Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

‘Ways of reading’ in an internet age

This post was originally written for the Spectator arts blog in March 2012


Last week’s ‘Archive on 4’ on Radio 4 was a retrospective of the BBC2 series Ways of Seeing, presented by John Berger, which was first broadcast 40 years ago. I remember reading the book when I was at university, and listening to the programme now I was reminded of one of the most radical assertions Berger made: that the use of new technology had provoked a fundamental shift in our ‘way of seeing’ a work of art. Thanks to high-quality printed reproductions, artefacts that had once been unique and expensive objects, accessible only in one place and to a tiny number of spectators, suddenly became available to anyone who could afford the price of a postcard.

I’m bringing this idea up now because it struck me that we’re currently in the midst of a parallel revolution. Once again, new technology has precipitated a paradigm shift/quantum leap/game changer (select your jargon phrase of choice). Only this time it’s not ways of seeing that are shifting, but ways of reading.

It’s the internet that’s at the root of this, of course. Shopping, banking, dating, house-buying, job-hunting – I’ve lost count of how many aspects of modern life have been transformed by the web, but reading? How could that possibly have changed?

But stop a moment and think about it. How are these words coming to you? Answer:  on a screen. Desktop, laptop, BlackBerry, or iPad, right now you’re definitely ‘on digital’. And whether we realise it or not, we read online and on-page in a fundamentally different way.

Part of this stems from the fact that reading is not just a mental but a physical activity. I can’t remember who originally coined the phrase, but if we read on a screen we ‘sit up’ to do it, while with a book or an e-reader we ‘sit back’.

When we’re sitting up we’re in full hunter-gatherer mode – alert, business-like, primed for action.  Scrolling down is irritating, and as with everything else to do with the internet, we expect to get what we want in the 0.29 seconds it takes Google to deliver 9,410,000 results. So it’s hardly surprising that most people are far too impatient to read anything longer than about 600 words online (or that my brief for this piece is 700 max).

Compare that with how you feel when you pick up a book. ‘Sit back and enjoy’ may be a cliché, but only because it’s so patently obvious. When we’re sitting back we’re prepared to invest time in the text before us – we want to be enthralled, entertained, educated, engaged.  

I’m exaggerating to make my point, of course; there are clearly some books you study sitting up, just as there are some internet sites you read sitting back, and I suspect this blog is one of them. But all the same I think the distinction does broadly hold true, and the savvier websites are getting wise to it.

In a book, the reading process is linear: there’s a beginning, middle, and end, and while we can easily flout that convention, in practice we rarely do. There is a ‘way of reading’ that the author still controls, and we still respect.  The web, by contrast, is the ultimate fact repository, which we’ve grown used to using in ‘three dimensions’. We expect to land almost anywhere on a site, find the fact or functionality we came for, and then go. The web, in other words, is next to useless at presenting a coherent or sustained narrative. So, yes, by all means post your latest novel-in-progress online, but don’t be surprised if you lose people past the magic 600 words.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger contended that printed reproductions had changed images into commodities – raw material for everything from interior design to advertising. As a result, the original work of art had become mere ‘information’. My own, equally contentious contention is that the same shift is now happening with words. You may still be a reader with a book in your hand, but online you turn imperceptibly into a data-processor. A highly sophisticated and intelligent data-processor, admittedly, but a data-processor all the same….