Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Gutenberg Remedies

Michael Agger has written a droll piece on online reading practices, summarizing research done by the eminent Web theorist Jakob Nielsen. Its title, "Lazy Bastards," is a bit perplexing, although here Agger is only following Nielsen's lead in calling online users "selfish, lazy, and ruthless." We are "information foragers" who sniff around for only what interests us, skimming as we go along, and using the Internet to confirm preexisting beliefs. This last point is my paraphrase, but it captures Agger's pithy statement that "If you don't see what you need, you're gone."

Contrast this to what Nilsen calls "ludic reading," or reading textually -- that is, reading in print. According to him, ludic reading -- what Barthes might call engaging in the "pleasure of the text" -- is medially more suited to print culture rather than the Internet. Agger's gloss of Nielsen's view posits that ludic reading is characterized by the following:

* When we like a text, we read more slowly.
* When we're really engaged in a text, it's like being in an effortless trance.

Well, sure, but I can point to examples of this in online reading practices (Nielsen is anti-blogging, but not all blogs are created equal -- there's some great material out there), just as much as I would argue that certain print reading practices actively disengage the reader from "play" (sifting through a novel for quotations to write an academic term paper).

The problem, it seems to me, stems from Agger's and Nielsen's limited definitions of "reading" and "text." Neither can account for alternative reading practices online (what I would call an "active dwelling" through digital media and design [the interplay of images, color, font, and text]), and neither can account for a view of textuality that doesn't fall into the modernist trap of a privileged dwelling in "difficult" literature. (Incidentally, hard-line defenders of print culture in the Age of the Internet also tend to err on the side of literature's salvific, sustaining qualities for the soul; see especially Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies.)

Insofar as this rather traditional view of what it means to read text in print (ludic, pleasurable, etc.) informs Nielsen's formula, I'd say that his theory of online reading practices remains similarly constrained. Against the backdrop of modernist self-involvement in the text, Nielsen is able to posit that the attention span of your average online reader is effectively nasty, brutish, and short -- a veritable postmodern vacuum of context and illumination. There's great heuristic value to this modern/postmodern analytic, it's true, but as a guiding framework (even if not explicitly articulated by Nielsen), it fails to account for actually existing reading practices both online and in print.

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