So last May I took a four week, online class called Reading Literature in the Digital Age on the Future Learn platform. It was taught by Philipp Schweighauser at the University of Basel. It was great, except that Schweighauser was doing a Simon Schama impersonation in every video.
The class was about different reading strategies people employ when reading academically or surfing on the web or in social settings. I learned more about deep reading, distant reading and hyper reading. And I’m a practitioner of all of it, for better or worse.
In fact, I've been noticing reading trends particularly around work groups for almost 30 years. When I started working in offices, desktop computers were rare and windows wasn’t even widely available yet. This was before email and the end of paper memorandums delivered into in-boxes actually sitting on corners of desks. I remember hand delivering stacks of memos.
My job now depends on a light understanding of a plethora of web and project management tools. And instead of seeing an increase in customer service with CRMs, better decision making with data-gathering tools, or quicker decision making with mobile access, I've seen a steady decline in productivity, efficiency and customer service and a steady increase in decision paralysis as each year goes by.
This is primarily because tools (and the frantic drive to develop the next hip one) have become a distraction from the work itself and, more specifically, a distraction from deep thinking and solving problems. We are now so pressed for time due to these "time-saving" tools that we’re forced into a reading survivor mode: skimming, winging-it, the bullshitting that has become prevalent in offices everywhere, the bullshitting that signals immediately: I haven't read it. Add to that the attention deficit introduced when spreading our eyeballs over various online media sites and indulging in fun online things which require even more skim-reading. We're now inundated with noise and a barge of "you should read this."
And it’s causing already bureaucratic organizations to crack from the lack of deep consideration over real business problems. Hyper-reading seems to me both the cause and the symptom of our online agonies. Here's an interview with Schweighauser about the class.
XKCD published this cartoon last year about the Digital Resource Lifespan:
Visit the hosted cartoon at https://xkcd.com/1909/ and roll over the graphic for some funny.
I keep coming back to this graphic and sending it around because it's all about intellectual perishability. The Father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, once warned us that decades of intellectual property would someday perish because it's stuck on outmoded formats. Electronic Lit is particularly vulnerable and perishable.
The quote above says it all: “It’s unsettling to realize how quickly digital resources can disappear without ongoing work to maintain them.”
Digital is more labor intensive and perishable than books are for this very reason. And as corporations constantly ask us to switch to new media, we spend money re-buying the same things we already have. And why? As a cross-over example from my other blog interest in Cher, one early Cher album from 1965 has since possibly seen six formats: mono lp, stereo lp, 8-track tape, cassette tape, compact disc and mp3. I have a box of my mother's old 78-records but I can't play them. I have many odd boxes of various types of computer storage systems: 8-inch floppy discs, 3 1/2-inch floppy discs, backup zip cartridges, writable CDs, SD cards, external hard drives, memory sticks. I even have some of my mother's recipes printed on the back of old fortran punch cards my Dad used to bring home from work. Read about the history of removable computer storage.
I also find it interesting that retail stores are now finding “the digital space so crowded” they’re going back to printed catalogs.
It's good we're not killing trees anymore, no doubt. But how to invent a permanent device that beats it for durability; it's hard.