METHODOLOGY \ PRINCIPLES \ Digital dimension \312m
1: G. Buccellati, February 2008

Chapter 8 of the Digital Monograph: Digital Thought

Digital reading

1. The persons

User vs. reader

     Within the span of 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, generally in the sense of a 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.
     These mental attitudes are beginning to influence negatively, I believe, education as well. Student research is often synonymous with the juxtaposition of "hits" that are linked by a thin logical thread. And this seems to replace the confrontation with a coherent body of data seen in its completeness and totality, and the ability to develop an argument apart from the collection of data
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The posture of the reader

     If we are to reconquer the world of browsing for readers, and not just users, we have to develop new habits, in response to the new potentialities of the digital text, properly exploited. The perceptual impact of this text is what we must pay attention to. It is not just a matter of motor habits that develop a familiarity with screens and keyboards and touchpads and mice.
     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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2. The actions

Risks of uncritical digital reading

     The fluidity of the medium is its great strength, and what I am seeking to bring out here is a way in which this can be harnessed and made productive. When absorbed uncritically, a number of negative effects have developed (see a brief review in Carr, Wolf).
     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 be a payoff in most cases – assuming 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 address. But just as often the goal is in the hopping rather than in the getting anywhere.
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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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Reading and digital reading

     The process of reading has been the object of intense study from a neurological and psychological point of view (see recently Wolf).
     Digital readers must bring back some of the proper reading habits that we are in the process of losing. For instance, when, in reading a difficult linear text, we do not fully understand a passage that nevertheless we feel is important, we go back and read it more than once, we confront it in an effort to get to the substance. That is because we trust the writer to have something to say that we are missing. In other words, we re-flect on it. A similar attitude must develop for digital reading, on the assumption that we can trust the digital writer to have something to offer. This refers not only to the substance of the what, but also to the manner of the how: used as we are to commercial webpages, with a structure that stresses quick communication of information, we quickly lose patience if a scholarly webpage is constructed in ways that aim at eliciting digital thought, i.e., argument based links.
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3. The mechanisms

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
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Inquiry paths

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The search function

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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