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Has modern technology changed the way we read?

ByMaura Monaghan

Oct 12, 2018

Whatever your reasons may be – convenience, saving money, one-upping your friends in an egomaniacal battle to save the earth – chances are you have gone digital. And while you can still buy whole novels for download, and read pieces of long-form journalism online, this time of nonstop technological development is changing the way we read.

It is tempting to reduce the timeline of our reading habits to before and after the internet, that clickbait-wielding catalyst that redefines what we deem to be “readable”. Anything longer than 140 characters is suddenly equated to a 400-page Russian novel. For many people, that is hardly a joke; 59 per cent of articles on social media are not even read by those who share them, according to a 2016 study by Microsoft Research.

Students are feeling the toll of constant digital stimuli. Some of us can remember reading the Harry Potter series – a total of 4,224 pages – in a matter of weeks or even days. Not 10 years later, many people are daunted by the task of finishing a 30-page PDF for class.

Even an English Literature student like Magdeline, a third-year at the University of Edinburgh, struggles with maintaining her attention span: “When I was little, I could sit and focus and read books for hours at a time – my mum never let me use the computer or iPod until I was much older. Now, even when I sit to read something I’m really interested in, I’m always taking breaks to check my phone”.

But perhaps it is unfair to assume that short attention spans are the result of new technology. Pithy jokes and digestible political cartoons have long been staple features of printed media. A January 1939 quip in Missouri’s St. Louis Star-Times, which folded in 1951, defined a classic novel as “any famous work that nobody would publish or read if it had been written last month”. Apparently, the public was just as exasperated by paper novels then as we are by poor quality photocopies now.

One snippet from the 21 November 1945 issue of The Cincinnati Enquirer reads like something you would scroll past in your Twitter feed at 2am: “If people don’t get busy at once and learn to love people, soon there won’t be any people”. A tipsy post deleted by morning? A meme-ified Rupi Kaur satire? Neither. This gem made it through a professional editing process.

Maybe modern technology has merely highlighted our tendency to rush things. The constant connectivity of the internet age not only allows for a 24-hour news cycle, but demands it. The result has been an incredible, vital flow of information between continents and time zones. But the nonstop nature of news has not been birthed without its flaws.

Fast-paced, high profile events often have news outlets scrambling to get facts posted quickly. Speedy reporting can be lifesaving. But it can also sacrifice accuracy, like when news sources from CNN to Fox News falsely reported that an arrest had been made two days after the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.

In the digital age, faulty reporting can be corrected quickly, but it  still damages a reader’s relationship with a trusted source. Reporters having less time to gather more facts means that reading digital journalism requires a level of engagement that no Sunday print edition ever did. So what happens when readers are as rushed as writers – how much information is slipping through the cracks?

Technology has at most caused, and at least highlighted, our impatience when it comes to reading. And today’s rapid pace of gathering and sharing information demands that we pay close attention to what we read online, now more than ever.

Image: Giorgio Minguzzi via Flickr.

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