Reading as Social

In last week’s New York Times, Steven Johnson argued for conceiving of reading as an increasingly social activity.  It’s long been thought that the act of reading, by its very nature, represents an ongoing dialogue between reader and text, but Johnson makes a compelling case for expanding that conception.  The mediums many readers use to perform the act of reading, e.g. e-readers, iPads, computers, mobile devices, etc… are networked devices and, as such, make what we read and how we read it a much more collaborative enterprise.

Take, for example, the latest version of Amazon’s Kindle .  One of the newest features of this e-reader – ‘popular highlights’ – allows readers to not only highlight passages as they read, but to see the passages that others have highlighted, the sections that others have designated as most important or meaningful.  Think of borrowing a professor’s dog-eared, well-worn copy of any important text, but on a global scale.  By offering this capacity, the Kindle transforms reading into an expanded, communal experience.

While this feature is troubling for some (e.g. ‘What happens to our own capacity for criticism and analysis if even our choice of meaningful text is guided by others’, or something to that effect), Johnson argues that what these new mediums cost us in “deep, immersive focus” is more than made up for through other benefits:

…no one honestly believes he is better at focusing when he switches back and forth between multiple activities – but they are meaningless as a cultural indicator without measuring what we gain from multitasking.

Thanks to e-mail, Twitter, and the blogosphere, I regularly exchange information with hundreds of people in a single day: scheduling meetings, sharing political gossip, trading edits on a book chapter, planning a family vacation, reading tech punditry.  How many of those exchanges could happen were I limited exclusively to the technologies of the phone, the post office, and the face-to-face meeting?  I suspect that the number would be a small fraction of my current rate.

I have no doubt that I am slightly less focused in these interactions, but, frankly, most of what we do during the day doesn’t require our full powers of concentration.

Johnson goes on to supplement Clay Shirky’s case by detailing the tremendous advantages conferred by the expanded collaborative nature of reading.  One advantage, presumably, is the ability to expand one’s window onto the world.  The image of the sequestered academician or the ascetic monk notwithstanding, most would agree that, as a society and culture, we’ve gained much more through our ongoing dialogues and exchange of information than through our solitary reflection.  As Johnson writes:

The intellectual tools for assessing the media, once the province of academics and professional critics, are now far more accessible to the masses.  The number of people who have written a thoughtful response to Mr. Carr’s essay – and even better, published it online – surely dwarfs the number of people who wrote in public about “Understanding Media”, by Marshall McLuhan, in 1964…

The problem with Mr. Carr’s model is its unquestioned reverence for the slow contemplation of deep reading.  For society to advance as it has since Gutenberg, he argues, we need the quiet, solitary space of the book.  Yet many great ideas that have advanced culture over the past centuries have emerged from a more connective space, in the collision of different worldviews and sensibilities, different metaphors and fields of expertise…

It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the last millenium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers.  The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently.  One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.

Johnson’s article makes a nice contribution to the ongoing dialogue on the nature of reading and social media and the way that our new technologies are transforming our most basic assumptions about what it means to be human and part of a community.  Be sure to read the whole thing.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.