From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 28, 2015*: What's the matter with plain old text?

Boidem columns are, at least in their layout, glaringly retro. Black text on a white background, with almost no graphics? What sort of internet-era layout is that? Though there are clearly a number of differences, the basic mold has hardly changed over the past ten years, or for that matter even from the start of this project, almost ten years before that. Though this might suggest that I'm a captive of a highly unimaginative consistency, there's actually some method to my madness. I cling to a Do-It-Yourself production value that may perhaps have long-ago gone out of style but that to my mind is particularly fitting for the web era - quick and dirty. I spend a good deal of time rewriting and editing these columns, trying to find all my spelling mistakes, and reworking my sentence structure so that there's a period every few lines of text that hopefully makes it almost possible for the reader to remember at the end of a sentence what I was dealing with at its beginning. But when it comes to putting a column "out there", plain text and a rather simple paragraph structure is good enough for me.

This, however, raises an interesting problem. Though to my mind these columns, even with all of the sub-links taken into consideration, are relatively short, our concentration spans are, so we're told, getting even shorter. In other words, if there really is a point that I'm trying to get across in these columns, my readers may not be able to get it. It may be that while I cling to a layout and style that invites, if not actually requires, a certain sort of reading, readers (and perhaps that should be "readers") simply no longer read that way.

Fifteen years ago, in the 2000 Edge annual question, Keith Devlin responded that today's (make that 2000's) most important unreported story was The Death of the Paragraph:

We may be moving toward a generation that is cognitively unable to acquire information efficiently by reading a paragraph. They can read words and sentences - such as the bits of text you find on a graphical display on a web page - but they are not equipped to assimilate structured information that requires a paragraph to get across.
Devlin notes that this isn't a totally new phenomenon. Instead, for at least the last two generations there's been a steady decline in reading habits. And he sees that decline as worrisome:
But if the difference between the figures for the two generations indicates the start of a steady decline in the ability to read text of paragraph length, then a great deal of our scientific and cultural heritage is likely to become highly marginalized.
He doesn't, however, claim that today's youth aren't smart enough to read, or even that their concentration spans aren't long enough to finish a paragraph. He only brings the statistics. Whatever the reason, it's clear that he sees this as highly problematic. Not everybody does. Roger Schank, part of whose response to the 1999 Edge question I quoted here nine years ago, views reading as a highly overrated means of imparting information. Schank is well respected, deservedly so, in a number of fields, but he rarely avoids an opportunity to be provocative. Just in time for this edition of the Boidem he wrote on his blog:
So, now, I will make an even more ridiculous argument which will be ignored by most of the population. Reading doesn't matter either. There. I said it.
Schank acknowledges that our society sees tantamount importance in the ability to read, but he's far from convinced:
Yes, I know we have set up a system where reading matters a great deal. (Indeed, I am part of that system. I write books. I build online courses that require reading, and so on.) In our world, I type this and someone else reads it. The internet has made reading even more important now than it was when I was a kid. When I was kid it was important to read so we could read The Scarlett Letter and A Tale of Two Cities and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, all of which I have forgotten, did not find engaging, and have no idea why I was required to read.
Devlin's fear of the marginalization of our cultural heritage seems to collide head-on with Schank's claim that requiring students to read classic texts is meaningless. Schank merrily takes his approach to reading an additional step further:
The way people have learned throughout history is from each other and they learn from each other by talking and by asking and by getting good advice. We have allowed the people who invented schooling to screw up the natural leaning process which is a combination of talking and trying again.
So does all this lead to the conclusion that today, instead of reading, we should, or should be able to, return to an oral, and a visual culture? That may have its advantages, but is it really something that we want? Over the last generation television and video games have become considerably more complex and are today highly capable of expressing elaborate and abstract thoughts. And while that has been happening, much too much academic writing (to my taste at least) has become overly tedious and far from pleasurable to read. That doesn't mean, however, that I think we can do without it. And of course print culture isn't only "academic". It also tells stories, and tells them differently than oral or visual media. But with the continued ascendance of a primarily visual culture perhaps it makes sense to adopt Schank's approach and relate to print culture as a gourmet taste, available to whoever desires it, but certainly not mandatory. I suppose there's something highly democratic in such an approach. After all, nobody should be required to know how to read (or write) in order to take an active part in his or her culture.

And if I've opened this column with a question, I suppose that it's only proper that toward the end I provide an answer, even though (in this case) it should be obvious. Still, if it has to be spelled out ... there's nothing the matter with plain old text (even boring black text on a white background), though clearly if this was once standard it has become a niche commodity. And that "answer" sort of makes sense, since (also pretty obviously) the Boidem caters to a niche audience.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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