HistoryofScience.com Blog

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is Digital Literacy Different from Traditional Literacy?

An article with the cute headline, Literacy Debate: Online R U Reading?, discusses the question of whether reading online, with its searchability, hyperlinks, and interactive aspects, is the same as traditional reading of narratives, such as novels. As the article and its excellent associated chart indicate, clearly the answer is no, with a qualification pointed out by a commenter on this blog. Reading a long narrative like a novel, or a long work of non-fiction, requires a different kind of concentration than reading short articles or blogs like this with their numerous hyperlinks. In addition, reading a book that has been carefully edited and reviewed may require less critical judgment than reading a post or a news article that may have appeared on the web only a few moments ago. On the other hand, reading articles in carefully edited publications like the New York Times online or Harpers Magazine online may not involve literacy skills that different from reading the publications on paper.

Given the fairly obvious differences, what is most interesting, I think, is how long it has taken for mainstream researchers to ask the question. Another question we should ask is, assuming that styles of reading are evolving along with the new electronic media, how does this matter? With respect to this question, probably only the passage of time will tell.

As a student of the history of media, and a persistent user of new media alongside traditional media, my view is that different people have always used media in different ways. Just as there is a unbelievable range of quality of information available on the web, there has always been a equal range of quality in print media. Because information appears in a book, periodical, or newspaper does that make it objective or reliable? Are some of the sensational websites really that much less reliable than some of the tabloids available at the supermarket check-out counter? Is reading a precis of a novel on the web instead of the book really any different than reading the old Cliff's Notes or the Classic Comic of my boyhood?

One major difference between the world before the Internet and now is that most of us now have virtually instantaneous access to an ocean of information from our computer or our web-enabled cell phone that is far greater than would have been available at any university library twenty years ago. Thus, rather than struggling with the traditional problem of finding enough information on a given topic within the available time, we now typically have the problem of finding too much information. As a result, we often have a greater challenge in evaluating the quality of information we find than in finding the information itself.

Working at my computer surrounded by books on my library shelves, I find myself moving back and forth all day between reading online and reading on paper. In contrast to the New York Times image, which shows younger people reading online while older people read on paper, I find that I prefer to read newspapers online rather than on paper, though I still subscribe to the print version of my local paper. On the other hand, just like the New York Times image, my two teen-aged children are often found surfing the web from their laptops, while they I M, perhaps while they watch a movie. My daughter sometimes I M's from her phone while she walks down the street. She calls this multi-tasking. From time to time I remind her about the woman who was killed when she tried to I M while driving.

While I own thousands of books and am always referring to books and reading several at one time, writing I do entirely online. Like most people, nearly all of my correspondence is electronic, and I also receive and send email from my Blackberry. In addition to the speed of transmission of emails, for me a great advantage is ease of filing and searchability of emails. The less filing of papers and the less searching through filing cabinets the better, as far as I am concerned.
As the chart in the New York Times article indicates, one way that the Internet has changed reading is that with so much information to chose from we may find ourselves picking and choosing from numerous information sources rather than carefully analyzing a single source, if that is all we have. With so much information available we may, if we are not careful, find that we skim over more information uncritically than we should. Information of all quality levels spreads on the Internet at electron speed, making evaluation of its quality more important than ever.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 4:50 PM   6 Comments


At July 27, 2008 at 8:09 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I beg to differ on your main point: I believe that there are different types of reading online, some of which contain value and others that are empty. Reading sites like Nytimes.com, or Harper's Online provides the same stimulation of reading them in their tangible forms. On the other hand, reading Facebook Wall Posts doesn't.

Referenced in the New York Times article, Nicholas Carr's feature article "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" made a very interesting point. The increased availability of information has forced his research skills and even knowledge base into obsolescence, not to mention his attention span.

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