Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Meaning of Reading in an Internet Age

If I were more on the ball, I would have linked to this Motoko Rich article, "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?," from the New York Times earlier in the week. The good news is that this is apparently "the first in a series of articles that will look at how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read." So more to come!

It's an interesting enough article that does a fine job providing the kind of surface of this debate, which they are framing as "digital versus print." The parents want the kids to read books, the kids want to spend all their time online. I appreciated the point that some kids, and even some adults, saw books as boring when you know there is a more interactive alternative, but as ever, I was troubled by the lack of control of online content.

“It takes a long time to read a 400-page book,” said Mr. Spiro of Michigan State. “In a tenth of the time,” he said, the Internet allows a reader to “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view.”

Zachary Sims, the Old Greenwich, Conn., teenager, often stays awake until 2 or 3 in the morning reading articles about technology or politics — his current passions — on up to 100 Web sites.

“On the Internet, you can hear from a bunch of people,” said Zachary, who will attend Columbia University this fall. “They may not be pedigreed academics. They may be someone in their shed with a conspiracy theory. But you would weigh that.”

The difference between that 400 page book and a variety of websites, though, is that the book can be checked for accuracy, both in its content and in its presentation. I worry that this kid is giving equally weight to "someone in their shed" and experts. Are we really ready to dismiss credentials that easily?

Later, another teenager's habits are discussed:
When researching the 19th-century Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for one class, he typed Taney’s name into Google and scanned the Wikipedia entry and other biographical sites. Instead of reading an entire page, he would type in a search word like “college” to find Taney’s alma mater, assembling his information nugget by nugget.
Again, Wikipedia information is not always accurate. I'm not going to get too upset about the idea of piecing together information because this happened long before the internet, when people would do the same with books, but the sources are questionable, even unreliable, so the information is cheapened.

And I suppose this is what it comes down to: how much respect do people have for information if it's so readily available? It seems the value of this currency drops when it's provided by so many, some of whom may be putting out false information. Using a currency analogy also allows us to bring up the elitism of this view: am I suggesting only a privileged few should have access to and be able to provide information, to keep it's value high? I think everyone should have access, but not everyone should necessarily be providing information, or rather, we shouldn't trust anyone with information. If we don't continue to value education that turns people into experts, then we're heading into some fairly frightening uncertain times.

This article discusses testing internet navigation skills, and I can see some value in this. Kids are using it so often, why not test the skills so they do not waste time and trust bad sources of information? The Educational Testing Service developed an exam called iSkills, and of the 20,000 students who have taken it since 2006, "only 39% of four-year college freshmen achieved a score that represented 'core functional levels' in Internet literacy."

There's plenty of good crap to read online, but let's face it: 80% is personal opinion dressed as fact, or pornography. And I have no problem with opinionated writing or, for that matter, porn, but both should be enjoyed only when one knows enough to navigate them skillfully.

(I'm not sure how porn got tangled up in this point, but maybe it'll get the site more hits.)

PS - I just noticed a letter to the editor on from Mark Hussey, a professor of English from Pace University (whose name again calls to mind pornography), who makes this sound point:

As more and more people fail to “read,” it becomes easier for the powerful to hoodwink them because extended narratives disappear, to be replaced by the quick conclusions available in a Google search. We no longer see that we are repeating old narratives, no longer see how we got to where we are.

To engage with democratic processes — to participate in making difficult decisions or answering challenging questions (shall we go to war? whose fault is poverty?) — requires the ability to examine multiple perspectives, to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously in the mind.

That's in part what I meant to say... thanks!

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