Sunday, April 27, 2014

Skim-deep reading gives skin-deep grasp of world

Apr 27, 2014

By Denise Chong

It is hard not to constantly Ctrl F the world.

Even if we don't literally use this keyword-search function on the PC, some of us scan and skim, skip and zip through many online articles at the same time with our eyes flitting from one buzz word to another. I find myself increasingly doing the same wild twitchy-eyed thing with print material too - with the several books and magazines I am greedily reading all at once.

Cognitive neuroscientists view this sort of development with growing alarm, reported The Washington Post. They warn that humans seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep-reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

The worry is that we will start to lose the ability to do in-depth processing of more difficult material.

My worry is also that some of us do not give ourselves time for stories to percolate through our minds. I am worried that more of us will turn into narrow-minded, narrow-eyed Web surfers quick to overreact to whatever story we are skimming through.

Take the April Fool's joke played by NPR, a national syndicate associated with hundreds of public radio stations in the United States. It posted a story on its Facebook page with this provocative title, "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?"

If you clicked on it, you were sent to a page that said: "Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools' Day! We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this 'story'..."

The post got scathing comments from people about how much they read and how bad the "story" was. But they obviously hadn't clicked on it to find out that there wasn't a story. For example, one comment was, "I read every day, and all my friends and family members do too. Are we not America? Or are you just weakly grasping for stories?"

You can bet that he got walloped by fellow commenters in on the joke.

It looks like the super-fast way of reading is only getting more intense. There are all sorts of speed-reading software such as the one created by Boston-based developer Spritz. It identifies the optimal recognition point (ORP) of each word and turns that letter red. It flashes one word at a time in a narrow, rectangular viewing pane with each word's ORP fixed at the same spot on the screen. In this way, your eyes don't move as you see the words. You can process information instantaneously rather than spend time decoding each word.

The available Spritz speeds go from 250 words per minute up to about 1,000 words per minute. So you can finish reading the epic War And Peace in under 10 hours. Soul-searching not necessarily included. Missing a number of the book's key plot points might be included.

My eyes are getting twitchy as I am terrified by the tome no matter what reading style is used.

Has sprint-reading flattened some of our minds into ones that are a mile wide and an inch deep? Minds that are conditioned to constantly itch for the next buzzy topic to get outraged over, something to make one thump the table self-righteously?

On the Internet, some zero in on what they perceive to be a provocative headline or excerpt and immediately go nuclear with whatever they want to explode about that day, never mind what the article is actually about.

You know how we have acquaintances who always hijack conversations and turn them into what only they want to talk about (their knowledge of everything, their own eternal awesomeness...). It's that x 1,000 + radioactive viciousness in the comments sections.

Some people don't even bother reading the post and dive straight into the comment threads with their shouty Caps Lock key and angry emoticons at the ready. The flaming mess is enough to make some media websites shut down their comments section.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Sun-Times and the other titles in the Sun-Times Media group temporarily ceased to run comments with their articles until they could develop a system to "foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing".

The magazine Popular Science got rid of comments on its website last September, saying that although they have many thought-provoking commenters, "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests". The magazine said "commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded - you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the 'Off' switch".

While I am not sure if hitting the Esc button on comments is the answer, it is a pity that the wealth of information on the Internet doesn't necessarily broaden our horizons. We respond to the embarrassment of riches by Ctrl F-ing it and some of us end up with an ever narrower world view if all we search for is something to validate our own beliefs.

Skim-deep reading gives us only a skin-deep understanding of our world.

Here's what I came to realise about not reaching deeply enough for something new as I once described how Twitter worked to someone. The person said: "Isn't Twitter boh liao ("nothing better to do" in Hokkien)?"

It is boh liao if we are the boh liao type.

It isn't boh liao if we are not the boh liao type.

Our social media news feed is only as interesting as the people and organisations we follow. Our minds are only as narrow as we squeeze them. My eyes are only as twitchy as I make them.

So I might hit Ctrl P and make a cup of tea when I find myself becoming googly-eyed at the forest of tabs sticking up on my browser. Print out one good essay with a different point of view.

Take the time to read just that story with a hot beverage.

And take back control of the Ctrl F.

No comments: