As technology advances, is reading in jeopardy?

As technology advances, is reading in jeopardy? Sitting in your local coffee shop with the aroma of freshly ground beans and the din of chatter, your laptop, smartphone and tablet can tell you a lot, but I believe these glimmering streams of data, rich as they are, will only ever be able to complement long-form reading and the enjoyment of books… and they will never be able to dethrone these important mediums.

Reading for some reason always seems to be in crisis. If you go back say, two and a half millennia, you would find Socrates speaking out against the written word because it somehow impaired memory and confused data with wisdom. As it is defined, reading — is a complex process of decoding symbols in order to construct meaning. But it is so much more, as reading is a means of language acquisition, of communication, of sharing information and the exchange of ideas. There are no true laws that govern reading, as it allows the individual reader to escape and produce their own level of introspection and interpretation. Ah yes, there is nothing quite like “getting lost” in a story.

And like Socrates, civilization has always had its forceful and opinionated naysayers to technological advancement. When the ‘bound book’ appeared, the Romans shouted, “What’s wrong with our scrolls?” The Gutenberg Press and the Fourdrinier paper machine changed the very nature of access to the written word, but of course “the sophisticated” said it cheapened it. These technological advances put portable media squarely in the hands of the many, and the market blossomed, expanded, and with it, readers increased. Incredible fictions — from Sherlock Holmes to The Wizard of Oz — were created, great libraries were erected, and newsstands were overflowing with something for everyone’s taste. Of course, the intelligentsia saw the glomming of our youth to pulp fiction and magazines as the “dumbing down of society” and touted Shakespeare and Tolstoy as sanctuary.

Today, with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and our increasing screen-based lifestyle, many say that reading is being diminished and that social media, in all its short-form glory, heralds the end of serious reading. Of course, there are consequences and drawbacks to all new-fangled technologies and platforms, but we humans crave stories, deeper level knowledge, and lest we forget, we are tactile creatures. That said, I don’t believe that digital reading is pernicious in and of itself. The fact is that reading in all its diverse states is good… just maybe not some of the content, like say, catching up on the latest news of the Kardashians. With many of the world’s publishers bringing their wares from ‘of the month’ to ‘of the moment’ online, and platforms like Medium, LinkedIn Pulse and now Facebook Instant Articles enabling them to bring richness, interactivity, and texture to massive online, progressively mobile audiences — it will be fascinating to watch how it all plays out.

I guess whether people turn pages or swipe pixels is secondary to the case for reading and reading a lot. I for one love browsing in a bookstore, scanning the magazine rack, flipping through pages, reading jacket covers… all to find the idea, concept, hypothesis, poem, word or flight of fancy that catches and inspires me. Digital may give us easy, effortless access to sound bites (and sometimes much more), but it won’t cost us the beautiful container of knowledge, purveyor of adventure and romance — the long-form story.

Michael

Michael Chase, CMO, St. Joseph Communications

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