Chad Perrin: SOB

2 July 2007

. . . why “you can’t read on the web”.

Filed under: Cognition,Writing — apotheon @ 12:35

From Rands in Repose, Shaking the Atoms:

   3.       You can't read on the web.

Did you catch that? I’ll type it again because there’s a good chance you’re scanning this article, which, incidentally, proves my point. You can’t read on the web.

Ahh, but you can read on the web. This assumption arises from a failure to differentiate between “can’t” and “don’t”. The statement of causal relationship — that the web is the cause of increased tendency to skim — is insufficiently precise.

Here’s my quick thought on the matter:

The World Wide Web has a particularly low barrier of entry (measured by the standards of other methods) for broadly available publication. This is of course a big part of its value. It is also ultimately responsible for reducing our collective motivation to read deeply. A sort of habitually short attention span for reading is encouraged by the fact that almost anyone can publish, and it tends to require actually spending some time on the written material to ensure you don’t dismiss and overlook writing of great value.

Skimming helps to reduce that time investment, at the cost of decreasing the accuracy of your judgment of the value of the skimmed work. In general, however, the time savings tends to be significant (in each case, all else being equal, of course) while the reduction in accuracy of the judgment tends to be fairly insignificant. Thus, the practice of skimming is rewarded, mostly by reducing the negative impact of time spent on any given individual piece of relatively valueless writing. As the brain optimizes its operation for oft-repeated behavior such as skimming online text rather than reading deeply, that mode of operation becomes habitual. This means that the process of online “reading” is abstracted into a more automated form. The Law of Leaky Abstractions kicks in, of course. As a result the consequences of the ever-more abstracted (and “optimized”) habit spills over from where it is most beneficial to other areas where its practice can actually produce net detriment.

The early symptoms of an effective habit becoming a bad habit, in this case, manifest in such notable behavior as skimming everything on the web, and failing to read more deeply if the value of the writing is found to be greater than the average (or the mode, or even the median, depending on what you think is the most useful benchmark here). This does not, however, indicate an inability to read (deeply) on the web. On the contrary, I tend to take an opposite approach: I start out reading and, as evidence of value in the work in question proves more and more elusive, I skim more and more. Often, the end result is that something has proven so valueless in the parts I actually absorbed that somewhere around halfway through a thousand-word essay I skip to the last paragraph to see if the conclusion suggests I should go back and read more. Sometimes, I end up skimming so much that I leave off after a couple paragraphs and go right past the end and into whatever piece of writing was next on my list.

When what I’m reading is interesting and shows increasing promise, however, I often painstakingly mull over every individual piece of the thing as I read, ensuring that I absorb all the implications that are there for the taking. A good piece of writing proves that I (and you, for that matter — though you may choose otherwise) am not incapable of “reading” on the web. My tendency is to grant the benefit of the doubt at first, and retract it rapidly when that benefit of the doubt is increasingly contraindicated. This is a (usually consciously pursued) policy of reading that began before I was introduced to the web, when I learned to put down a book when it was obviously a waste of time (before that I obsessively finished every book I picked up — thus wasting many many hours that could have been better spent reading tripe).

The fact that many people do otherwise does not suggest that they cannot read on the web. Instead, it suggests they cannot detect the disservice they do themselves when they take an approach that often leads them to miss out on a lot of the value the web has to offer.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License