Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Enough! or, Too much!

Kevin Kelly:

Today some 4.5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives. Words have migrated from wood pulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, game consoles, televisions, billboards and tablets. Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper, but flitter on a glass surface in a rainbow of colors as fast as our eyes can blink. Screens fill our pockets, briefcases, dashboards, living room walls and the sides of buildings. They sit in front of us when we work — regardless of what we do. We are now people of the screen. And of course, these newly ubiquitous screens have changed how we read and write.

I’ve said this before, ad nauseam no doubt, but: please. There is no such thing as “the screen.” A laptop screen is not a TV screen is not a movie screen is not an iPad screen is not a Kindle screen. They’re all different, and we experience them in significantly different ways. And “letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper”? Really? All these books and magazines and newspapers and memoranda that I encounter every day are figments of my imagination?

Please, Kevin, stop it. Just stop it. Lose the oracular pronouncements and think about what you’re saying.


  • I see your point but he's got one too. Yes, all screens are different. And yes, there are still books and magazines everywhere. But an awful lot of people (I won't say most) today do not read books in paper or magazine, and do spend most of their day staring at a screen. And don't you think they change the was we read at least? Maybe not write - because I think there its not the form of viewing content that is important, but the substance of it. (Text message and Twitter culture surely affects the way people write.) "Screens" might all be different but don't you think the electronic world affects how we read?

  • My claim would be that there is no such thing as the electronic word, but rather many varieties thereof. Reading on a Kindle (I contend) is much closer to reading a paper codex than it is to reading on your laptop's browser.

  • I'd define a screen as a viewable area whose contents are able to rapidly change, usually directed by some kind of electronic device. I think there's something sufficiently conceptually similar about all of them to make grouping them together as a single "type" valid, which is that they have a profound effect on the way our attention functions. When we're looking at a screen, the contents "draw us in"; we lose our awareness of whatever else is in the room (or whatever kind of space we're in), and by contrast other things seem static, dull, lacking in... accessible meaning. Books have something of the same effect but they don't have quite the same powerful, universal "draw" that a screen does. A good book will hold your attention for a long time, but if there's a TV in the room, even with the sound off, even if the show is bad or you've seen it before, it's extremely difficult to stop your eyes from being sucked into its gravity well. The kindle is a bit different to the others, but the iPhone, the computer, and the TV all have very similar effects on us.

  • I read the phrasing "Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper" as "Letters are no longer *limited to* in black ink on paper" and it didn't bother me as much as it seems to get your goat growling.

  • That’s the kind of thing that people say, Anon, but it doesn't appear to me true. Marshall and Eric McLuhan demonstrated a long time ago that we respond to movie screens very different than tv screens, and some early studies suggest that reading on computers is very different than reading on e-readers, while e-readers are not that far from books (though still inferior).

  • (That was referring to the 8:31am comment.)

  • Edward Harkins said...

    With all due respect John, you are debating around the margins about fine definitions of screen or screens or not-screen, when all the while, the pervasive and fundamental drivers are from the printed word to the online transmitted.

    Let’s by all means continue to respect - even love - the word in print. Let’s, however, also have the perspicuity to recognise, and the grace to accept, that our respect and love is do with the increasingly specialised and optional - but no less important for that.

  • Alan - one of the things that's interesting about the e-readers, I think, is that they've actually developed special technology to make a kind of computer screen that's more similar to a book than a "normal" screen would be. It's suggestive of the fact that we still want books to be books, even if they're electronic at some level. I'd be interested to see what happens in a generation or so - will the people who've grown up reading everything on computer screens still want their e-readers to resemble a book? I'm sure we do respond differently to movie screens to TV screens, and I don't doubt there's significance in those differences, not just... marginal or superficial fine distinctions. But I also think... in some way, "calm and focused attention", or "the contemplative frame of mind" or something like it are going to end up being the scarce resources of the 21st century, and if one were forced to reach among all the reasons for that for a single explanatory cause, one of the strongest contenders would have to be that "there are screens everywhere".
    - Mr 8.31

  • I'd be interested to see what happens in a generation or so - will the people who've grown up reading everything on computer screens still want their e-readers to resemble a book?

    I wonder that myself, often.

    One thing to keep in mind when we're reflecting on these matters is that reading books has always been very much a minority pursuit. It's not going to matter to the majority.

  • Edward Harkins said...

    Alan my apologies. For some unfathomable reason I earlier referred to you as ‘John’; why, I do not know, but my apologies for doing so (mind you, I still hold to what I said).

  • OK, but what of the people who aren't reading codexes, magazines, or books - they are only reading e-readers, computer screens, and cell phones? The total absence of "black ink on paper" isn't affecting them?

    I think another thing worth considering is how this is affecting the eyesight of individuals. I have no idea what the answer is but I wonder if electronic reading is worse.

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