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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    A necessary change in reading?

    I often write about reading in this blog; it is a fairly natural - even logical - progression or collocation for anyone thinking about information, books or libraries. In Is Google Making Us Stupid, Nicholas Carr wonders if - like the
    Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico [who, after Gutenberg's printing press] worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds
    he should see the Internet, epitomised in Google, as destroying the possibility of immersive reading, leaving us with only the skills to scan and skim. He references both the recent Google Generation report from UCL, which spoke of
    new forms of “reading” [which] are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins
    and Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, who
    worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace.
    He also speaks of the plasticity of our brains which - even in adults - re-write neural pathways to re-learn skills like reading. He suggests that
    the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.
    Perhaps (I hope) he paints a black-and-white picture that is too stark, that does not allow of a possibility to skim when it is required and to read comprehensively when needed. In yesterday's post about Sara Lloyd's article on publishers and e-books, I wrote that Sara noted that the:
    question really is no longer, “Will consumers read on screens in the future?”… [but] is rather, “How will consumers read on screens in the future?”
    She went on to say that reading is changing "and will continue to change substantially" and to note different modes of reading, including a more exploratory style of online reading and researching that is different from 'immersive reading'. "A new generation of more consciously transliterate readers" will require more of their books - however we define these - and thus more of their publishers. The 'new book' will require "publishers to become enablers for reading, and its associated processes."

    Maryanne Wolf argues that the way we read influences or dictates the way we think. If that is true the Internet is truly spawning a world of butterfly minds! Carr quoted
    a recent essay, [in which] the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:
    I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
    But, perhaps this is not so new. Samuel Johnson wrote
    Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. (Samuel Johnson (Boswell's Life of Johnson)
    It's just that technological progress makes it all so much easier, and quicker, and available, and automatic. Because someone, somewhere has published it on the Internet. And those same publishers
    need to be at the centre of these digital conversations, driving their development and providing the tools for readers to engage with the text and with each other if they are to remain relevant... [they] had better be the ones defining what the shape of a ‘networked book’ should be ... because if they are not someone else sure as hell will be.
    So, publishers - design me a new book, create me a new content with context, deliver a networked book or an e-book, amaze me with interface artifice - but please, PLEASE understand how we read and ensure that in providing the context you do not destroy my ability to enjoy the content.

    The e-book must allow immersive reading as well as surface skimming; must allow my construction of my unique version of the entire heritage of the West as well as my research into that cathedral's foundations. We are told in Carr's article that reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings. If we must learn new reading skills, we must also hang on to the old. And Carr ends:
    That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

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