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How we read is who we are


There have been some blog discussions expressing concerns about the either/or problem of academic writing vs blog writing, about how the digitial age is driving us from being a Community of Practice towards communities of interest, inhabiting what Mr Carr (below) describes as “The Shallows”. See this important discussion at: http://usacac.leavenworth.army.mil/BLOG/blogs/llop/archive/2009/03/03/an-appeal-to-cgsg-students-study-your-doctrine.aspx

Peter Morville offers sobering cautions concering how the act of search changes who you become in the digital age in his excellent book; “Ambient Findability” http://www.amazon.com/Ambient-Findability-What-Changes-Become/dp/0596007655. 

Morville’s idea is that you search for information in order to makeimportant decisions which shapes your world and who you are.  How and where you search them is cucial to shaping the future decisions and person you will become. Taking this idea to the extreme, you could wonder then about the importance to the human race of the particular ranking algorithm that Google uses (or by extension, any/all of the major search providers). If Google is the authority on what response you get from searching, and you then act on that information as if it represents a true reflection of the state of knowledge on the topic of interest, we have a compelling social and human interest in what lies under the hood. The craft of search engine optimization then takes on a whole new moral dimension. If most people act on information found on the first page of returns from a google search, AND you can pay for placement of your site in the google rankings, how are countless social judgments being shaped by something other than a committment to the highest forms of Truth and scholarship?

The very proliferation of information (only some of which can be charitably called knowledge) creates a requiremnt for new cognitive skills to navigate the ocean of informationa nd mis-information and places a higher value on critical reasoning and skeptical inquiry than ever before. It almost drives us to the wider but shallower journeys through literature and media just to ensure that what we have discovered through search has the qualities of completeness and representative sampling of thoughts on a topic. I know that this drives me to search widely and then only to selective depths based on my information needs of the moment on a particular project.

Here are a couple links to some additional, ebtter ideas on this subject: From the article  in The Atlantic “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” 

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged

And then more from the same author in an excellent follow-on interview:


Cooper: You’ve quoted Richard Foreman, author of the play The Gods Are Pounding My Head, who says we are turning into “pancake people.”

Carr: We used to have an intellectual ideal that we could contain within ourselves the whole of civilization. It was very much an ideal — none of us actually fulfilled it — but there was this sense that, through wide reading and study, you could have a depth of knowledge and could make unique intellectual connections among the pieces of information stored within your memory. Foreman suggests that we might be replacing that model — for both intelligence and culture — with a much more superficial relationship to information in which the connections are made outside of our own minds through search engines and hyperlinks. We’ll become “pancake people,” with wide access to information but no intellectual depth, because there’s little need to contain information within our heads when it’s so easy to find with a mouse click or two.

I see this same phenomenon  in my own reading, largely propelled by my focused readings for a doctoral research program, but also based on a need to be widely aware, as a way of marking the locationof depth-knowledge should i need to return for more data and deeper insights. I too haven’t read a long novel cover to cover in the way i used to immerse myself. 


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