Online, Reading

Reading a novel is an intense experience. Even lowly grocery store thrillers are complex and multimodal textual-linguistic collaborations between authors, readers, and culture. That is, novels are awesome. Reading them is never going to be a thing of the past. This much, I believe, is obvious.

What’s less obvious is understanding how ubiquitous computing and social media affect the ways new readers interact with novels and other long-form texts. Does the shifting vernacular of online discourse degrade general literacy? Is the Web somehow to blame for shortening attention spans? Does social media threaten to eliminate common cultural touchstones by fragmenting readers into ultra-personalized affinity groups?

The debate is passionate and charged. Articulate advocates abound, from technologists who cite social justice and political engagement as urgent reasons for integrating new media literacies into school curricula, to traditionalists who argue that instantaneous access to information and the casual, fragmented and unfocused nature of online writing present mortal threats to book culture. There are rejoinders to every argument, and there isn’t anywhere near enough room in this space to begin to cover it all. Nevertheless, like a lot of arguments, much of what is interesting here has less to do with particular advocacy positions than it does with coming to an understanding as to the origin, meaning and trajectory of the debate itself.

Using Motoko Rich’s concise 2008 NYT article, Online, R U Really Reading? as a launching point, I would like to suggest that what’s really going on here is in fact less a matter of ideological dispute than a linguistic discord brought about by category confusion — a semantic landslide shaken into being by instabilities in the definitions of the words online and reading. Furthermore, I argue that as the dust settles, the definitions for these words will expand and overlap one another as they stretch to take into account the dynamism and reach of the erupting technoculture; as a result, the distinction between so-called “media literacy” and traditional capital-L Literacy will all but disappear.

Communications technology and culture produce and consume one another in a strange co-evolutionary symbiosis. Chicken-and-egg problems confront analysis at every turn. Did the Web create Web culture, or did Web culture create the Web? While these kinds of questions might have had more ready answers in the early days of the web, the relationship between tech development and online culture has become increasingly tangled and recursive. The era of pervasive social media is upon us, and this is changing the way we must think about online communications, shifting away from a purely instrumental static linked documents view to the new and radically-unfamiliar-to-print-culture Web 2.0 perspective of dynamically linked concepts and actors. Cyberspace turned out to be much broader and deeper than even its most prescient early advocates had predicted — broad, because the Web is more than just an information space to be navigated through, but is also (most crucially) a multipurpose, multi-faceted hyperspace of conversation, socialization and collaboration; and deep because the Web’s tangle of dendrites now extend well beyond computer screens and into our embodied existences via the mobile devices and other near-ubiquitous network portals that proliferate in our lives.

This deep intermixing of social activity and technology requires us to re-examine what we mean when we speak of being “online.” What does it mean to say I am “online” when I am effectively always online? Where is the border between the Real and the Virtual when one exists in both places at once? Much of my own research involves exploring ways that mobile and ubiquitous computing can add layers of story, interaction and play to physical environments. Thinking of network technology/network culture in this manner — as a pervasive, spatially- and temporally-distributed non-platform-specific layer instead of a constrained single-platform activity — effectively expands the definition of the word online to include a vast array of mediated communicative acts.

Such an expansion problematizes critiques of new media culture that seek to cast online activities as being somehow in opposition to, or competition with, older modes of learning, play and communication. Rich cites Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, as an example of this kind of us-versus-the-machine characterization. And while Carr certainly makes some valid points about all the bad, bad things the Internet can do, he largely comes off as a finger-wagging grump. Carr’s confession that he “now [finds] it difficult to read long books” is particularly telling. Why does the author feel so down on himself for discovering that he is more interested and engaged by online conversation than he is by books? Maybe the reality is that Mr. Carr is in fact more fully in the world than ever before and simply doesn’t have the time or motivation to read books the way he once did, choosing instead to expend his imaginative capital meticulously researching and crafting angry, hyperbolic attacks on Web 2.0.

Mr. Carr’s argument is typical of critics who cleave to restrictive definitions of what it means to read and be online. Dana Gioia of the National Endowment for the Arts repeats a popular sentiment when he writes “electronic media…provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” The basic argument here is that books engender crucial linear reading and thinking skills that simply are not called upon in ephemeral and fragmented online reading contexts. This, to me, is something of a tautology (e.g., wood-chopping skills can only be acquired with an axe in hand; but that doesn’t necessarily put the kindling pile in conflict with the Kindle). Assumptions in both directions seem unexamined: anyone who’s taken a decent undergraduate English course knows that novels aren’t actually linear; that they engage with the world around them; and that reading them depends on an active imaginative collaboration between the author and the reader. Similarly, reading online is, like everything else in our temporality, productive of fundamentally linear texts. Even the most random walk through the Web assembles ideas and data feeds into a linear sequence — chapter one, I click on this, I read that; chapter two, I write this, I click on that, I read this…

Despite these and other debates about the putative advantages and disadvantages of certain kinds of literacy, it’s pretty clear that the process of collapsing the boundaries between online and offline reading is well underway. Like Nicholas Carr, I too have experienced a decrease in the number of novels and long-form texts that I read, a decrease that has been inversely proportional to the amount and range of my online reading practices. One could take Mr. Carr’s bait and argue that, because of this change, I actually read much more widely, am exposed to an exponentially larger array of texts via recommendation engines and social networking applications, and that my ability to discover and discuss literature is much greater now than it ever was previously. But doing so would simply invite another salvo of replies — that I am an educated academic with critical skills that enable me to leverage technology better than “amateur” readers, that I am proselytizing for a set of practices that I have vested interest in justifying, or that the non-heirarchical setup of the Web puts Orwell’s 1984 on the same level as bttf4444’s Down With Big Brother!, a crossover fan fiction mixing Orwell’s original with characters and themes drawn from the Back to the Future series. I would, of course, disagree with all these contentions; the ball would bounce back into Carr’s court, and we’d continue ad infinitum.

Such PvP arguments typify much of public life in this country; I’d rather look for solutions and opportunities to be found in the notion that reading is an expanding category which now takes into account a multiplicity of practices. Conceived of in this light, literacy education becomes the site of overlap between many interrelated practices. Learning how to tell the difference between fact and speculation, good sources and suspect ones, poetry and drivel, bttf4444 and Orwell — and how to properly appreciate, contextualize and interact with them all — has always been the work of the active reader, and a part of this work has been to find ways to adapt to changes in the technological and social landscape. Dealing with the new layers of literacy demanded by network culture is just the latest stage in this ongoing evolution.