I’ve been sitting here for the last few minutes trying to come up with a number, a percentage that captures how much of what I read is read on a screen as opposed to a piece of paper these days. My first thought was 90%, but that sounded too high, so I’ve been sitting here trying to knock that number down. It’s really, really hard. Just about all of my books are on the iPad, all of my bills are online, all the newspapers and magazines that I read regularly are on the Web, all the RSS feeds, the Tweets, the videos… This may be TMI, but there aren’t even any magazines in the bathroom any more.
Maybe, in fact, it’s 95%.
Which, as is so often the case, leads me to think about my kids and the reading and writing they are going to do in the next school year. For my son who’s 11, I’m guessing about 90% will be given out and handed in on paper. For my daughter, who is 13 and has “adopted” my old MacBook as her own, it may be closer to 75% on paper coming in and going out as I’m sure she’ll be asked to print most of what she composes on the computer. In either case, I’m guessing not much instruction or discussion is going to be centered on the ways in which screen reading and writing are changing the very nature of the acts. They’re not creating links. They’re not deconstructing them.
They should be.
Two great pieces by Scott Rosenberg and Kevin Kelly have me thinking deeply about this. Scott’s piece, “In Defense of Links Part 3: In Links we Trust” neatly captures so much of the shift around reading that I think it should be required reading for every teacher (since every teacher is a writing teacher.) I’m serious. Here’s a fairly short snip that gets to the complexity of reading and writing in links.
The context that links provide comes in two flavors: explicit and implicit. Explicit context is the actual information you need to understand what you’re reading…you land on my page and you might well have no idea what I’m talking about, since this is part three of a series. Links make it easy for me to show you where to catch up. If you don’t have time for that, links let me orient you more quickly in my first paragraph with reference to Carr’s post. I can do all this without having to slow down those readers who’ve been following from the start with summaries and synopses. Again, even if the links that achieve this do demand a small fee from your working brain (which remains an unproven hypothesis), I’d say that’s a fair price.
By implicit context, I mean something a little more elusive: The links you put into a piece of writing tell a story (or, if you will, a meta-story) about you and what you’ve written. They say things like: What sort of company does this writer keep? Who does she read? What kind of stuff do her links point to — New Yorker articles? Personal blogs? Scholarly papers? Are the choices diverse or narrow? Are they obvious or surprising? Are they illuminating or puzzling? Generous or self-promotional?
Links, in other words, transmit meaning, but they also communicate mindset and style.
Which isn’t to say that written texts don’t communicate mindset and style. But it is to suggest that interacting with links, both by simply reading them and by clicking on them, creates quite a different experience, one with more complexity and, I think, more potential. It’s not as simple as “links provide context.” The choice of what we link to speaks volumes about our interests, biases, agendas, and those cues are now a part of the reading interaction, a piece of what we as readers then use to make sense of the text.
Kevin Kelly’s piece in the Smithsonian Magazine, A Whole New Way of Reading, also gets to the complexity of these changes.
But it is not book reading. Or newspaper reading. It is screen reading. Screens are always on, and, unlike with books we never stop staring at them. This new platform is very visual, and it is gradually merging words with moving images: words zip around, they float over images, serving as footnotes or annotations, linking to other words or images. You might think of this new medium as books we watch, or television we read. Screens are also intensely data-driven. Pixels encourage numeracy and produce rivers of numbers flowing into databases. Visualizing data is a new art, and reading charts a new literacy. Screen culture demands fluency in all kinds of symbols, not just letters.
There is a lot going on in that paragraph, a lot about balance, about participation, multimedia, literacy and more. And a lot about the flows of knowledge vs. the stacks of knowledge that John Seely Brown and others write about in Pull.
So here are the questions I’m asking: Are reading and writing changing in these linkable, screen centered environments? If so, does the way we think about reading and writing literacy have to change to embrace these shifts? If so, what are we doing about that?
Right now, I think the answer in most schools is “not much.” In fact, I’m not sure many even realize the extent to which this shift is occurring. They have other things on their minds. (Case in point, see this snip from a local newspaper that Steve Ransom tweeted to me this morning.) Which is why I just sent these two links to the English Department supervisor and various others at my local high school and my kids’ two schools. As good as they are at what they do, my sense is that they need us as parents out here in this stew to send them this stuff to read.
Here’s hoping they click the links.