ninth century did monastic regulations begin requiring silent reading. By the thirteenth century the practice of men reading silently and alone became commonplace. This shift to silent reading was a profound change, one that Darnton suggested “involved a greater mental adjustment than the shift to printed text”

.

One last important point in this older history, that I'm quoting because I know I'll need the reference later on for one of my texts is about reading as a social activity — Yes, also related to the quietness I just mentioned:

Interestingly, with the democratization of the printed text, there was a return to reading aloud. Reading was a solitary silent process only for the educated elite who could afford to buy books. For the rest of the population, as Darnton pointed out, reading was a social activity which “took place in workshops, barns, and taverns” … [and] “while children played, women sewed, and men repaired tools.”

After this introduction (obviously one of the most interesting parts to me), Cull gives numbers showing how reading is evolving (in the USA and Canada), and quotes some prediction on how the future will end up adapting. Of course, I live in a place with a very different society, so I cannot comment much. Then he confronts some studies regarding specifically leisure reading, as it is a much more trustable factor than just literacy (in a world as highly literate as ours is, many people only read when they have to — and have never or very seldom experienced the pleasure of reading just for the sake of it), bringing into the discussion the Internet (and computers in general) usage patterns.

I found also very interesting the next section, regarding the pattern changes many libraries are facing now, specially academic/research-oriented libraries:

For several millennia, right up until just two decades ago, the central role of a library was to collect and house physical texts: from clay tablets, to scrolls, to printed books (Battles, 2003; Manguel, 2006). While printed text remains essential to most academic libraries, today’s libraries have also become a core conduit via which researchers access scholarly texts online. Just within the last few years, Canadian academic libraries, in a situation similar to libraries throughout the Western world, have reached an interesting tipping point — librarians now spend the majority of their collections budgets on electronic instead of printed texts.
(…)
Libraries are convinced that digital text, now in its infancy, is likely to have a long future. Not only do they purchase electronic texts, but most academic libraries have also become publishers of electronic texts, whether they are digitizing large portions of their book holdings, or focusing on scanning a relatively small number of archival documents from their unique special collections.

And yes, doing some work with our Institute's library, I can confirm this trend.

About e-books: I have got quite into that topic since the Kindle won my heart (and my money!) half a year ago. The little device completly changed my reading habits, I have read lots more since I carry it. And yes, I have never considered a full tablet-like device — The article talks long about the difference, about the disadvantage that multitasking means to the human brain (oh, do I suffer from it!) I liked this snippet, quoting Steve Jobs a couple of years ago, regarding an Apple e-book reader question:

When Apple was rumoured to be working on an e–book reader a few years ago, CEO Steve Jobs expressed his lack of interest: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he reportedly said, continuing by stating that “40 percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore” (Markoff, 2008). Nicholas Carr (2010) has summed up Apple’s involvement in the tablet phenomenon this way: “Jobs is no dummy. As a text delivery system, the iPad is perfectly suited to readers who don’t read anymore”.

The issue for me is, I do enjoy reading, but I am an information addict. I know that if I have parallel information flows, my attention will surely dilute between them. Of course, as I read this article on-screen, it was hard for me to take the needed discipline not to be distracted by IMs or IRC highlights during the whole reading (which was also as an excercise for myself ;-) ). I am surprised to see this on student preferences (and even more surprised to see this data comes from my university):

In a study of students at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the majority of students preferred print, and 63 percent reported that they could bear reading a document on a computer screen for no more than one hour (Ramírez Leyva, 2003). When it comes to course textbooks, a marked student preference for paper over e–books has recently been found (Woody, 2010).

As we approach the end, it talks about another important topics I have often tried (and often failed) to communicate to my users: That of paratext, the meaning of the different texts, covers, items, layouts, etc. that are not part of the text itself but do shape the way we face it. To some of us, this seems obvious. To others, it is so hard to understand…

It closes with two more topics I will refer to. One is the permanent connectivity. All the time, more people are connected virtually all of their waking time. This affects not only learning habits but priorities. Will this near–constant access to information interfere with students’ desire to comprehend and remember information, necessary to the educational process of turning it into knowledge? Author and university business school lecturer Don Tapscott recently suggested that students “might not have to stress about the details — those you can check”

Finally, regarding the continuity and ellaboration found in texts that are each time more common — He quotes Maryanne Wolf:

I am worried about kids who are immersed in digital culture. They will get to college and they will have been Twittering so much that they won’t have the patience to read those really long cognitively convoluted and complex sentences. They may not have developed those rich networks which are required in order to read at a high level of sophistication. … The effort is what we are going to lose. They are becoming not so much a lazy reader, but an atrophied reader

As you can see, not only this post is meant to tell my couple-of-interested-friends to read the article, but it's mainly meant as a mental placeholder for myself. I will be surely refering to some of these items.

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Garaged's picture

I do feel offended just by

I do feel offended just by reading the end of the las paragraph

We still read you insensitive viking ! :P

mirabilos's picture

Reading…

Hola Gunnar,

I read most of most of your posts through Plänet Debian, so you have more than two readers XD

PS: Your captchas are illegible…