EXCURSUS \ reading
1: G. Buccellati, April 2009
Problems of the electronic culture
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Problems of the electronic cultureFrom among authors who pay particualr attention to the potentially negative impact that computers have on reading we may look at a 2007 book by Maryanne Wolf:
- "Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear instantaneously? ... In other words, when seemingly complete visual information is given almost simultaneously, as it is in many digital presentations, is there either sufficient time or sufficient motivation to process the information more inferentially, analytically and critically?... Should we begin to provide explicit instruction for reading multiple modalities of text presentation ...?" (p. 16).
- "What is being lost and what is being gained for so many young people who have largely replaced books with the multidimensioned 'continuous partial attention' culture of the Internet? ... Does the rapid, almost instantaneous presentation of expansive information threaten the more time-demanding formation of in-depth knowledge?" (p. 22).
- "I came to see that Socrates' worries about the transition from oral culture to a literate one and the risks it posed, especially for young people, mirrored my own concenrs about the immersion of our children into a digital world" (p. 70).
- "... children spend endless hours before computer screens, absorbing but not necessarily understanding all manner of information" (p. 74)
- Will modern curiosity be sated by the flood of pat, often superficial information on a screen or will it lead to a desire for more in-depth knowledge? Can a deep examination of words, thoughts, reality, and virtue flourish in learning characterized by continuous partial attention and multi-tasking? (p. 77, italics mine throughout).
These questions remain essentially unanswered in Wolf's book, except for a brief statement that relates Socrates's stance vis-à-vis writing: "Ultimately, Socrates did not fear reading. He feared supefluity of knowledge and its corollary – superficial understanding. Reading by the untutored represented an irreversible, invisible loss of control over knowledge. As Socrates put it: 'Once a thing is put in writing, the composition ... drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it ... And when it is ill treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parents to come to ita help, being unble to defend or help itself.' "(p. 76f. – The reference from Plato is wrongly given as being from Protagoras. It is from Phaedrus 275c. It is quoted in the translation of R. Hackforth in Hamilton and Cairns 1961 Plato).
The questions raised are the ones that drive my approach to digital reading, where I propose concrete alternatives that lead to an aggressively positive answer.
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