Reading vs. Consuming

One can’t help but laugh when going through old magazines, especially those “best of” issues that boldly predict the most innovative trends to emerge in the near or distant future.

Cover of Smithsonian MagazineIn the August 2010 issue of Smithsonian, for example, the magazine celebrated its 40th anniversary by listing “40 Things You Need to Know About the Next 40 Years.” The list includes automobiles that run on salt water, organs and body parts made to order, and world peace finally manifesting as the result of our global population reaching old age en masse.

Some of these predicted events may, indeed, turn out to be prescient. In fact, the last item on the list is already taking place: new habits in personal literacy. The proliferation of mobile technology, with its smooth surfaces requiring swipes and taps to operate, have created a modality in which reading has become more dextrous. Meanwhile, smaller screens minimize the amount of content that can be consumed in one session.

Reading and writing, like all activities, are subject to dynamic influences that shape how written material is created, distributed and received. In 15th-century Europe, only 1 in 20 males could read, and writing was an even rarer skill. The advent of the printing press allowed content to be mass-produced at greater volumes, allowing for less “scholarly” works to see publication (the first romance novel was published in 1740). When it comes to formulating a public aesthetic, technology is not neutral.

Words today have migrated from bound paper pulp to 4.5 billion tiny screens worldwide. We see them illuminated on darkened commuter trains. We gaze absentmindedly at them while standing in line at the supermarket. We sneak quick glances at them while stopped at a red light. We aren’t reading for knowledge or enrichment; we’re filling a moment until the next thing happens.

Illustration by Erik Carter. Screenshots from Vine users Alona Forsythe, Brandon Bowen, Dems, imanilindsay, MRose and Sionemaraschino.
Illustration by Erik Carter for the New York Times Magazine. Screenshots from Vine users Alona Forsythe, Brandon Bowen, Dems, imanilindsay, MRose and Sionemaraschino.

But what are we reading that’s so riveting that it removes us from the present moment? As it turns out, nothing. There is a whole industry around the idea of “borecore,” a term used by Jenna Wortham in a New York Times Magazine article this month. She describes how video-sharing apps like Vine and Meerkat operate like a firehose, constantly releasing a voluminous stream of vapid, self-indulgent content more appropriate as time-filler than value enrichment:

“Rather than killing time at the mall, in a Spencer’s Gifts or the food court, young people are filming themselves doing the incredibly mundane: goofing around in a backyard pool, lounging on basement couches, whatever; in other words, recording the minutiae of their lives and uploading it for not very many to see.”

Kindle Fire deviceA similar trend is taking place with non-video content. We don’t read the written word, as we do a book or periodical literature; we consume it. Screens are always on, and we never stop peeking at them. The digital material we consume is highly visual and interactive, requiring a series of finger gestures and precise tapping sequences. Pop-up windows with tiny “close” buttons and interstitial moving images compete for our attention, and every selection we make is recorded by someone, somewhere, for some data-driven purpose we’ll never understand.

Reading off a screen requires a user to rapidly formulate a pattern of behavior that rewards distraction. Sitting down with a long narrative, told in a singular voice, just doesn’t have the same element of persuasion during instances when we need a quick blast of information (such as checking the customer reviews of a product while we’re standing in the store, deciding whether to make the purchase) or just want to waste a few minutes at the airport until our flight is called.

People standing in line, looking at their smart phones.
Photo by Greg Battin of Autodesk University.

Some might argue that technology has even influenced the quality of content we choose to consume. At its “best,” reading from a tablet screen is no different than turning the pages of a book, because good writing will always transcend whatever medium by which it’s delivered. At “worst,” though, we scan words off a screen between the moments of our lives, like sneaking an unhealthy snack into our mouths when we think no one is looking.

Whatever our opinion on the quality of digital material being consumed, one cannot deny that our retrieval capacity has enhanced our role as content aggregators. We reside in constant, curatorial flux regarding the world around us, and the screen is the first place we look when we need answers. It’s also the vehicle of choice when we want to put something out into the world, even if the end in mind is a book printed on paper. Otherwise, this blog wouldn’t exist.

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