Thursday, 19 February 2015

Fragmented information

As a mother to a four-month old (and a soon to be five-year-old) I find my days fragmented by interruptions: the cursor is left blinking vacuously mid-sentence, the carelessly pushed-back chair at the table abandoned regularly, the half-read paragraph left draped in fast-evaporating thoughts that won't exist anymore when I finally get back to reading it. Things are left half-drunk, half-eaten, forgotten, abandoned, partially thought-through, quietly wilted due to lack of attention. I leave behind me a trail of uncompleted things.

It seems futile to pick up something of any substance.

Recently, I've noticed that this attitude has permeated how I read. I reach for my phone to scroll through my twitter feed instead of picking up my book. I choose short instead of long, the sound-bite instead of the whole story. Online reading is overflowing with short, easily-digestible chunks of text, where thoughts can flit from idea to idea without having to delve too deeply or permanently on anything. It's perfect for interruptions. At least then, I reason, I can actually feel like I've finished something.

Books require more commitment and are geared towards a continuous, linear thought-process. The reader must make the effort to reconstruct the writer's original thoughts, patiently follow their trail and add to them through some level of critical engagement. It's interesting to me how print and online reading use the same decoding process but result in two different types of reading and, ultimately, two different ways of thinking. Ironically, I came across an article on Why reading on a screen is bad for critical thinking on my twitter feed the other day. I skimmed it (as I do when reading on my phone between a number of unfinished tasks) and made a point of re-reading it later on my laptop.

Noami Baron writes, "The ways we use technologies lead us to develop particular habits of mind. With print, even though we might skim and scan, the default mindset is continuous reading. It's also focusing on what we're reading, even though sometimes our thoughts wander. Digital technologies engender a different set of habits and practices. Their default state is what I call reading on the prowl. Think of how much time you spend on each hit after doing a Google search. A minute? Ten seconds? And how likely are you to be multitasking while reading onscreen?"

This really resonated with me. I have to confess to becoming "a reader on the prowl". I roam aimlessly around, following links, reading a few lines here, a few lines there, reading much but absorbing little, and getting more and more overwhelmed by the infinite sources of information coming at me in little bits and pieces. The problem is, those fragments don't add up to anything meaningful. I, the reader, am left still searching for the substance of the thing that allows the writer's original idea to take form and shape and be passed on. I'm left with a sense of incompleteness.

Time, thought, concentration and effort are needed to be an engaged reader. The internet with its temptations of hyperlinks, email and endless distraction doesn't offer fertile opportunities for doing this. 

Nor does a day punctured by interruptions.


  1. Ah yes, I remember how it was, how it felt. Some days held so many commas I felt comatose. Now, standing on the other side of the sentence I see the periods.



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