reading, speed, and thinking

Ian Bogost has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on speed reading. It addresses a particular new technology called Spritz, but Bogost is more concerned with the underlying problem: the sheer deluge of text and information we face on line. As he writes,

With so much so-called content, “consuming” it by means of comprehension is becoming impossible. And while we might lament such an outcome along with Dr. Henderson, it stands to reason that the technology and media companies might want to compress more and more interactions with content (let’s not mistake them for reading) into a smaller and smaller amount of time. Think of it as an attentional version of data compression: the faster we can be force fed material, the larger volume of such matter we can attach to our user profiles and accounts as data to be stored, sold, and bartered.

By some accounting, we read (and write) more than ever, though is it really reading? And perhaps by extension we might ask, is it really writing? Certainly the traditionalists among us would be quick to argue that the text, status update, and tweet shouldn’t really count as either. Is writing nothing more than putting words (sort of) into a sentence (sort of)? And is reading nothing more than recognizing the words? What kind of thinking needs to accompany these activities?

And then, as Bogost argues, should we see this from the perspective of the marketplace where what counts is the production and consumption of “content” rather than any comprehension that might accompany it? I imagine we are all familiar with the observation that our brains are doing less while we watch TV than when we are sleeping, and perhaps we can hear our mothers’ voices echoing in our heads about how we will rot our brains watching TV. Maybe this is like that: scanning (or “reading”) your facebook news feed is the equivalent of channel surfing, right? There’s no doubt that there are companies seeking to profit from user-generated content. That’s the longstanding story of social media. Someone creates a great app or website that thousands of people want to use (for free), but the question is how do the creators profit from their creation? The answer has been to find value in the content the users create. And the assumption is that there is value in the content, not in the individual updates but in some proprietary aggregation of the data. So the more we post/produce and the more we click/consume, the more value we produce, regardless of the (lack of) thinking involved.

There are a couple interesting observations that strike me out of this situation.

1. Our cultural faith in the value of the aggregated data of our online activities. I don’t doubt that we might be scared and impressed by what Google knows about us. And, we might benefit from a larger public conversation about corporate data-gathering. At the same time, I am reminded by the way people would be impressed by what I “knew” about them by doing a tarot card reading (something I haven’t done for years but picked up on a lark in my 20s). I imagine that I am not so hard to read either. My inclination is to situate the contemporary connections we make between data networks and identity in the historical context of the ways we have understood ourselves in relation to technologies, especially media/information ones.

2. Along those same lines, it is the current schism/shift with media technologies that generates the question Bogost implicitly asks (at least for me): what is reading supposed to be? We know what 20th century reading was and Bogost offers us a picture of what reading is becoming. Perhaps it is just because we’ve been reading Kittler in my media theory class, but I am thinking about this in the following way. If handwriting offered an imagined near-telepathic connection between author and reader (where the author’s thoughts and identity are conveyed) and the typewriter introduced a different cybernetics where text becomes code to be interpreted in term of an autopoiesis, then the data network situates the human reader as a node in a network of distributed cognition where what we consciously think is less important than our role as an input/output device. After all our computer is “reading” too. It’s reading off of the hard drive or flash memory. Gmail “reads” our email. Those agents understand what they need to in order to produce the required output. So do we.

3. This brings me back to two questions. First, an ontological one, which is what are we or what are we capable of being? And second an ethico-political one, what should we be? Inasmuch as we are intertwined with symbolic behavior, the question of how we produce and consume symbols will be involved in these concerns. As an academic, particularly as one in the humanities, I know quite well the version of this that has one spending years, decades, nose-to-page, in the solitary act of reading books, combined with an equally solitary writing activity. It is a combination of close reading and a deliberative writing practice that understands human thinking as emerging through an intimate, slow encounter with words. Ideas that have value are composed through this activity, not, as should be obvious, through the speedy agglomeration of data.

Media-information networks offer a very different version of symbolic behavior, one that we might characterize as less interior and less intimate. What is it like to be that person? The person awash in thousands of words, images, video and so on? I suppose we all have an answer to that question. But clearly we remain largely unhappy with those answers, and I don’t have much to offer on that today. However I will say this. Learning to read like a 20th century college student takes a fair amount of practice and discipline. It requires learning to focus, to filter out the unwanted noises of the day and to set aside one’s inclination to let the mind wander and instead stay with the words.  What is the digital version of this practice? I agree with Ian that isn’t the speed reading Spritz offers, but what is it?