Reading online is ruining my life….

April 10th, 2014

Well not quite but not entirely untrue either.  A couple of weeks ago I took a call from a rather persistent journalist at the Washington Post, who wanted to talk to me about the changes that might be occurring in people’s reading behavior as a result of the web. After what I thought was a thorough exchange for more than 20 minutes, I proceeded to forget about this until Monday, when the Post ran a story entitled “Serious reading takes a hit, researchers say.“  In it, my comments were reduced to a grammatically questionable single sentence that seemed to suggest support for the idea that the world had changed. OK, any press is good press and if people want to know about this topic, I am happy. My request to have the sentence slightly edited (oh, what one extra ‘s’ can do to the clarity of one’s expression) was not successful but clearly the article was. Within two hours I was being interviewed on CBS Radio News and thirty minutes later, my words broadcast to the world. Curiouser and curiouser, that evening I am contacted by Al Jazeera America and before I know it, I am sitting in a studio in Austin being live broadcast to their network on Consider This. It’s not stopped since and today I am talking to NPR affiliate station KPCC in LA and who knows who else later.


The stimulus for all this seems to be the belief (or is it fear?) that human reading has altered radically with the introduction of the web and that the ability to read serious and extended prose is fading. Even adults who learned to read before the onslaught of web publications seem to complain that shifting from the daily routine of email/browsing/scanning of digital documents to the slower pace of book reading is becoming difficult. Couple this with emerging data from brain imagine studies which purport to show different patterns of excitation in the brain depending on your activities and the concern is being expressed that we might be changing our brains in unforeseen ways.

OK, pause and take a deep breath. What is really happening here?  Let’s make a few points clear:

1) Reading is an acquired skill. It is one that most cultures place in high regard and in which they invest significant resources to ensure young members of their society acquire this skill. Like all skills, the brain does need to actively adjust to the task.

2) The act of reading is involves all levels of human activity: physical, perceptual, cognitive and social. We tend to think of it only as a perceptual and cognitive act but materials must be located and handled, and the forms of information we share reflect cultural and behavioral norms of groups which manifest as genres and types. Any significant act of reading moves seamlessly among these levels of engagement.

3) In reading, we do judge books by their covers, we do scan headings and layout, we do make multiple decisions on how to engage and we do most of this before we sit down to read an extended text (but please note, most of our routine reading is not really of extended text).

4) The type of publication formats we have known have been relatively stable: incunabula and Penguin paperbacks really don’t differ that much in terms of their affordances and ways of being handled. As a result, the skills learned early on in life for reading were, up until recently, very transferable across most forms of publication.

So what has changed?   Well, we have witnessed a significant shift from paper to digital media but the shift itself is not really the issue. We know that text read on screens might be slightly slower to read than on paper and that comprehension might be impacted. Most people are willing to tolerate that for the convenience of carrying multiple documents on a single device. What’s really different however is the ongoing morphing of digital tools to the point that a simple comparison between paper or screen is not so relevant. With digital carriers and interfaces becoming smaller, cheaper, mobile, and capable of multiple functions, the type of information structures we can present digitally have changed and we are seeing different forms emerge that have no simple paper equivalent. As the technology moves, the content providers adjust and, since screen real estate and human attention are at a premium, shorter texts, increased use of animation and color, and a concern with getting the message across quickly all come to the fore.  This is the new norm and you probably won’t be seeing too many people reading Proust on their iPhone anytime soon.

Now, what has changed for humans? There are a couple of important things to note. Our basic make-up, meaning our physical form and cognitive architecture, are not changing quickly. We still have finite attention, limited capacity working memory, a tendency to be distracted by movement, a perceptual span that limits the number of words we can read at a time, a desire for structure etc. In any full reading process involving extended text. we run through the range of responses to a document from short-term decisions to full, immersive engagement over time. With most of the material we read during the working day and online, we often aren’t willing to commit to the full range and stop after scanning. Content providers know this and produce accordingly. Add to this the delivery of digital material on a platform that is constantly refreshing, updating and allows users to multi-task across applications, and the results are a series of short acts involving the perusal and reaction to messages and short form texts that break up the normal progression through deep reading tasks.

Is this bad? Not if your goal is to keep on top of changing contexts and identify facts. Yes if you want to read a novel or really study a technical report. It’s not that we must use paper for the latter but we must create some time and isolation from distraction to do so comprehensively. That is a fact of our own psychological make-up; it is not really a limitation of the technology (ignoring some form factors for now). The problem that worries people now is if spending too much time with digital devices might somehow diminish your ability to read deeply, even if you make the switch to appropriate medium (e.g., a book) for deeper study.

We can add to this concerns with the adoption of new mobile tools in schools, and if this then distorts the education of readers by emphasizing one form of reading over another. The fear is that young minds never learn to appreciate the benefits of longer form documents and certainly are not required to develop the skills needed to exploit these benefits appropriately. There  is talk a new bi-literacy, or bi-literate gap emerging and of course, older (if not wiser) heads worry that human civilization will crumble as the full reading of  Shakespeare is replaced by students who can only tweet the odd phrase of a soliloquy. Or the related fear that nobody will remember anything anymore as they will convince themselves that it’s all in the cloud somewhere, and they only need to Google it for an answer.

Well, technology is always going to ruin us, so why should the web be any different?  I remember only snatches of Hamlet’s speech now and I also recall students who felt that photocopying an article for their personal use was as good as reading it. Plus ca change. There is certainly a set of questions related to human reading that warrant our attention right now but the imminent collapse of culture as a result of digital scanning is not the one I would spend most of my time on.  I do think however that we should try to be a little more self-conscious of our reading habits and remember that sometimes, to really get to the heart of the document, we need to give the reading process a chance to fully occur.



Life logging in Berlin

March 6th, 2014

I am walking a lot in Berlin at the annual iConference. It’s a great city for strolling around, lots to see and the streets are alive. My FitBit tells me that after hitting 15,000 steps per day, without effort, I am currently taking three times the steps of a typical US adult. This is a sad indictment of the sedentary nature of US life where walking is discouraged by the passion for cars and automobile-friendly urban planning.

I don’t usually spend much time logging life activities but the FitBit has proved an interesting way of painlessly capturing one’s routine. The weekly updates and summaries of activity can prove a more useful prompt to activity than the urging of  one’s conscience.

Intro to Linked Open Data – nice explanation

February 21st, 2014

Intro to Linked Open Data

Give it time — loading can be slow but this is a good one to share.


Steve Jobs’ mouse found in time capsule….

February 13th, 2014

Sorry for the hokey style of the video (more hammy than the NBC coverage of the Winter Olympics, just) but this is what the future looked like 30 years ago, allegedly (the Diggers crew also found a six-pack of beer, a Rubik’s cube and Moody Blues album, ouch)

Hijacking conferences by any other name

February 5th, 2014

In our field, the HICSS conference is rather well known, not least for its choice location (Hawaii) at a time of year (January) when most US folks want a break from the weather. I’m not a huge fan of the work there but some folks try to convince me it’s the real deal (usually the folks who go!). The acronym HICSS stands for Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. So successful is this conference that another has emerged, totally unrelated, also in Hawaii and also going by the acronym HICSS. Only this time, the SS stands for Social Sciences. Their call for papers is suitably all-embracing so that most disciplines could find a home here (and they organize island tours too!). It is not clear that any papers are reviewed which you think might put some providers of funding off the event but the conference certainly gets attendees.

The idea of two almost identically named conferences existing in the same location might be a coincidence but I don’t imagine so. The newer version makes little effort to disambiguate itself from the original and an email to the organizers just brought a curt reply that they were not in any way related to the original HICCS. They certainly don’t mention who the organizers or the reviewers might be either. Suspicious yet?

The emergence of bogus conferences has been documented in New Scientist and shows no signs of letting up. I heard colleagues mention it at the Council of Scientific Society Presidents’ meeting as a growing challenge in some fields. The most blatant efforts actually run shadow conferences at the same time or a week adjacent to the target conference, with a similar name, and lure people into believing it is a legitimate venue, charging them handsomely for attendance. Since many associations and hotels rely on the profit from conferences, you can see the challenge. You’d think scholars would not fall for it but then, how many folks opened that email call from the ‘other’ HICSS and thought a trip to Hawaii might be nice?

It’s not just conferences. I get an email every other day from some dubious publisher inviting my paper submissions. Follow the trail and you’ll find an editorial board of nobodies from far-flung universities that may or may not exist and then the real kicker, the page fees that you will be liable for when your paper is accepted (and it will be accepted). Open source publishing efforts have a real battle on their hands to demonstrate legitimacy and the frightening prospect of both the cowboy publishers and the traditional, conservative corporate publishers benefiting from this muddying of the waters is very real. Here’s another challenge for information science.

Another iSchool formed

February 1st, 2014

Another School of Information is being created, this one at Arizona. Not sure Allen has the best grasp of regional geography though :)

Leaders at the University of Arizona are trying to make one school out of two; the goal is to get students ready to fill jobs for all sorts of fields involving computers.

By merging two programs at U of A’s School of Information, the school would then become an iSchool. These type of schools are evolving from programs formerly focused on specific tracks such as information technology, library science, and information science.

Schools focus on educating students for a range of professions from web development to data analysis. Today A panel of deans from the top iSchools across the nation discussed the future for U of A.

Ken McAllister, the Planning director of U of A’s School of Information says, “Information is ubiquitous, there’s no job anywhere that doesn’t rely on information. Our goal is to train the next generation of scholars and workers.” Deans from other successful iSchools gave their input saying the University of Arizona is the perfect place for this to happen.

Allen Renear, Interim Dean of the University of Illinois says, “It’s a major research national research university, iSchools flourish as places just like University of Arizona. Right now, there are no iSchools in the Southwest. U of A is looking to be the first one here to join 53 other iSchools across the world.

Down and out in Philly

January 29th, 2014

ALISE 2014 promised a theme related to entrepreneurship in education, another hackneyed application of the term in university life. To this end, we were addressed by a keynote speaker who seemed to be selling Coursera as a solution to a problem some of us don’t have (imagine, they have now ‘discovered’ that students repeat-view the more difficult parts of a lesson!) and the E-word found itself in session titles throughout. The fact that people shoved papers into panel formats (or rather, ignored the panel format and proceeded to present disconnected talks in the form of papers) added to the sense that some conferences are really not quite what they should be. Only rarely did a critical voice raise itself to question the theme or its substantive absence in discussions. Sadly, most people I spoke with felt the same. The very dull Doubletree (perhaps the ugliest architecture in an otherwise attractive downtown) did not help.

The Deans and Directors Council was actually quite energized however, with a lively exchange aimed at pushing back on some of the accreditation nonsense regulations increasingly imposed on us. Here was a venue that actually felt like something constructive was happening and the group agreed to move forward on an action plan. Now that is educational entrepreneurship.

Information as power zone in customer relations

December 22nd, 2013

We are reminded constantly of the power of interconnected tools to allow all of us to share information in real time, improving efficiency and enabling companies to connect with customers. In some ways this is undeniable but the ability to network also creates a new category of information, which when considered from a user’s perpsective, is partially useless, aggravating and even misleading.

UPS provide a great example of this at the moment. Currently struggling to move packages backlogged in Dallas (again) they provide numersous ways for customers to track and receive updates on the status of their items. Similarly, they usually allow sellers like Amazon to directly link into their tracking system so customers can access information at the point of purchase. So, no longer just waiting, shoppers can ostensibly track the progress of their packages acriss the country from source to destination. The trouble here is that UPS, once it has issued initial tracking info, does not actually update this information reliably and predictably, and makes it quite difficult to ask further questions.

Items backlogged this week are sitting in what UPS euphamistically term ‘exception’ status, and are tagged with the stock message that the anticipated delay is ‘one business day’. This day comes and goes and the update never changes. Some reports online indicated delays of more than 10 business days without this message ever being updated, and there is speculation that once in ‘exception’ status, your package is the lowest priority as the company tries to maintain its on-time record up with fresher shipments that have not yet hit a lag. UPS allows you to request updates but all this does (after asking for your email address again) is send you that same old message, nothing new. So yes, they provide online tracking but it is not real-time, not useful, and allows you little chance of estimating reliably when you may actually receive an item. One might consider this an information gap.

Of course, the beauty of the web is that one need not just accept this. The aptly named ‘pissed off consumer‘ contains numerous postings about the problems of UPS and their rather poor customer relations, including numbers to call. Some of the stories here are excrutiating. I tried contacting the company who sold me the item I am waiting for and they at least managed to get more info from UPS than I could. Most distressing for many online was that UPS knew days ago that anything entering the Dallas area was just going to pile up but they still accepted the orders, even with expedited shipping fees from late Xmas shoppers.This much one could determine with a little exploration online. Unfortunately, despite the supposed democratization of the web, too few sellers allow the buyer to choose preferred carriers, or else I suspect UPS would be in real difficulty in Texas and its serviced areas.

All this information power is potentially impressive for the companies perhaps but from a consumer side the black hole of holding patterns one ends up in quickly after the initial update is a guaranteed source of frustration. It may even be that the lack of tracking info from the start would be better than what is on offer here. Suddenly, the idea of network tracking seems less informative than it might be and the old power differential between informed and uninformed is magnified. Real world information and real world people seem mismatched. Unintended consequences of IT, again?

Xmas Card as Information Object

December 19th, 2013

The greeting card industry seems to have sustained itself despite the onslaught of digital alternatives, at least if my mailbox is anything to go by. Most schools and major units at my own university send cards out bearing seasonal salutations and best wishes for the new year etc. The card is more than symbolic, it actually is a revealing information object worthy of some analysis. Image choice is an obvious entry point. I prefer arty minimalism but I’m clearly in the minority. Gaudy colors and tired images of snow, bells, trees and landscapes abound. Tradition clearly lives and dominates the greeting card industry. Then there’s the group pics of the staff and faculty, the less said of which the better. IF you want to see what life is like in another unit, the group shot probably reveals more than the collective h-index.

Depressingly, many of these missives are unsigned. To me, this says a lot more than it should about the motives and genuine wishes of the senders, and you don’t need NSA clearance to read that signal. I mean, what is the point of sending an unsigned card to a supposed colleague? The lack of handwriting tells me the card was an afterthought, a rushed obligation handled by a staff member with a master list. You might think information professionals would be a little more aware of the signals they were sending but apparently not. And don’t get me started on the cost of all this symbolic signalling of goodwill. Am sure someone in a business suit has made the case for sending cards and produced a system for ensuring all contacts are included. So much for business analysis – the unsigned card is the biggest party-damper going. Bah humbug?

CSSP: best content in a conference I’ve experienced

December 11th, 2013

Despite the efforts of the winter weather and an over-complicated information system owned by American Airlines (which has little real information to offer), I managed to attend part of the Council of Scientific Societies Presidents meeting in DC this weekend. Session for session, there is more substance in this gathering than I’ve experienced at other conferences. Every speaker seems really top-notch and able to deliver deep content in a manner that truly spans disciplinary boundaries. Most enjoyable was Rob Dietz’s overview of the Center for the Study of Steady-State Economy’s work on assessing the real costs and values of our current use of the planet. He made a lot of sense, and made an even stronger impression when he revealed he believed so much in this approach to economic modeling that he had moved his whole family into a sustainable community housing arrangement in Oregon. Untitled 3-1 (dragged)

Among his many messages, I took away the argument that economic growth is a really inappropriate measure or goal for a nation to live by and that we need to rethink our collective sense of what is good for our societies, measure this appropriately, and then set policy. Of course, much of this also requires behavioral changes that perhaps economists are not best equipped to understand. More interdisciplinary challenges ahead.

Lots of other good stuff at CSSP, including a too-short but important committee discussion on the need (or not, as I argued) for longer moratorium periods for scholarly work in open access publication processes. I understand the realities of professional associations and their publication revenues, but we are entering an age where the ideas and requirements for access will so fundamentally shift scholarly practices that locking material down to protect the market for certain journals will no longer seem viable. It’s fair to say, I was in a minority on this one but the discussion was instructive.

While CSSP is really a closed shop, it is possible to represent your society there without being president. I suspect the small size and selectivity is not independent of the resulting high quality discourse, but what a shame more academic gatherings were no so stimulating.