Once and Future Reading

Posted: October 14, 2010 in New Media Markets, Publishing Business, Reading Technologies, Writing and Craftmanship

The explosion of Internet usage and the rise of electronic devices such as the Kindle and iPad fundamentally alter some, but not all, types of reading. As a matter of fact, the way in which we increasingly interact with electronic information isn’t “reading,” at all. It’s a different mode altogether, and we should treat it as such.

Many commentators on this subject, such as Kevin Kelly and Nicholas Carr, do not sufficiently distinguish between different types of reading, and thus misstate to either extreme the effect these electronic devices have on an act that has and will continue to define how we think about ourselves and our world. As I noted in my last Blog post, we can differentiate by a person’s intention three types of reading: Extractive, Pedagogic, and Immersive (credit Evan Schnittman at Bloomsbury Publishing for this). The interactive multimedia encouraged by most electronic devices transforms the way people acquire information for reference and research (Extractive reading) and how they learn many skills and building-block concepts (Pedagogic reading). Think Lexis-Nexis, Wikipedia, and online training courses.

However, the third style of reading, Immersive (as in cognitive and/or narrative reading), will resist such transformation because its goals, benefits and nature are completely at odds with electronic interaction. As we continue to embrace screen-based information devices, we will ultimately read “Immersively” less than we have, but it’s not going away, precisely because it complements, whether for pleasure or purpose, the other ways in which we gain and create information.

Immersive reading appeals because the content it conveys and the experience it offers require a concentration restricted to the text itself. The benefits it offers cannot be nearly as well achieved by interactive multimedia delivered through any type of device. In stating this, I’m equating the immersive reading experience offered by paper media and dedicated e-readers like the Kindle. Their end goals are the same, even if the technologies differ.

Immersive reading is the medium best suited to reflection and complex narration. These are things we value, which is why people still read novels today, over fifty years after television arrived and twenty after the birth of the Web. It’s also why the major arguments in this debate, including those from Kevin Kelly, Nicholas Carr, Jamais Cascio, Steven Johnson, and others, are being broadly delivered through magazine essays and books rather than brief blog, Twitter, or Facebook posts.

Interactive multimedia, in contrast, whether it is delivered through the Web, iPad, or any other device, specifically redirects a person’s attention through hyperlinks, augmenting media, or other features. Its open design encourages a person to make immediate associations with other sources, other pieces of information, or even dialogue. When we engage interactive information, we soon are clicking from link to link, looking up related concepts, querying friends, building a little personal (or even collaborative) network of comprehension. It’s certainly not Immersive, and frankly isn’t even reading. It’s something more akin to “Media Synthesis.” I know, we need a catchier name, and somebody will come up with one, soon enough (I’ll work on this).

To be sure, the ability to create such personal networks of meaning is compelling and increasingly essential. It’s new and developing, a frontier of human cognitive development. However the benefits and very nature of this activity are the opposite of those defining Immersive reading. The “depth” versus “breadth” analogy isn’t actually inaccurate, and I’m not knocking the latter in saying so.

Kevin Kelly, in his essay for the Smithsonian, “Reading in a Whole New Way,” says that we, mankind, have been a “people of the book,” but are becoming a “people of the screen.” He is right that “Media Synthesis” is becoming the norm and that we are experiencing a transition in our primary mode of communicating, but to claim that reading is changing because we can build personal networks of meaning is the equivalent of saying that the way we watch movies is fundamentally altered because YouTube videos can be embedded in a Web page. They are different media experiences, even if one incorporates an adaptation of the other.

In the face of these changes, some commentators are deeply pessimistic about not simply the future of reading but of humanity’s ability to think deeply. I’m thinking of Nicholas Carr’s, “The Shallows.” Clarifying the differences between Immersive reading and “Media Synthesis” actually makes me optimistic. They are different modes of communicating requiring different modes of thought. Both need to be recognized for what they require, what they offer, and what they don’t. Both are essential for a person active in our emerging electronic culture, just as a good math student must master both geometry and algebra.

I am confident enough in humanity that consciously or unconsciously, we’ll recognize this and will continue to embrace both. Mankind’s history is marked by the development and coexistence of new media forms, rather than by outright replacement. And isn’t this the way it should be, as our societies evolve and mankind itself becomes ever more complex?


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