Another look at the people of the screen
Two points of method in the debate about online reading
Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information. All in the name of progress.

This is Christine Rosen writing in The New Atlantis on the fate of reading in a digital age. Needless to say, it's not a very happy article. Rosen means the article as a counterweight to the work of "techno-utopians", who see the digitisation of books as an unalloyed good. But Rosen doesn't just balance things out -- she slides them into gloom. Screen-reading won't just be book-reading in a new medium, she says. It'll be a new activity altogether, where reading is shallow and aimless and readers are numb to their own humanity.

I'll look at Rosen's main worries in the next post. But first, here's a couple of general points about the debate, inspired by Rosen's article: compare like with like, and don't let differences of medium obscure similarities of function.

Compare like with like

To be fair, Rosen scolds a "technophile" (Steven Johnson in the London Guardian) for failing to compare like with like -- for comparing computer programmers with book readers in terms of their likely economic success in the digital climate. As Rosen points out, "Johnson would have done better to compare obsessive novel writers and obsessive computer programmers...Most of the people immersed in screen worlds are not programmers. They are consumers who are reading on the screen, but also buying, blogging, surfing, and playing games."

That's fair enough, but it rubs both ways. Rosen is as misguided as Johnson when she compares the book-reading community with the entire web community, in all its moods and activities. It's more plausible to compare the web community to the entire non-web community, where the latter includes (along with book-readers) its fair share of shallowness, idleness, and wasted time. The online community, like the offline community, has its disciplined and intelligent suburbs and its more scruffy one. The real question is whether the internet will give a net outflow from the former to the latter.

So if Rosen is right, and cognitive content of normal reading has been replaced by, and not just supplemented by, a "vaguely defined screen savvy", that's something to worry about. But if we do an equivalent of quality reading on the internet now, as before, there's no immediate concern. Importantly, this means that we may be OK even if we spent the majority of our internet time in the aimless, shallow, "power search" mode that Rosen laments.

Different medium, same function

Rosen scolds Johnson again for failing to distinguish between the values of the digital world and values within the digital world. Computer programmers might earn a lot in the "digital climate", she says, but that's no use if the climate itself is wrong. And there's truth in that. But the overall lesson of Johnson's article, in seems to me, is not just that techies achieve techie goals. It's rather that they achieve goals that everyone wants to achieve -- like professional success and political awareness. Activities in the digital medium can serve the same function as different activities in other media -- even if the difference of medium tends to obscure the similarity of function. In Johnson's words: "Are you not exercising the same cognitive muscles because these words are made out of pixels and not little splotches of ink?"

With this in mind, the following claim from the article looks fishy: "People who read regularly for pleasure are more likely to be employed, and more likely to vote, exercise, visit museums, and volunteer in their communities; in short, they are more engaged citizens."* Perhaps your average blogger is less likely to go to museums or help out in the local soup kitchen. But they become engaged citizens in ways that are peculiar to the internet -- online donations, political awareness, writing open source code, getting involved in decent online forums.
*To be fair, the claim comes from a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study, not from Rosen. And she counters it with Harold Bloom's skeptical view of the link between books and civic engagement.

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