Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Scan, Surf, Read

Functionally the Internet is like a paper and unlike a book. Papers can be scanned; books must be read. The very organization of a paper—with headlines, subheads—facilitates scanning. In the old days the lead paragraph was still uniformly a kind of digest or summary of the longer story that followed—so that the scanning eye could rapidly orient itself and choose to read or skip.

This act of survey, the act of quick examination, search, of scanning, the scan of the horizon is in part preparation for concentrated attention to some detail that, in the person’s personal context, signals the need to focus. In part it is a kind of on-going orientation in which the rapid, almost automatic noting of the same-old, same-old is as much a part of the act as the detection of significance, meaning the detection of unusual, noteworthy change.

Reading—even of a story in the paper—produces a different state. The quality of the attention changes. It’s perceptible; it’s a physical sensation. The sensation of motion, of gliding, of almost flying motion stops. A gathering of force is felt. The attention thickens and deepens. The perception of time also undergoes a change.

The physiology of this process, of this difference—between scanning or surfing and reading—is worth some careful consideration. In the scanning, in the surfing process the individual is open to stimulus, indeed is seeking it. He or she is out there, in the world, engaged. The richer that world, the more it changes, the more frequently new stimuli appear to draw the eye, the more engaging the mere survey becomes. And individual items, in that flow, however enticing they might appear to be, always suffer a kind of discount—because the next thing over might be more interesting.

Now, by contrast, to deepen concentration sufficiently to read an item is to leave the world, to go within, to descend, as it were, from a moving surface to a place where motion seems to stop and a kind of silence reigns. A short little item, in this context, is less threatening than a long one—because it promises rapid release so that the breathless scanning can resume.

Unless the person engaged in this activity has long since learned that seclusion from the world can bring much greater delights than skimming the surface—and has developed the necessary skills of discipline and concentration to get value from the process—the very medium in which information is presented will influence both its use (or non-use) and its presentation. I think it is a truism that more people “read” newspapers than books—and that the Internet is causing the slow demise of its printed counter-part. And on the Internet itself, the shorter the message, the more likely that it will reap a rich harvest of hits. New devices for “keeping in touch” are the hottest consumer products—and they prove that the most compelling “information” is information about our friends. As for institutions, even the most somber now have their Twitter feeds. Oh yes. The spelling must be streamlined too. And formality signals “out of it.”  In  that spirit I will close here, sayin’: See ya l8er, alig8er…

1 comment:

  1. Nicely put.

    Your third paragraph is perfect, a description that captures much.

    I do find it somewhat ironic, really, that in a world in which the activity of daily life--I'm talking about that necessaryt o survive physically--has become easier we find ourselves with less time for the sort of deep pleasure you so beautifully describe in that third paragraph.

    To the thickening and deepening of attention!


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