I had to link to this Christine Rosen piece from The New Atlantis on “People of the Screen,” largely because it uses the phrase “the now-liminal status of the printed word.” (I just don’t get to see the word “liminal” thrown about enough.) Yes, another doom-and-gloom article about the demise of print, wrapped up in an “I’m so intellectual” package — and, oddly enough, available to read in full on the screen. To wit:
Such is the end of the tragedy we are now witness to: 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.
There’s so much to take issue with in this mish-mosh of an article that one hardly knows where to begin. A little research here and there, however, might help clarify matters. For instance, Rosen bemoans the fact that:
Rather than reading deliberately, when we scan the screen in search of content our eyes follow an F-shaped pattern, quickly darting across text in search of the central nugget of information we seek. “’Reading’ is not even the right word” to describe this activity, Nielsen pointedly says.
People have being doing these sorts of “eyeball studies” for years, and guess what? People don’t “deliberately” read newspapers in a nice straight line, either — they tend to read in an “S” or a “Z” pattern, looking for clues in photos, headlines, graphics, and captions before settling into the meat of a story. And, go figure — the Poynter Institute reports in the results of a recent eyeball tracking study comparing print newspaper reading with online reading that:
Once people chose what they wanted to read they read more thoroughly online than in print.
Online readers read both short and long stories more completely than either broadsheet or tabloid readers (online 62% of the text of stories longer than 19 inches was read compared to 52% in tabloid and 49% in broadsheet.)
Online readers, overall, read an average of 77% of the stories they chose to read.
Implication? Can we get over the longing for the “good old days” when supposedly people sat and read the newspaper cover to cover? It is clear that once engaged, the online reader stays with the text of a story longer than the newsprint reader.
More thoroughly? Say it ain’t so, Joe…
But let’s step back and talk “liminal” for a minute. One important component missing from this article (and from most “it’s the end of the printed word as we know it” scenarios): Liminal implies potential and possibility. These are good things. If you find being on the threshold unsettling, you’re not alone; it doesn’t mean the sky is falling on us all.
It’s also worth noting how people read different interpretations into the same thing, from Rosen’s interpretation of Jakob Nielsen’s eyeball research to the recent NEA report on reading. The Smart Bitches just linked, celebrating the finding that reading is on the rise for the first time in 25 years. Walt Crawford just linked, noting that the previous “fall” in reading rates “was nonsense and cooked data,” so why assume NEA is doing it right this time. Stephen Abram just linked, listing with little comment the report’s “key findings,” like “The U.S. population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups – readers and non-readers.”
Discover recently posted a fascinating article on “How Google is Making us Smarter,” which notes near the end:
That doesn’t mean we must approve of every possible extension of the mind, and even good extensions will have some drawbacks. Socrates worried that writing would make people forgetful and unwise. Sure enough, writing did rob us of some gifts, such as the ability to recite epic poems like The Iliad from memory. But it also created a much larger pool of knowledge from which people could draw, a pool that has continued to expand (or, dare we say, continued to extend?).
Yes, gloom and doom scenarios are nothing particularly new. Just as writing enabled the creation of that larger pool of knowledge, though, the content creation tools of the read/write Web (and the interactivity it invites) similarly enable the creation of a new pool of knowledge, a new collective wisdom to draw upon. We may not know exactly where this all leads us, but we can explore the possibilities — speaking of being in a liminal state.