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Digital reading

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2005

[N.B.: on this topic, see specifical the d-discourse website.]

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User vs. reader

Within a few years, browser based websites have spread like wildfire and have come to dominate the way in which thought can be communicated. New intellectual postures have developed that are altering our attitude towards the reception of what is being communicated. We are no longer expected to read, but rather to use, a website.

There is a major drawback to this, namely that we are progressively drawn away from reflection. The very terms most commonly used for the mental exercise that underlies such use stress, perhaps unwittingly, the superficiality of the process. “Surfing” means to ride the crest of a wave, with no interest in the depths. “Browsing” means to feed lightly on leaves, with no interest in serious nourishment. One “navigates” the web, but in the sense of rudderless drifting from buoy to buoy rather than of steering a long distance course purposefully set. One “visits” a site, which means to drop in for a casual look. “Googol” is the name of a number so high that it is beyond our ability to perceive it as a quantity (10 raised to the power of 100); and “googling” may give us the impression of mastering the enormous masses of data that have been searched and sorted for us, but often the impression remains just that, an impression rather than a reasoned and properly argued conclusion.

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The user’s perception of a digital text

Two negative user’s habits have developed.

The first caters to our sense of curiosity. We click on hyperlinks almost automatically, just because our cursor happens to be hovering there, expecting to be surprised more than necessarily informed. The variations in what we find are so many that there seems to a payoff in most cases – knowing that there is nothing to lose even if the pursuit is sterile.

The second negative aspect appeals to our eagerness for denouement. We feel that we are in a constant flow, and we expect a climax to reveal itself around the corner, however banal our search may be. This is often rewarding when we need a very specific piece of information, say a map with directions on how to get to a certain addres. But just as often the goal is in the hopping rather than in the getting anywhere.

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The posture of the reader

A reader’s perception ought to be quite different – and the fact that for the most part it is still alien to us accounts, it seems to me, for a real inability to exploit to its fullest the power of the medium. But the origin of the problem is upstream, it lies with the authors. If, when composing a digital work, we do not properly act as writers, it is no wonder that we should find no readers, but only users. In this manner, the relationship between authors and their audience falls prey to a vicious circle.

To obviate this, the reader should come to expect an explicit underlying structure, so constructed that a proper sequentiality may be anticipated, one that establishes the connection of the individual pieces. Hyperlinks, headers, sidebars should be relied on to maintain at all times a sense of the whole, so that the pursuit of crossreferences does not result in idle ambling, but proceeds as a controlled inquiry path. Instant access to an unlimited amount of detail is then not skipping the surface, but reaching for the depths.

Otherwise, the loss is great because, far from capitalizing on the full power of the medium, it generally lowers the bar by which to measure the tool’s efficacy. One aspect of this is that browsing and surfing gain in ever greater speed, and the correspoding attention span of the reader becomes ever shorter. Now, there is an undeniable advantage in the browsing/surfing syndrome, namely that one can quickly get to points of interest. The drawback is that speed of access easily comes to be perceived as a substitute for comprehension. It is this posture as readers vis-à-vis the digital medium that we should re-direct, in such a way as to bring back attention and reflection to the act of “reading.” We should, in other words, nurture a new type of digital reading.

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Consulting vs. studying

     How, then, should we develop digital reading skills that may do justice to the enormous potential of the medium? The answer presupposes, in large measure, the availability of digital narratives that condition a correlative mental attitude, and I will highlight some of these below on this page. But the general overriding principle is the ability to study, and not just consulting, the communication that is presented to us. What does this mean, concretely?

To study means to follow an argument on at least two registers. The first is that proposed by the author (which, in the case of the primary narrative, may of course be the automated narrative that combines atomistic observations). The second is a parallel register where the reader develops his or her own critical counterargument, drawing on alternative data and testing the validity of the logic within the proposed argument.

To consult, on the other hand, means to gather data where no argument is present, but only a variety of sorting criteria. The negative impact of a more and more pervasive understanding of “using” as “consulting,” and the consequent abandoning of “reading” as “studying,” is evident. We are reducing the opportunity to follow a stated argument and to critique its logic and documentary base, simply because the argument is no longer stated.

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The dialectics of juxtaposed registers

Studying as following the linear path outlined by the author while developing one’s own parallel path.

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The dialectics of intersecting registers

Studying as following the linear path outlined by the author as well as the jump-off paths alowing access to highest nodes and lowest branches while developing one’s own parallel path.

Cf. also the idea of multi-planarity/interplanarity.

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Inquiry paths


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  • Jump-off or step-like moments presuppose knoledge of the whole: you search for something because you already know where it fits.
  • Ricochet effect.
  • But it all too easily creates the illusion of the whole - hence a potential detrimental function of the search sen as an end to itself.
  • Need to re-direct function as a function of structure, not of surface skimming curiosity (however useful that may be as well…)

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Mental space for reflection.

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