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Caught in the web


Another influenced by McLuhan was Howard Rheingold, a somewhat eccentric Californian writer who chronicled the advent of the computer and is still around today; being two years younger than I am.  He lecturers at Stanford and UC Berkeley on 'the cultural, social and political implications of modern communication media'. 

In his influential book ‘Tools for Thought’ (1985), Rheingold traces computing back to Ada Lovelace (Byron's Daughter) and Charles Babbage on one hand; and to George Boole through Bertrand Russell (referenced elsewhere on this website [Read Here...]) with Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener and his friend John von Neumann on the other.  Rheingold interviews some, and researches other, contemporary players in the development of computing in the US.  Like McLuhan he projects his observations forward to global networks and thinking machines; but unlike McLuhan he perceives the means by which this will be accomplished.  It is a very interesting book that you can read on-line [Read it here…].

Reflecting my experience, I particularly liked his statement that one of the unofficial rules of computer programming (Babbage’s Law) is: ‘Any large programming project will always take twice as long as you estimate.

I strongly recommend ‘Tools for Thought’ to anyone interested in the evolution of one of the last century’s most powerful technological ideas: the theoretical Universal Turing Machine.  Today this idea has many more specialised avatars: like personal computers; the iPhone; the Xbox; almost all electronic media; gene sequencing machines; utilities management; traffic management; vehicle and aircraft control computers; and of course the Internet.

Again Nicholas Carr reprises much of ‘Tools for Thought’.  Carr is very worried by these potentially inevitable trends.  He believes that the changes to our brains that these new technologies are making are potentially problematic.

In particular Carr believes that our ability to read books has been compromised by the use of the Web.  He distinguishes deep reading from shallow reading.  The deep reading is full engagement with a book where we avoid or ignore distractions.  Shallow reading is when we skim and are distracted by hyperlinks, footnotes and asides.  We just want to know the gist of the story. 

He says that the Web teaches shallow reading and this could lead to people being unable to read books deeply.  

This is not a threat as long as people continue to exercise their conventional book reading skills but he accepts that new reading devices like the Kindle and iPad make libraries of books available at very low cost and it will not be long before simple economics and convenience makes the conventional book a specialist collector’s item or museum artefact. 

Although ostensibly presenting pages in the same way as a book, these devices and the books that have been digitised are replete with hyperlinks; instantaneous references to other media; and the potential to search and flip; which he says are distracting and lead to shallow reading.

Carr is concerned that more and more people are using the Web, undergoing corresponding physical changes in their brain, making them unable to consume traditional media and are thus becoming addicted to shallow electronic media.  He is worried about the ephemeral understanding that he believes this media engenders.  He says that many people can no longer concentrate long enough for full comprehension; or remembered understanding. 

Worse, to overcome shortening attention spans writers for the media are said to be using simpler and simpler concepts and breaking their content of into short paragraphs, sound bites and movie snippets. It's like government agencies being obliged to use 'Daily Telegraph' English in press releases, communiqués and official letters; and no polysyllabic words or Latin please.  Soon it feeds on itself.  The language itself is progressively dumbed-down.

While it is hard to disagree with some of these points, I take issue with one or two. 

First, as many of us know the Web encourages more concentration in some new areas.  Playing some electronic games requires very high levels of concentration.  Those of us who write computer programs know about getting ‘in the groove’ when all distractions are ignored or intolerable; giving programmers a reputation for being rude. Of course the same has always applied to many crafts-persons and anyone doing complex, mentally challenging tasks.

Second, skimming and speed reading is not new; it's the way most people read newspapers and magazines.  The Web actually makes this process more efficient.

When a book sets out important information; as we might find in a university text on almost any specialist subject, it is seldom read continuously from beginning to end like a novel.  Often during research several books are open at the same time.  The same applies to histories and biographies, when a reader may want to check a fact or look at another reference.  Again computers and the Web facilitate this kind of reading.

For example this website is set up with a mixture of  long and short articles split into pages; that can be skimmed or read in some depth if desired.  This must be a reasonably good formula as many readers return many times.  You can see how many readers are currently on the site on left of the Home page.  The current site statistics from Google Analytics can be seen here... These give a good indication of interest in a particular page and the geographical origin of readers but significantly understate the readership according to visits and hits recorded on the site.

In contrast to websites and text, reference or history books, novels are generally written to be read sequentially as written; sometimes didactically or proselytising some cause or social change; but more typically simply to entertain the readers, by providing escapism, recreation and/or the distraction of fantasy. Few actually warrant the very high levels of immersion, memory or even comprehension that Carr feels might be lost by skimming and jumping about between references. 

While readers certainly do get immersed in novels, this escapism might be seen as a similar undesirable addiction to the one he fears in respect of electronic media; indeed historically many critics made exactly this point.  Being a 'book worm' has not always been socially acceptable.

Books change our brains too; and unless well written and intellectually expanding, not necessarily for the better.




# Samantha Rose 2011-05-04 00:00
Great article Richard. From my perspective I love the convenience of reading books from my ipad or even iphone when I am desperate. I have been an avid reader all of my life, and once I had two small children come along my time allowance for such luxuries as reading completely disappeared. When I bought an ipad and started downloading books I then had the ability to keep my library with me in my handbag and use small snippets of time throughout my day to read my latest novel or non-fiction. It is fantastic. It has allowed me to use previously wasted time to continue my love of reading and not end up like so many mums I know that tell me they haven't had time to read a book in 6 years or more! Keep up the good writing, love it. Sam
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