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A few weeks ago I was able to read on Twitter a phrase that I found intriguing. The tweet said, “The future of reading is not reading”. I am a person who likes reading; what is more for several years now I’ve made my living out of making artefacts for people to read. So since seeing it on the screen of my mobile phone I couldn´t get this phrase out of my head. How is it possible that the future of reading is not reading?
We could propose several hypotheses.
If we assume a techno-centric stance, we could consider that the predominance of the image in our culture provokes the written word to end up displaced as the source for the preservation and transmission of knowledge. The popularity of the audio-visual media for communication, combined with the appearance of digital tools that make it possible to produce and distribute photos, videos and animations at a low cost, is provoking us to tend to approach reality through multimedia products. And in accord with this hypothesis, this tendency will become even more accentuated in the future. In times to come, we will learn, inform and enjoy ourselves through audio-visual supports in such a way that reading will become an anachronistic and residual activity. From this perspective, television, video-clips on the Internet and videogames will kill books, magazines and the written press.
There exists a variation of this hypothesis. The one that affirms that reading will end up being diluted in the more complex processes of knowledge reception. It is a fact that digital communication networks are modifying profoundly the way we access the written word. Thanks to computers and mobile devices, the written word often appears as one more ingredient in a collection of diverse elements. When we access digital environments, we usually find that the texts are components of a network of relations that also includes images, sounds, maps and hyperlinks to other resources. In this form, the concentrated reading, based generally on linear paths, that was specific to paper, is ceding its place to other forms of reception, probably less attentive ones, where the written text remains in constant interaction with other communicative resources. If we take this stance we can presuppose that the word will appear ever less frequently as an independent element and become more of a component of complex collages, or to put it better, mashups. In the long run this will cause reading, at least as we understand it now, to be liable to disappear.
We could also adopt a neo-luddite stance and sustain that the end of reading is associated with the decline of the printed book. According to this way of thinking, the decline of the activity or reading will be a consequence of the economy of abundance, typical of the digital networks. In the era of printed supports–characterized by scarcity–, it was easy for readers to fix their attention on relevant texts. Publishing was expensive and tricky, so that generally only people who had authority in some material had the privilege of seeing their texts published. This, which could seem like an inconvenience to many, represented for the neo-luddite a guarantee of the preservation of written culture. The scarcity of the printed book made it possible for the reader to orientate himself within a universe that was reasonably apprehensible. Instead, now, we have within our reach an overwhelming quantity of written texts. We can store thousands of essays and novels on our e-readers, just as navigating the Internet we can read an abundance of writings on any thing that we can think of. There are numerous neo-luddites who affirm that this overwhelming abundance of texts impedes us from concentrating on a true reading. For them, this excess of information–that often prevents us from discerning the good from the bad– provokes us to pass from one text to another without really going deeper into any of them. According to this point of view the excess of written material provokes the decline of reading, by converting it into a superficial act.
This hypothesis also has a variation that sustains that the end of reading will be a consequence of the democratization of publishing. As we all know, the eruption of Internet has made it possible to access potentially millions of people. The communication networks have turned every individual into a possible writer (and possible publisher). And, in effect, our times are characterised by the explosion of written expression. The masses use blogs, social networks, messaging systems and forums to publish and disseminate an infinite number of texts. If we take an elitist attitude, like people as diverse as Jaron Lanier or Zygmunt Bauman do, we could consider that such an explosion of text can have an impoverishing effect on our culture. Certainly the digital networks are inundated with badly written texts that often deal with absurd and insubstantial subjects. The predominance of this type of contents, as far as the detractors of web culture understand, necessarily has to be prejudicial to the readers. In the end, what is the sense in reading if all the texts at our disposal are banal and poorly written? According to this logic the end of reading will be the consequence of the triviality of writing on the Internet.
These are only four hypotheses that try to explain the meaning of the phrase “The future of reading is not reading”. However, we could consider things in quite a different manner and ask ourselves if it is possible that, in reality, the phrase that has inspired this article is mistaken.
What if, in reality, the future of reading is reading? In any case I’ll try to answer this question in a future post.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)