[FoRK] Skim and Plunge

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Mon Oct 19 19:13:22 PDT 2009





The editors at Yale University Press were nice enough to invite me to  
edit this year's edition of Best Technology Writing. It's a great  
collection of essays, by some of my very favorite writers, and I  
encourage you to pick up a copy. I wrote an opening essay for the book  
that tries to wrestle with the ways in which technology writing has  
changed over the past few decades. Here's a section of it:

The ubiquity of the digital lifestyle has forced us to write and think  
about technology in a different way. Think back, for example, to  
Stewart Brand’s classic 1973 Rolling Stone essay on the first video  
gamers, “SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among The Computer  
Bums.” When Brand stumbled across those Stanford proto-gamers,  
battling each other via command line, it was clear to him that he’d  
just glimpsed  the future. Of course, it took a true visionary like  
Brand to recognize what  he’d encountered, and to write about it with  
such  clarity and infectious curiosity--in the process inventing a  
whole genre of technology writing that could do justice to the  
encounter. But there is something about that experience that is also  
by definition short-sighted: any given technology will mean very  
different things, and have very different effects, when it is  
restricted to a small slice of the population. Brand’s opening line  
was “Computers are coming to the people.” That was prescient enough.  
But as it turned out, what he saw on those screens actually had very  
little to do with  gaming culture today. SPACEWAR  let Brand sense  
before just about anyone else that information technology would become  
as mainstream as rock-and-roll or television. But he couldn’t have  
imagined a culture where games like Spore or Grand Theft Auto -- both  
of which are deftly dissected in this volume -- are far more complex,  
open-ended and popular than many Hollywood blockbusters.

Likewise, hypertext, until mid-1994, was an emerging technology whose  
power users were almost all writers of experimental fiction. You could  
look at those links on the screen, and begin to imagine what might  
happen if billions of people started clicking on them. But mostly you  
were guessing. A shocking amount of the early commentary on hypertext-- 
some of it, in all honesty, written by me--focused on the radical  
effect hypertext would have on storytelling. Once hypertext went  
mainstream, however, that turned out to one of the least interesting  
things about it. (We’re still reading novels the old-fashioned way,  
one page after another.)  And that’s precisely the trouble with  
writing about a technology when it’s still in leading indicator mode.  
You could look at those hyperlinks on the screen, and if you really  
concentrated, you might imagine a future where, say, newspaper  
articles linked to each other. But you could never imagine Wikipedia  
or YouPorn.

Now we don’t have to imagine it at all: the digital future, to  
paraphrase William Gibson, is so much more evenly distributed among  
us. We don’t have to gaze into a crystal ball; we can just watch  
ourselves, self-reflecting as we interact with this vast new  
ecosystem. Some of my favorite passages in this collection have this  
introspective quality: the mind examining its own strange adaptation  
to a world that has been transformed by information technology.

Consider this paragraph, from the opening section of Nicholas Carr’s  
“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”:

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly  
when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used  
to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns  
of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches  
of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often  
starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the  
thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m  
always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading  
that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Carr intends this as a critique, of course, and his observations will  
no doubt ring true for anyone who spends hours each day in front of a  
networked computer screen. I feel it myself right now, as I write this  
essay, with my open Gmail inbox hovering in the background behind the  
word processor, and a text message buzzing on my phone, and a whole  
universe of links tempting me. It is harder to sit down and focus on a  
linear argument or narrative for an hour at a time. In a way, our  
prophecies about the impact of hypertext on storytelling had it half  
right; it’s not that people now tell stories using branching hypertext  
links: it’s that we activelymiss those links when we pick up an old- 
fashioned book.

Carr is right, too, that there is something regrettable about this  
shift.  The kind of deep, immersive understanding that one gets from  
spending three hundred pages occupying another person’s consciousness  
is undeniably powerful and essential. And no medium rivals the book  
for that particular kind of thinking. But it should also be said that  
this kind of thinking has not simply gone away; people still read  
books and magazines in vast numbers. It may be harder to enter the  
kind of slow, contemplative state that Carr cherishes, but that  
doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I think of  our present situation as  
somewhat analogous to the mass migration from the country to the city  
that started several centuries ago in Europe: the bustle and  
stimulation and diversity of urban life made it harder to enjoy the  
slower, organic pleasures of rural living. Still, those pleasures  
didn’t disappear.  People continue to cherish them in mass numbers to  
this day.

And like urban life, the new consciousness of digital culture has many  
benefits; it may dull certain cognitive skills, but it undoubtedly  
sharpens others. In his essay, Carr derides the “skimming” habits of  
online readers. It’s an easy target, particularly when pitted against  
the hallowed activity of reading a four-hundred page novel. But  
skimming is an immensely valuable skill. Most of the information we  
interact with in our lives -- online or off -- lacks the profundity  
and complexity of a Great Book. We don’t need deep contemplation to  
assess an interoffice memo or quarterly financial report from a  
company we’re vaguely interested in. If we can process that  
information quickly and move on to more important things, so much the  

Even loftier pursuits benefit from well-developed skimming muscles. I  
think many of us who feel, unlike Carr, that Google has actually made  
us smarter operate in what I call “skim-and-plunge” mode. We skim  
through pages of search results or hyperlinked articles, getting a  
sense of the waters, and then, when we find something interesting, we  
dive in and read in a slower, more engaged mode. Yes, it is probably a  
bit harder to become immersed in deep contemplation today than it was  
sitting in library in 1985, But that kind of rapid-fire skimming and  
discovery would have been, for all intents and purposes, impossible  
before the web came along.

The benefits of this new consciousness go far beyond skimming of  
course, especially when you consider that many of the distractions are  
not tantalizing hyperlinks but other human beings. Here’s Andrew  
Sullivan describing one of the defining aspects of the experience of  
blogging, in his revealing essay, “Why I Blog”:

Within minutes of my posting something, even in the earliest days,  
readers responded. E-mail seemed to unleash their inner beast. They  
were more brutal than any editor, more persnickety than any copy  
editor, and more emotionally unstable than any colleague. Again, it’s  
hard to overrate how different this is... [B]efore the blogosphere,  
reporters and columnists were largely shielded from this kind of  
direct hazing. Yes, letters to the editor would arrive in due course  
and subscriptions would be canceled. But reporters and columnists  
tended to operate in a relative sanctuary, answerable mainly to their  
editors, not readers. For a long time, columns were essentially  
monologues published to applause, muffled murmurs, silence, or a  
distant heckle. I’d gotten blowback from pieces before—but in an  
amorphous, time-delayed, distant way. Now the feedback was instant,  
personal, and brutal.

No doubt the intensity and immediacy of the feedback has its own  
disruptive force, making it harder for the blogger to enter the  
contemplative state that his forebears in the print magazine era might  
have enjoyed more easily. Sullivan’s description could in fact easily  
be marshaled in defense of Carr’s dumbing-down argument--except that  
where Carr sees chaos and distraction, Sullivan sees a new kind of  
engagement between the author and the audience. Sullivan would be the  
first to admit that this new kind of engagement is noisier, more  
offensive, and often more idiotic than any traditional interaction  
between author and editor. But there is so much useful signal in that  
noise that most of us who have sampled it find it hard to imagine  
going back. After all, the countryside was more polite, too. But in  
the end, most of us chose the city, despite all the chaos and  
distractions. I think we've made a similar choice with the Web today.

(Excerpted from The Best Technology Writing 2009. Now go buy a copy!)

More information about the FoRK mailing list