Heather Champ recently wrote a bit of a “switch” story, in which she begins by talking about hooking up a 20-inch monitor to her 12-inch iBook, and then she reflects upon her early days as a Mac-user in the 1980s.
Then she says this:
My tryst with the dark side began in 1998 when I moved back to Canada and money was tight. If I could zoom back in time, I might visit myself in Montreal and scream “don’t do it,” but if I had a time machine there would be far more important events in my life that I would want to deter. Or not. While the journey was wretched at times, it led me here.
At least one person I know read that as a slight against Montreal—interpreting “don’t do it” as “don’t move to Montreal.” I’m sure others have thought the same thing. Upon careful reading, however, one sees that “the dark side” and “don’t do it” are most likely referring to a move away from Apple computers and into the world of Microsoft Windows.
It’s not very clear, but that is my interpretation. However, it takes a careful read—or a repeat read—to get that meaning.
I bring this up not because I want to talk about Apple versus Windows, nor Montreal versus any other place. Rather, I want to talk about writing, and more specifically, reading.
The Web is a marvelous thing. It provides us with an unimaginable amount of information—literally at our finger tips. It also provides ways for us to add to that vast storehouse of searchable human knowledge. Blogs, forums, personal web sites—they’re stockpiling knowledge and information at a rate that was inconceivable just a generation or two ago.
Acknowledging that I’m certainly not the first to bring this up, I do have a few questions about how our minds are being shaped by the presence, accessibility, and ubiquity of all this knowledge.
For example, many people have lamented the poor quality of writing found in the “blogosphere,” and it is indisputable that writing in an environment free of copy editors and proofreaders creates a lot of errors in both language and the presentation of ideas. One could argue, for example, that an editor might have pointed out to Heather Champ that her “Don’t do it” paragraph is perhaps too ambiguous, that her point is a bit muddled because she’s introducing two ideas in the same paragraph (going from Apple to Windows, and moving to Montreal) yet it is unclear which of those ideas reflects a move to “the dark side.”
On the other hand, particularly in cases such as this, the problem might not be the writing. Perhaps, instead, the problem stems from losing our sense of nuance when it comes to reading.
When I hear about people reading 100 or 200 blogs a day, or hundreds of on-line newspaper articles, or dozens upon dozens of forum postings, I wonder how they can achieve any kind of depth with that kind of broad and rapid input of text. A fortunate choice of words, as it begs the following question: does an extremely high volume of on-line consumption not reduce the process of reading down to a simple input function?
How can anyone read with nuance at that rate? It must be like spending an hour racing through the Louvre and registering only “picture of house; picture of human; odd-shaped piece of wood; photo of dog.”
There is more to the craft of writing than the mere transmission of basic information onto a page. But how are we, as writers, supposed to react when so many readers simply bolt down our painstakingly-crafted words and move on, like someone gulping a finely crafted lobster bisque out of a Styrofoam cup and then reaching for the nacho chips?
Lets step back a bit. On the matter of writing, I do not believe that blogging leads to bad writing. Correlation is not causation. Rather, I believe the ease with which people can blog has simply brought forward a lot of people with modest writing skills and has allowed them to publish, unedited. As those people blog more, many will indeed improve their skills.
But what about readers?
Are the volume, and sheer ubiquity of on-line texts causing people to abandon the art of reading well? Or are those who read broadly but not deeply unlikely to read deeply regardless of the medium or the volume of material? Is it possible that some people, due to impatience, disinterest, or some other reason simply don’t read for any reason other than “information input?” Or are we on the verge of a massive shift away from multi-dimensional reading into a dark age of flat, two-dimensional “information flow?”
Just as the art of oratory—once valued as an important part of a person’s cultural development—is now lost, will the arts of writing and reading become nothing more than “functions?”
And ultimately, does it matter? If a thing is lost to the point that we don’t know it ever existed—how can it be missed?