Written byJoe Clark. 40 comments
A species-wide experiment has been carried out on the world’s cyber citizens and the results are in. Thanks to the web, our brains are changing and our ability to read long is going the way of the typewriter. Is this really what we had in mind?
The web is rewiring your brain. By staring at websites all day, your reading abilities have been forever changed. And every child in every foreseeable generation of every foreseeable technology-rich society will be changed in just the same way. Reading will never be the same. Neither will you.
This is a problem.
We started out hoping the web would make it possible and easy to distribute documents, especially public documents and other ‘important’ but dull works that were formerly hard to locate. Later on we decided that what we’d really wanted the web to do all along was to make it possible to upload low-quality video snippets and pack cleverness and pith into 140-character lozenges.
We realise now that long documents do not work on the web. We should never have thought otherwise. But all those short documents we’re reading instead are poisoning our ability to read long documents. You used to have the Yahoo ‘portal’ and Geocities homepages; now you have your own blog, 1470 RSS subscriptions, needlessly duplicated accounts on every social-networking site, Flickr photos you feel obligated to update, and the trifecta of instant messaging, Twitter, and email (which you gave up using properly when you signed up for Gmail).
Events are unfolding almost exactly as Nick Carr said they would in his now-notorious article for the Atlantic Monthly, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ Google isn’t; the web is. For anyone who works on the web all day, and for a lot of teenagers, there is no way you’re going to read lengthy single documents online. It’s partly our fault, partly intrinsic to the structure of hypertext and partly due to the inability of a mammalian visual processing system to deal with reading off a screen all day.
It is just barely practicable to read a long document on screen if the document is pretty much the only thing on that screen. How often do you see a page like that? Almost never.
A typical commercial site has a ‘content well’ of some sort, but also multiple toolbars; headers and footers; sidebar content; and a search box.
A typical personal site resides on a hosted blogging platform like Blogger or WordPress. These too have a content well, but also a lengthy list of previous postings; archives; a search box; and various bits of fluff and branding.
A typical social-networking site barely has any content. It’s a 1999-style portal by another name, with links to all your friends (often with photos), autoplaying music (as on MySpace), and a ‘lifestream’ of little bons mots from you and your friends.
A typical government site packs as much on to a single page as a typical government paper document does.
A typical search site may show barely anything (that’s the Google model), but a search-results page has a stream of graphically undifferentiated links and ‘excerpts’ surrounded by branding, UI elements and ‘unobtrusive’ text ads.
With so many design elements on nearly every page we ever visit, we develop a kind of blindness that extends well beyond banner blindness – the well-known phenomenon in which site visitors never even notice a web advertisement. Eye-tracking studies show that most parts of a page are simply not noticed. The remainder might be noticed for a few milliseconds at a time. One or two items might attract prolonged attention, measured in seconds.
Through our insistence that any page make everything possible (search, click the third-last blog post, read everything from April, log in, buy, comment, Digg™, subscribe), we train site visitors to read as little as possible and get the hell out of there.
The fault of hypertext
Links make it possible to get the hell out of there. Even if a page is so brazen as to contain no links, our browsers helpfully give us a ‘back’ button, a search box, tabs (including methods of displaying 40 tabs at a time), and unlimited bookmarks. HTML gives us a special kind of link, the alternate RSS link, which provides ‘a river of news’.
A link means it’s possible to go somewhere else. Links are intrinsic to the web (and to certain predecessor technologies such as gophers). Links make it seem like you’re doing something wrong if you rest motionless on one page too long. The hyperlink is a Freudian construct – an oral fixation of continuous consumption delivered by automated software. Open wide.
And now the unstoppable force of the web confronts an immovable object: the human body. Your eyes, your face, your neck, your nerves and your brain were not built to sit up straight and read from a screen all day. But that’s exactly what we’re all doing.
If we exclude for a moment incidental types of reading like signage and billboards, throughout most of the past 500 years it has been possible to get reasonably comfortable with the object you’re reading. You can move it closer or farther away, sit down, stand up, or lie down, change the lighting to some degree, and, if you really have to, use a magnifier or some other aid. I challenge you to ‘get reasonably comfortable’ with reading from a computer screen:
It’s a fixed distance away.
It offers a glowing, low-resolution panel, probably silhouetted against a darker background.
You’re sitting bolt upright, and neither your seating angle nor the screen angle is easy to change.
Much of the time, you have to read your screen for work, somewhere you might not want to be in the first place. And you’re spending the entire workday doing all this rather than choosing to devote an hour or two – at most – reading a novel, a magazine or a newspaper.
People respond to the difficulty of onscreen reading in three ways: they suffer without really knowing why; they give up the reading task as soon as possible; or (for the elite) they use every trick in the book to reduce discomfort. I fall into all those categories at different times, especially the last – I put unreasonable effort into printing out web pages so I can read them comfortably over double espresso the next morning.
For the people who merely sit and suffer, the best we can do is improve their computer’s defaults, as with better and smoother fonts and better screens. But testing shows that really good fonts with really good smoothing increase reading speed by about 5 per cent. That may add up over a workday, but it isn’t make-or-break. And most people cannot alter, let alone improve, their workplace reading environments. There’s little we can do for this group.
Those in the second category are in thrall of a mad desire to spend as little time as possible on any given page of any given site.
This desire to get in, get it over with and get out spills over into other forms of reading. Maybe you can just barely endure a quick flip through one section of a newspaper, but could you even read a book of short stories? I ‘read’ 200 books annually, yet even I barely manage to begin five fiction books a year; of those, I might finish one. I manage the other 200 books solely because the books can be skimmed over or simply flipped through, as though they were a fashion magazine.
I know people complain that long-form video doesn’t work on the web. But nobody who likes short videoclips online has lost the ability to watch a full television program or motion picture. In fact, people clamour to do just that on a mobile device. ‘Watching long’ isn’t a problem.
I don’t see many people complaining that long texts don’t work on the web (a few people, but not many). Yet many of us have lost the ability to read a lengthy text anywhere, even in conditions less hostile to reading than sitting at a computer desk all day. Reading long is a problem.
The future of the web is one of an initially unwitting species-wide rewiring of the brain. The western world has carried out a Tuskegee-style experiment in which citizens’ neurology is permanently – and involuntarily – altered. At the dawn of the web, we could rationally have claimed not to know what we were doing. We don’t have that excuse anymore, but the experiment is still under way. In fact, it’s full steam ahead.
If you’re looking for a T-shirt slogan (a nice concise pithy bit of text from which you can glance away immediately), try ‘This is your brain on RSS. Any questions?’
Did you really make it all the way through this article? But only with effort, and only because it was printed out?