From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 20, 1997*Reading ... and the web lifestyle

Half a year ago, around the summer solstice (which deserves links, but not at the moment) I tried my hand at comparing the web to a printed page. Among the numerous points of comparison, I alluded only cursorily to the question of reading web pages, with the sentence: That wasn't the first time I tried to examine the "non-reading" atmosphere that the web seems to encourage. The question of skimming, or browsing, was one of the first topics I tried to deal with in this column. In that column I referred to a column by Nicholas Negroponte in Wired magazine in which Negroponte critiqued the idea of browsing, saying that he didn't have time for window shopping because he had to get serious work done: It was strange to me then that Negroponte would see browsing as a time-consuming, even a time-wasting, activity. After all, browsing is something you do because you don't have time for comprehensive reading. Seemingly you browse in order to save time. But Negroponte, who realized that there was real value in browsing, all the same seemed to be saying that browsing was a luxury for which we no longer have the time.

For as long as I can remember I've been a skimmer. Even before the web there was too much to read, and skimming was the best way to get the gist of something in order to determine whether it deserved to be saved, and hopefully read fully at some later date. A former teacher and mentor, Moshe Caspi, claimed that just as there is reading literacy - understanding the totality of the printed page, there is also skimming literacy - being able to quickly grasp the gist of a page, and that this should be taught in school as well. Yet (I am, after all, a product of a pre-MTV generation) a love for the printed word was instilled in me and, though the web is very much my element, I'm hesitant to see reading - real, word-for-word, taste the sentence structure, reading - become an outmoded, and out-of-use activity.

Two articles I've read lately have returned me to this question of browsing as opposed to reading. One of them, Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox for October 1, 1997, starts with a sentence which makes me jealous and wish that I'd written it:

Nielsen then explains: Nielsen approaches an important issue in a very common sense manner, but, though at first glance he seems to be decrying the demise of reading, it turns out that his basic interest is the development of effective web pages for busy people who have to find important information. So what at first seems like a complaint turns out to be a basic premise to be dealt with in order to design and write web pages in such a way that users (I guess we can't call them "readers" anymore) can get the most out of them.

It's true (though unlike Nielsen, I haven't conducted a study that supports my claim) - people don't read web pages. I'm quite unsure, however, whether this is due to the fact that they browse and skim because they're busy and want to find only the information relevant to them, or simply because reading isn't one of the skills required in the web ethos, the "web lifestyle".

And that brings me to the second article that's been cluttering up my desk lately, an article entitled "I'm ready for the Web lifestyle" by Bill Gates. After paying lip serivce to the need for faster connections and eaiser interfaces before a "web lifestyle" will truly be possible, Gates tells us that he uses the Web (for some reasons he capitalizes the word) "serveral times a day":

So Bill Gates uses the Web daily, and is concerned with the development of a web lifestyle. Judging from his own description, reading isn't a central activity at the web pages he visits. On the contrary, the uses he finds for the web are of a sort that hardly demand high school proficiency in reading.

I have no doubt that Bill Gates is a busy person, and I certainly can't begrudge him for not reading (in the outdated sense of the word) the web pages he visits. But as a promoter of a "Web lifestyle" he is also actively playing a part in redefining how we use our reading skills, and it seems as though the most basic redefinition is in the direction outlined by Nielsen: Spending more and more time on the web, yet reading less and less of it. The web continually offers us more and more information, yet we relate to it less and less in an in-depth fashion, and style seems to be something totally of the past. We read for content, not for flavor.

This, of course, isn't solely a problem of the web. An acquaintance is presently taking a course in writing computer software manuals. He enthuses over the wonderful things he's learning, like the fact that no sentence should have more than 18 words, and no paragraph more than two sentences. That's writing for busy people who want to find the information they need quickly, and don't want to be bothered by style, but I greatly doubt that it makes for interesting reading.

Translated to the web it offers a lot of clicking (which is great fun), yet still maintains linearity. It doesn't invite networking which assumes a certain degree of ambivalence and even redundance. So we'll click from page to page, greatly enjoying the experience, but we'll miss out on the web's greatest promise. When we read actively we not only uncover the intended meaning of the text; we participate in the generation of new meanings. "Web lifestyle" reading is one-dimensional, while active reading encourages multi-dimensional understandings and interpretations. As Lewis Thomas put it, human language has the capacity of encouraging ambiguity. That's a wonderful possibility on the web, but only if we allow ourselves to really read.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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