Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Screen dream

We probably read and write more than ever today but still many people are concerned that we are losing those skills. School kids who in the past would not have willingly written anything outside the classroom now devote hours of their time to writing text messages. Many more hours are spent reading messages and instructions in the games they play as well as communicating constantly with fellow online gamers. Never before have so many people been involved in written communication through blogs, wikis and discussion groups. Yet still many people are worried that something is missing. We don't read books and newspapers so much any more, we read screens.

Screen Time by Geoff LMV, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Geoff LMV 

This is the subject of an article by Kevin Kelly in The Smithsonian, Reading in a whole new way. We are surrounded by screens through which we gather and spread information, communicate, collaborate, socialize, inform, reflect and entertain. Screens are a much more dynamic arena than a static page; texts pop up, banners flash, links lead you straight to new information plus all the multimedia content. They also demand new reading and writing strategies.

"Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time."

I certainly read differently on a screen. I skim through texts looking for the main points and am very easily distracted by an interesting looking link or a film clip. I seldom read carefully anything of more than 3-4 pages on a screen. As a result we are learning to write differently for the screen. Long, formal and complex texts simply don't work on the web. No one will have the patience to read them. The question is where we should have such material or if it should exist at all. Not everything can be written in screen-friendly format.

The article contrasts screen reading from book reading but when all books are also on the screen the concept of reading will radically shift. The e-book has many functions that the printed version lacks: note-taking, referencing, links, video material, in-built dictionary etc. Will this change the way we read a novel? Will future novels have hyperlinks and interactive applications? Will people even write novels - why not multimedia games instead? Will the concept of the book change completely once it has moved into the digital realm?

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