Chapter 2: Slow Reading in an Information Ecology
Isaac Asimov (1969) tells a story of a future in which a character is asked to demonstrate his astonishing talent to the president. The talent is to perform basic mathematical calculations on paper without the aid of a computer. “‘Well’, said the president, considering, ‘it's an interesting parlor game, but what is the use of it?’” Many writers of fiction and non-fiction express fear that digital technology will render humans less intelligent. Calculations still get performed, but only by computers. People still access information, but through an implant that delivers it instantly. This kind of access to information is the dream of some information providers today, but it is not what we think of as literacy, and certainly not slow reading.
In the 1990s, society witnessed the mainstream integration of personal computers and the Web. For a time, it seemed likely that print, books and libraries would disappear, and perhaps literacy along with them. A generation later, we have some evidence by which to assess the reality. The analysis that follows shows that there is a close relationship between the media we use to read – books or digital technology – and the way we read and think. This is not to say that reading on screens spells the end of reading. Digital technology is often preferable for searching and scanning short snippets. However, print has endured because it is still the superior technology for reading anything of length, quality or substance. While digital technology lends itself to discovering and remixing ideas in novel ways, slow reading of books is still essential for nurturing literacy and the capacity for extended linear thought.
The Darkest Hour of the Book
The notion of a “paperless office” was coined by Palo Alto Research Center, formerly Xerox, a company known as “the paper people”. In a 1970s article in Business Week, George Pake predicted the widespread use of on-screen documents that would largely replace print (Sellen and Harper, 2001). Along with the demise of print is always the prediction of the disappearance of its concomitant entities, books and bricks and mortar libraries. Harris, Hannah & Harris (1998) documented how in 1978, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science. The grant funded a report by Frederick Lancaster on the effect of the paperless society on librarianship in 2001. Lancaster rose to prominence as a librarian who promoted a vision of a paperless library. He viewed the book-as-artifact as a major constraint on libraries. What is important to observe is that at the time, Lancaster's vision was a totalizing one. He did not forsee a combination of books and virtual libraries, but a complete displacement of the traditional media in favour of digital technology.
The personal computer was first introduced in the 1980s. It is easy to be nostalgic about those days. It was a significant period for those who were teenagers like myself. It was time when “Generation X” was defined, with a footing in the old world where card catalogues were still the norm in libraries, and a readiness for a new world in which the label of “geek” was about to become cool. I had just enough money from a part-time job to buy one of the inexpensive computers that were being introduced like toys on the market, a Timex Sinclair ZX81. It had black casing, a membrane keyboard, and a whole 2 KB of memory! I used a television for a monitor and an audio tape recorder to save programs. In the days before the Web and disk space, it was typical to learn programming from a print computer manual, and type in programs listed in magazines.
For a while, programming displaced my previous entertainment of reading. I had been a regular reader of many kinds of books, including those for the other geek staple, the role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons. The game involves rolling multi-sided dice to resolve probabilities and the consultation of statistical tables. It was not long till we realized the potential of programming to facilitate the games. We programmed more. We gamed more. The more involved we became, the more books we read too. Writing programs encouraged some of us to try our hand at writing stories. It was a wild and wonderful mix of digital and print technologies.
Things were changing fast. By the end of the eighties, the typewriter, the indispensable tool of writers for over a century, had been superseded by the word processor. In the 1990s, the first e-book readers were introduced in the market. A few years later the Web went mainstream. It was no longer enough to have Word on your resume; now you also had to know Netscape or Internet Explorer. Text was going digital. It seemed only a matter of time before the fruition of the vision of a paperless society. One cold night in the mid-nineties we thought we heard a bell toll for print. We waxed nostalgic. It was the price of progress, we said with a sigh. Some inventive folks joked about ways to introduce the smell of books into e-readers, perhaps through scratch ‘n sniff cards. Nevermind that print and digital technologies comingled everywhere. In the minds of policy and budget makers, the book was no longer a factor in their plans for the future. In today's language, the book was a legacy technology to be phased out. It was the darkest hour of the book.
We Were Wrong: Print, Books and Libraries are Thriving
The evidence of more than a generation is in: the prediction of a paperless society was in error. Certainly much of what used to be in print is now in digital form. It makes perfect sense that newspapers are dwindling year by year. Despite the crisp feel and smell of a fresh paper, those who want the newest information can find it sooner it on the Web. To be sure, stories about the end of print are still trotted out every now and then. A new college claims to be cutting edge because its library is completely digital. One has to wonder if stories like these are not simply spin on a funding shortfall. From the prints on our walls to books on our shelves to the discarded sheets in our recycle boxes, it is clear that print still pervades our lives.
Global consumption of paper products has tripled since the prediction of the paperless office, and is projected to grow by another half before 2010 (World Resources Institute, 1998). That figure includes all paper products but statistics on office paper alone has increased steadily for twenty years (Pulp & Paper International, 2000, July). The illusion of a paperless office is difficult to maintain when we remember that every computer is connected to a printer.
Book sales continue to rise. The Association of American Publishers (2008) indicated a 3.2 percent increase in United States book sales in 2007 over the previous year. Sales of adult and juvenile books grew three percent, with the strongest growth in this category coming from adult hardback books. Audio and e-book sales were up too. People do not want digital books instead of print books; they want them both. The overall book pie has grown.
Libraries are also thriving. In 1991, I graduated from university and reflected upon my next step. I considered going to library school but decided against it because I subscribed to the growing perception that print, books and libraries were on the way out. Was I wrong! The nineties were a difficult decade for libraries. In London, Ontario, where I lived, funding for libraries was cut drastically as the municipality struggled to cope with new costs downloaded from the province. I heard about libraries reducing their hours and laying off librarians. It all seemed to fit the pattern. I was not a witness to what happened behind the closed doors of library offices, but it must have been something remarkable. Leaders in the library field must have dug in. Somehow, a new and exciting plan for the London libraries took hold. In time, a new central library was built. Eventually all of the branches enjoyed major renovations. Fifteen years later, I found myself in library school, trying to figure it all out.
There is no doubt that digital technology was a major driver in these changes. The libraries have become popular digital information hubs. The computers likely persuaded funders that libraries still played a relevant role, but there is good evidence that it is the books that kept people coming back. A major environmental scan by the Online Computer Library Center shows that people still overwhelmingly identify libraries with books, print books, as in binding and paper (De Rosa et al, 2005). The massive restructurings to offer digital services go largely unnoticed by users. This finding may dismay those with a futuristic bent, but it should send a signal to the library administrators and budget makers – print books are a secure brand for future planning. Technology should continue to play an increasing role in libraries, but those who exclude books from their plans will get left behind.
Two Explanations for the Persistence of Print
Not everyone believed that print would vanish. If you talked to those who knew books – publishers, librarians, and teachers, especially the older ones – you might find a more sceptical view; but many of us bought into the vision of a paperless society. The fact that so many of us were wrong calls for an explanation. Why does print persist? Why do we still read books the old-fashioned way? There are two possible explanations. One explanation points to the practical problems that have slowed the transition from print to digital technology. A contrasting explanation is that there is something enduring about print that we did not fully appreciate before. It is this second explanation that makes the connection between print and slow reading.
According to the first explanation, it is still only a matter of time before we achieve the paperless society. In his recent book, Print is Dead, Gomez (2008) identifies several problems that caused the e-book to fail: high pricing, licensing issues, confusion from the multiplicity of models being offered on the market, and so on. See more such problems in the discussion on e-books later in this chapter. The list is lengthy, but Gomez predicts the problems will get sorted out. Readers will get used to the e-book. Books will become a collector's item, or made like candles by craftspeople. It is interesting to note that many similar problems existed with word processors, such as the confusion caused by competing models, but people did not keep using typewriters.
The availability of digital content is another practical problem. Organizations such as Google and the Open Content Alliance are busy scanning the world's books. The scanning process is both labour-intensive and error-prone. Schillingsburg (2006) observes that 99% accuracy in scanning means an error in every 100 letters, spaces and punctuation marks. “Would we be fatally injured if the word was ‘celebrate’ not ‘celibate’ or if the word ‘not’ is occasionally left out?” (21) Yes, I think. A single typo on a resume will cost an applicant a chance at a job interview.
It is not difficult to continue listing practical problems. Intellectual property rights are easier to protect in a print culture. The associated legal issues need time to get sorted out. Also, some among older generations seem unable or unwilling to adapt to digital technology, but surely the next generation, the digital natives, will be at ease with it. The list is long. What is common to the problems is that they are practical in nature, and can in principle get resolved with time and resourcefulness. I have little doubt that progress will be made. An increasing percentage of information we now read in print will no doubt become digital. What seems less likely is that practical problems explain the whole situation.
The second explanation states that there is something enduring about print that we are just beginning to appreciate, and will keep it as part of information landscape for the foreseeable future. If this is so, there must be a hard centre to print that cannot finally be tackled by future technological innovation. It must also be a subtle factor, for many of us missed it in our rush to the paperless society. The analysis that follows shows that the hard centre of print is our need for slow reading. Like many people, I value digital search for finding quick answers and leads. Reading short snippets on the Web is convenient, and I consider it is wasteful to print them. However, if the content I have found is anything longer than a few pages, or if it has any depth, I prefer to read it in print. Our casual information needs are served very well by the Web, but our reading requirements run deeper than that. Sometimes we must slow down and read at a reflective pace and print facilitates that. Print and slowness have a close relationship. Print is fixed; the ideas will not change during a reading. A book is linear and long, encouraging the reader to recreate the author's original sequence of thought. Print persists because it is a superior technology for integrating information of any length, complexity or richness; it is better suited to slow reading.
Slow Reading Print vs Scanning On-line
Books and reading are always understood together. Just as it was predicted that books would disappear, it was feared that the habit of reading would dwindle. A number of studies have examined trends in literary reading, the reading of materials with artistic merit, the kind that might be called slow reading. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a report, Reading at Risk, a study that investigated literary reading trends in the United States. The study measured literary reading by asking Americans if “during the previous twelve months, they had read any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in their leisure time (not for work or school)” (ix). It found that “literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young” (vii). A follow-up report in 2007, To Read or Not To Read, showed a similar pattern for reading in general.
A similar pattern of declining literary reading is described in The Nation’s Report Card 2003 (Donahue, Daane & Jin, 2005). In this case, literary reading is defined as that which “involves the reader in exploring themes, events, characters, settings, plots, actions, and the language of literary works” (4). Material types included novels, short stories, poems, plays, legends, biographies, myths, and folktales. The report explicitly distinguished literary reading from reading for information or to perform a task.
Critics of these studies, e.g., Kirschenbaum (2007), complain that the definition of reading is simplistic, failing to measure other widespread forms of reading taking place on computers and the Internet. Bauerlein, overseer of the 2004 report, responded with other studies showing that only eleven percent of young people go on-line for information; it is usually for entertainment (Williams, 2005). Bauerlein refers to a well-known study by Nielsen (1997) entitled, How Users Read on the Web. The first sentence in the report is, “They don’t.” Seventy-nine percent of their test users always scanned the page, picking out words and sentences rather than reading word by word. Eye-tracking studies by Weinreich et al (2008) found that on average, web users read at most twenty-eight percent of the words on a page. Nielsen's advice to editors is “to cut 40 percent of the word count while removing only 30 percent of an article's value” (2007). This approach is unquestionably efficient. It would also brutalize any literary writing a slow reader might hope to find on-line.
The proponents of the paperless society assumed that people would simply transfer their reading to the screen. It is interesting to note that early studies about reading the Web showed people still reading faster with print, though the explanation was not easy to pin down (Dillon, 1992). There were limitations such as image quality at the time, but part of the reason may be that people were still trying to adapt their print reading skills to the Web. Reading on-line is quite different from reading print. For example, it is the essence of hypertext to point the reader away from the page being read. Print does not have this distraction and so is better suited to slow reading. If digital technology served all styles of reading, then print should have vanished by now. Some literary readers may have tried to read on-line and found it unsatisfactory. Those who are still literary readers, slow readers, are doing it in print. Some may have switched their reading habits to scan the web. It follows that if more people are reading on-line, then less slow reading is occurring.
Slow Reading is Deeper than Technology
A persistent fear about technology is that it undermines literacy and the capacity for critical thinking. Postman (1986) laments the decline of the Age of Typography which had its zenith in the 19th century. He notes the character of mind of the ordinary citizen of the day, who could listen for hours on end to political orations clearly shaped by a culture favouring text. Speeches would be followed by equally literate and equally lengthy rebuttals. The citizens who took time for this process were the same ones working dawn to dusk farming the lands. These people were well equipped to shape their nation. The Age of Television, on the other hand, is characterized by entertainment designed to please the eye. It requires no literacy and no reflective mental processing. We evaluate ourselves through the eye of television, and judge our politicians through their showmanship. As Postman warns, reading books is important for developing rational thinking, character of mind and political astuteness. From this view, what is good in modern politics is sustained by the citizenry with the patience for serious reading.
Birkerts (1994) denounces digital media for the decline of literacy. Referring to literature, he says “the overall situation is bleak and getting bleaker …. Book buying and reading have fallen off radically among the under-thirty crowd. And who can guess what the numbers will look like as new generations come of age?” (190). He is certain that our electronic culture is injuring our capacity to read: “We may have altered our cognitive apparatus – speeding up, learning to deal with complex assaults of stimuli – in such a way we can no longer take in the word as it is meant to be taken in” (191). Birkerts recommends “deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book” (146).
Baron (2005) acknowledges that the rise of computer-based communications has led to an increase in the production and sales of print materials; but she is concerned that it may conceal changes to traditional written culture. She identifies a number of watch points to monitor, including the existence of serious readers, hand-writers and traditional forms of writing like diaries rather than blogs. She calls to observation the dissolution of the individual author, the replacement of copyright by licensing, the replacement of publishing by on-demand printing by individuals, and a decline in language standards.
In his recent article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Carr (2008) describes his uncomfortable feeling that the Internet is remapping his neural circuitry. He can feel most strongly when he’s reading. He finds it increasingly difficult to read a lengthy article or book. He cites a University College London study which studied visitors’ behaviour at research sites. They found that people were skimming, not reading in the traditional sense. He wonders if Google's plans to perfect the search engine will have undesirable consequences on our capacity to think.
There is merit in monitoring these changes, but the fears should be tempered by the fact that they were shared by others who predate digital technology. In 1904, Nicoll wrote The Lost Art of Reading to respond to concerns that reading was seen as a vice, bad for work. In 1907, Lee wrote a book of the same title, seeing the lifestyle at the time as too rushed, urging people to slow down and read. Digital technology alone is not a threat to reading, but rather the proclivity to speed up life to the point that reading becomes problematic. Digital technology is typically used to make life more efficient, but to some extent reading will be at odds with efficiency. Reading takes up time, and it has the power to conjure us away from the present moment. It speaks to inner faculties not always easily processed with the frame of our daily routine. It makes us think. Reading and slowness go hand in hand. It has always been a target for those who would have us more productive.
Fears that reading is vanishing must also be reconciled with another frequent claim, that reading is a great pleasure. It seems odd that a pleasurable activity would be on the decline. Perhaps it does not seem so odd if we consider that reading requires an investment of inner resources that people may be less willing to make. Like cooking a good meal or nurturing a relationship, and unlike fast food or too much television, reading is one of those cardinal pleasures that require effort upfront but leaves the reader feeling more energized afterward. This is another reason that reading is at risk in every generation, but especially in the digital age. Our attention can only manage so many stimuli. With the endless stream of information fed to us in modern life, our attention is compromised. The Web was supposed to make information more manageable, but in fact it displaces time and attention we might spend really savouring a good read.
Reading is connected to literacy and critical thinking, but digital technology is not the primary villain. The real problems are our weakness for speed and our attempts to attend to too many things at once. We cannot accelerate our lives indefinitely. At some point we have to slow down to get a handle on our information. Slow reading represents balance.
Print is the Next Big Thing
The historical timing of inventions does not always correspond to the brilliance and importance of the same. Print led to digital text, much like the wheel led to the automobile. Sometimes we forget how much of modern life depends on these old technologies. Print enlists the hands in the act of reading, signalling the brain where to read next, and how much more there is to read. Digital reading shifts all the work to the eyes. Sellen and Harper (2001) observe that print is still the best medium for many purposes, including conceptual design, editing, proofreading, sensing the flow of text, and finally as a tangible bound object: “Ultimately, we want a bound volume in hand – a physical product that testifies to our efforts and that we can hand to family, friends, and colleagues” (1).
Print has its own limitations. It takes a heavy toll on the environment. When I am simply trying to catch the headlines or look up a definition, I do not need print, and should only print as a last resort. The print version of TV Guide was recently sold for a dollar. This makes perfect sense since television programming can change by the hour. On the other hand, the length of the average book has grown from 400 to 500 pages between 1995 and 2005 and "wordy" magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Foreign Affairs are increasing in circulation (Penn, 2007). When I wish to understand something, I often begin a search with Google. This is only problematic if searches always end there. The most perfect home for information snippets is on-line; they can be easily indexed, searched and scanned. When the snippets are inadequate, scrolling is substandard, hyperlinks are leading nowhere, and notifications are distracting me, that is, when slow reading is required, then print is the superior choice for reading.
E-Book Readers Aspire to Print
The Web has subsumed a fair quantity of short information media -- flyers, brochures, television listings, news and so forth. Too much advertising still shows up on my front porch, but there has been a relatively successful shift of this kind of content to the Web. Many people find it more desirable to read this kind of information on our computer screens. Longer, book-sized content can also be found on the Web in a variety of e-book formats, including the common portable document format (PDF) that can be viewed in most web browsers. E-books are a compelling idea – they replace the size and weight of physical books with a small file, and integrate full-text searching. Still, most find the format a degraded reading experience. I have seen people flip their laptops 90 degrees to simulate a print book, but it still does not work for in-depth reading. There is a trend in Japan to read books by cell phone. Each day, a short piece of a book is texted to the subscriber. Shortness of length seems to be the success factor for readability of information using digital technology, at least for multi-purpose devices such as personal computers and cell phones.
A sensible response to this shortcoming is a dedicated, digital reading device, designed expressly for enhanced readability. Every couple of years a new e-book reader is announced on the market, most recently the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. The essential design element in these devices is “bookishness”. Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, says of the Kindle, “it should be less of a whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture” (2007, November 26). Everything about the Kindle is designed to make it more like a book. It has the dimensions of a paperback and is tapered to emulate the bulge of a book's binding. Earlier models of e-books had a back-lit display like a monitor that can cause eye strain. The Kindle and the Reader use e-ink, a technology designed to simulate real print. Battery life has been extended so that the device will not shut down during a length read in the park.
Bezos intends nothing less than the replacement of the print book, “Books are the last bastion of the analog.” While the vendors have enjoyed a certain success in sales, they have not succeeded in replacing the book. As with the failed prediction about the paperless society, one can explain the persistence of the print book using two kinds of explanations. The first kind of explanation has to do with practical problems that can be resolved in time. Look at the price of the readers: $400 USD for the Kindle and $300 CAD for the Sony Reader is steep when I can still borrow my books from the library for free. Kindle licensing prohibits lending of its readers at libraries (Oder, 2008, February 7). The vendors are entitled to profit from their products, but this leads to irritating conditions like being locked into buying titles from the vendor alone. These problems could be resolved in time as mass production lowers prices and Kindle modifies its licensing. Other transient problems have to do with design flaws. One cannot flip pages like a book or compare two documents side-by-side. Inventive people are working hard to engineer solutions to these problems. Researchers at Maryland and Berkeley Universities have developed a prototype dual-display e-book reader (Chen et al, 2008). It has two screen faces, connected in the middle like binding. When the reader fans one of the faces, the page turns, much like a book. I look forward to being able to use devices like this.
A closer look at the trend in e-book reader engineering points to the second kind of explanation about why the print book persists. When digital technology first went mainstream people began to imagine how the book would change. In most cases, efforts were made to make the book more like the computer, hence e-books in PDF format. What has changed for the better since then is that engineering efforts are dedicated to make computers more like books. It is the express goal of the vendors to make their e-book readers like print books. The pursuit of this goal may ultimately be self-defeating. While print books have many features that resist digitalization, it has one fundamental feature that undercuts the need for digital technology: fixity. Print has the virtue of capturing an idea in a fixed form so that it can be read slowly and processed. Brain function is always a combination of neural excitation and inhibition. An inability to inhibit neural activity is associated with disorders such as epilepsy. Neural inhibition requires fixity, giving the brain the opportunity to open deeply to a text, to evaluate it without concern that it will change. You cannot click away. There are no message notifications. For slow reading, I seldom need full-text searching because I am trying to recreate the author's original intentions, reading in the linear format the ideas as they were intended to be read. E-book readers can only mimic this state by turning off all the bells and whistles. At that point, what does the reader really provide beyond the print book? For the e-book to serve the purposes of slow reading, it must become a print book.
Most readers wisely take a pragmatic position. E-book readers meet certain needs better than print books. The readers can hold multiple books, perform full-text searching, increase print-size for the visually impaired, and download and process payments for new books at the press of a button. As long as they still prefer print books for some kinds of reading, then the two forms of books will continue to co-exist. It is a sensible attitude. It is a different matter altogether for the designers and sellers of digital reader technology. Despite all their efforts, for some kinds of reading – long-form reading, slow reading -- the print book is the superior technology. Obvious to many who read, this insight is a tragedy to those hoping to make a fortune by improving upon the book.
E-Books are Metadata for Print Books
In the early days of digital technology it was trendy to talk about artificial intelligence, especially if you were an entrepreneur trying to sell software. It was a popular conception that digital technology could think for us. No doubt by the turn of the millennium we would be having conversations with computers, hopefully issuing orders that they would carry out for us. Things turned out somewhat differently. The current trend of Web 2.0 attempts to harness the collective intelligence of its users, not the intelligence of the software. The effectiveness of Google, Wikipedia, Delicious, and so forth lies in the content generated by its users. Cynics might see this approach as a clever trick to get people to work for free. In any case, the reality of digital technology has trended quite differently than originally imagined. Technology has limitations that can only be compensated by traditional sources – people, print, books.
Books are not being replaced by digital technology. Instead of reading online, websites are increasingly offering online services to enhance the experience of reading print books. The WorldCat catalogue of the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) helps people find books in their local libraries. Web 2.0 startups like LibraryThing allow users to catalogue their books online. Literary websites are using GoogleEarth to show people the literary heritage of their cities (Irvine, 2008). Many people were surprised to learn that Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia, was being printed by a German publisher (Cohen, 2008, April 23). Digital technology is adapting to the constancy of the book.
Pundits declaring the end of the book admit the irony of publishing their books in print (Gomez, 2008; Jarvis, 2008). The usual explanation is that people and publishers have not made the transition yet. In this view, the coexistence of print and digital realms is a negative thing. Doctorow is a science fiction writer who sees the web quite differently. He distributes free full-length e-books of his works from his website. As he sees it, his readers will be grateful for the freebies, become evangelists of his work and ultimately buy more print books than if he remained in obscurity (2006). The book’s first printing sold out months ahead of the publisher’s expectations (Lessig, 2004). It is a trend that is catching on (Darbyshire, 2007; Gaiman, 2008). From this perspective, print and digital technologies co-exist as happy complements.
The success of Doctorow's experiment is evidence in favour of the view espoused in this chapter that print and books persist because of enduring qualities. There is no dispute that digital technology brilliantly serves some purposes never available in print culture. Search functions in particular are much easier than the old days of digging through print indexes. It is also true that reading short snippets on the web is quite an acceptable reading experience; it should be encouraged given the environmental cost of wasteful printing. However, to read anything of length or substance, to read slowly, we need print books for their superior readability. All of this points to an emerging model in which digital representations of books can be viewed as metadata for finding print books. The Web provides a resource for storing traditional metadata about a book, such as title, author, and so on. Since readers prefer to read print books, even a full-text representation of a book is metadata because it exists only for evaluative purposes before the reader seeks out the physical copy. It is a wonderful arrangement for readers because the increased availability of metadata, along with digital search, means increased ease of finding the best reading materials. The boundary between digital and print worlds is not a soft one to be removed in time, but instead a hard centre enduring around the need for slow reading.
The Big Picture: An Information Ecology
The contrast between print and digital technologies in this chapter has oversimplified the situation a bit. There are a wide variety of print and digital technologies, and there are technologies for information exchange other than print and digital media. A continuum can be drawn with print on the left pole and digital technology on the right. Print-on-demand devices could be said to occupy a middle-ground because it takes advantage of both digital and print technologies. Further to the left I might place “stone tablets” like the ones we are told were used to record the Ten Commandments. Stone tablets are even more fixed than print, and are still a part of our information culture. Further to the right I might place “ideas” in a Platonic sense, more ethereal than digital representations. Instead of just talking about print and digital technology, we see that information technology is a complex domain, distinguished by degrees but still sharing a common dimension. This kind of continuum ties into emerging models of information such as pace layering. Morville (2005) describes pace layering as a house; with Web 2.0 technologies like tagging corresponding to highly changeable surfaces like walls; and traditional library classification corresponding to the enduring concrete foundation.
One could also use a metaphor of leaves and a tree to describe the complexity of the relationships between information technologies. This metaphor comes from nature, suggesting an organic system, an information ecology, including not only the technologies but the people who use it. Nardi and O'Day (1999) state, “In information ecologies, the spotlight is not on technology, but on human activities that are served by technology” (49). Libraries are a clear example of an information ecology, with books, magazines, DVDs, and computer terminals. It also has librarians for whom access to information of all kinds for all people is a core value. Libraries house a complex range of information activities, be that story time for two-year-olds, a poetry recitation by a local author, or a podcasting workshop. It is no wonder that libraries have thrived through the digital age. They are one of the few places that respond to the complexity of our information needs.
Reading too is a complex phenomenon in our information ecology. Ross (2006) points out that literacy is a moving target. “Whereas in the nineteenth century, the measure of literacy was being able to sign one’s name instead of an X on a document, expectations are now far higher. To be literate in a modern society means not only being able to read documents but being able to use them effectively in everyday life contexts.” (3). She suggests it is a misunderstanding of youth to dismiss online reading as an enemy of reading. She argues for an expanded definition of reading, including everything from the serious scholar to the gamer with a digital help file. I am in strong agreement with this view. The arguments in favour of slow reading are not intended to denigrate the advances of digital technology, but rather to clarify its position in our information ecology.
Author: John Miedema
Published: March 2009
Printed on acid-free paper