In the context of discussing how notions of authorship have morphed in the digital age, Dennis Baron notes: “Any scribbler with a computer, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks has immediate access to the universe of plugged-in readers, many of them eager to devour all manner of digital text they would never touch in printed form” (Loc 2389*). While Baron cites this as evidence that opportunities to write for an audience have exploded through the affordances of the web, I find the latter portion of the comment suggestive for thinking about how conceptions of readership have changed in new media.
The idea that we are willing to read in pixels what we would never read on paper caught my notice because, somewhat embarrassingly, it’s quite true to my own habits as an internet user. Though painful to admit, when I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on my iPhone, I’ll find myself clicking on stupid links from Buzzfeed or Upworthy. The content is almost never satisfying—most of the time, it barely scrapes the surface of “entertaining”— and one would think I’d learn from those mistakes. Moreover, I would feel like an idiot browsing through a whole magazine’s worth of “The Top 10 Best Things About Your Thirties.” But I think I continue to read this content online because there’s something about the stakes of the commitment that feels lower when reading online—it doesn’t feel like an investment in the way that it does to pick up a newspaper, magazine or book. (And, of course, because there’s an element of self-deception involved: this post might actually be good!)
Part of this is an issue of literal monetary investment, since there is simply much more free reading material to be found online than there is in print. But when so much of the content is free, as it is on the internet, it seems that we move from thinking of reading text as an investment of money, to thinking of it as an investment of time. On my computer, it is easy and quick for me to click 15 links in a row, lining up a series of tabs in my browser of reading material. I’ll scan the opening lines of each to determine my level of interest, and the second I decide it’s not worth my time, I simply click that little “x” in the top righthand corner of the tab, and the material literally vanishes. No lugging the magazines or books back to the shelf, and if I have turned on the “private browsing” setting, no record of my ever having looked at “10 Ways To Make Over a Cardigan.” The sheer immateriality of the medium makes texts incredibly easy to access and subsequently to discard. As Baron notes in his discussion of “teknophobes” and neo-Luddites, critics of the computer have argued that the increased speed afforded by new technologies makes writing “too easy,” “becom[ing] so effortless that writers don’t bother to think about their words” (Loc 1839). Similar arguments disparage how we read now for the web. Internet readers are accused of being “A.D.D.,” spending too little time with each text, and degrading the quality of both reading and writing from a better, earlier age—when people spent time with texts.
Yet when we consider the long history of evolving writing technologies as laid out by Baron, it seems to me that this is not actually some sudden and unprecedented change in the way we read, but is in fact a shift that has been in progress for quite a long time. Each innovation in writing technology—from clay tablets, to quill and parchment, to the Gutenberg printing press, to the web, to name a few— has made the production and dissemination of texts cheaper. As a result of increasing affordability, texts become of course more accessible, but also more discardable. Prior to the print revolution, when books were rare because the cost of production and labor investment was so high, it is easy to imagine that the few texts to which any person had access would be read again and again. As the printing press took hold, and text became cheaper and more widely available, people likely read more texts, perhaps reading a new book or magazine instead of re-reading an old one. In the internet age, when there are so many texts available at no cost, it’s hardly surprising that we might spend less time with each text on average.
Even so, I also think it’s a bit of a logical leap to assume that because we spend less time on most of what we read, that we spend less time on every piece of digital reading. Though I may spend 30 seconds or so on the stuff I’d “never touch in print,” there’s also a good deal of web content out there that is designed to hold our attention, and I often find myself reading articles or essays to the very last line. And above all, I’d argue that the world is still full of curious, thoughtful humans—we can enjoy the immateriality and ephemerality of some texts, while maintaining a desire to think through complexities in sustained ways. The web gives us access to so many texts that for me, much of the pleasure is in casting a wide net and sifting through the content—both to enjoy the little textual blips on my radar before I close the tab, and to find something worth reading to the end.
*NOTE: Because I have the Kindle version of A Better Pencil, I unfortunately can’t share page numbers, so I’ve given the “location” number instead. Supposedly page numbers are now available for some eBooks, but apparently this isn’t one of them. Although I love that I don’t have to tote around all of my books this semester, I’m finding that the inability to reference page numbers is one major failing of using eBooks in an academic context.