Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Does online reading "spoil" us?

The way we communicate via written word has evolved. Just like a species that is at the mercy of its environment, so too is text. With the advent of the Internet, written words were thrust into a new environment and the old characteristics that helped it survive in the past were cast away. The survivors left over adapted new ways to deal with this environment and through the process of elimination emerged a new form of an old communication.

One of these new adapted forms of text is hypertext. This type of written word has changed so much, it might even be called a new species of written word. Gibson writes, “Hypertext is not simply more text, or text arranged differently. It is qualitatively different from traditional text and engages us in qualitatively different activities”. For instance, through every hyper link one can not only engage in text but also a plethora of media. One could click on the word “Obama Inauguration” in Wikipedia and be sent to a video of his speech the day he gave it. This creates an entirely different form of communication.

But what does it all mean? Being able to have a vast source of information at the click of a button allows users to browse through an immense amount of information without ever having to leave the comfort of their PC. This information is also available in different media forms that give multiple dimensions to the learning experience. Video, photos and sound create an almost 3D learning environment impossible to replicate in book form.

But above beyond this, the name of the game is speed. We expect all of this information fast and efficiently because of the nature of hypertext. Its very structure promotes speed because knowledge is but a mouse click away. This type of learning experience can be beneficial, but I argue it also has its drawbacks.

Growing up in a generation immersed in online writing and hypertext, I find that we sometimes tend to be “spoiled” with the ease of online reading. Because the hyperlink is always available, we become less patient and are easily distracted, wondering through a vast amount of information without paying much attention to it. This creates in us distaste for anything online that isn’t quick and easy. Paglia writes, “Online articles that sustain reader attention beyond the first page are those… that take the telegraph as their ancestor. Simplification and acceleration are the principles”. This “simplification and acceleration” trains us to intake only the information that is fast and easy. If it is too complex or long, we click back or on another link to satisfy our desire for something less daunting. This form of information intake makes the thought of reading an entire novel sluggish and boring. We therefore intake bit-sized information packets rather then gain a deeper understanding about what we read.

This begs the question, “Is this a good thing”? Although it is hard to make judgments about something that is new and still evolving, I would say the benefits outweigh the cons. Even though reading has spoiled us I do think the availability of such a vast amount of text is overwhelmingly going to help humanity rather then harm it. People are not all “spoiled” when it comes to online reading and for those who still have the proclivity to take in information with patients; online reading becomes a gold mine. Overall, text online opens up a vast amount of possibilities that was previously unavailable and the question of consequence will have to wait until its affects begin to show more clearly.

1 comment:

  1. There does seem to be an ADHD quality to online reading, kind of like just scanning the headlines and not reading the article. Maybe this will change, though, with further development of handheld devices like the Kindle, PalmPilot, and iTouch/iPhone.