Why Read with a Computer?

How are you reading this book, right now? Even though you could have printed these pages out, the odds are fairly good that you are reading it on a screen. Digital reading is a practice that most of us take part in every day (or even every waking hour of every day), and many of us probably don't think very much about the computers that facilitate the process.

Some people, of course, do: with the vast increase in digital reading over the past decade, a number of think pieces have come out describing the negative consequences of reading on a computer. Some suggest that reading on a screen before going to bed can make it difficult to relax and fall asleep. Others sigh wistfully remembering the tangible, physical nature of books that gets lost when text is translated to pixels on a screen. Some might argue that your attention span is fundamentally changed by the kind of reading you do. Or that your ownership over what you read is in danger when your books are electronic: Apple or Amazon might delete a book you have bought from your device without your permission, but it seems far less likely that Penguin will break into your home to retroactively burn a physical copy of a book they have decided you shouldn't own.

On the other hand, digital reading is often just so much more convenient. Online newspapers mean a lot less recycling. Ebooks are often cheaper than physical copies and are delivered to us in a matter of seconds -- no waiting for your books to arrive in the mail and no need for a trip to the library or bookstore!

Regardless of how you fall in these debates, it is important to recognize that a change in format necessarily changes the reading experience. We can debate the positive or negative effects of electronic reading endlessly, but we should recognize an underlying truth: you interact with a text in different ways in print than on a screen. The same is true with any medium: in a film, you are processing images and sound; in a book you are dealing with text layout and language; with recorded music you are dealing almost exclusively with sound. The technologies that carry these texts, films, and sounds to us affect our understanding of them. The scholar Marshall Mcluhan put it succinctly:

The medium is the message.

The technologies that transmit a message -- its text in this case -- fundamentally alter the meaning and experience of the work. And we can think about the message in richer ways by studying the materials that convey them.

This is a book about reading and technology, but not quite in the same way as described above. Rather than reading with about technology, we are going to discuss how we might read through technology. It's not just that we now have access to books, newspapers and magazines online, it's also that we have access to so much more: all of the books on Project Gutenberg, newspaper articles from two hundred years ago, or all the blog posts that couldn't be written before the invention of the internet.

This new access to material can be overwhelming and one of the questions of this course is how can computers help us deal with information overload. And furthermore, how can we harness technology to ask new questions of texts? For instance, let's say you wanted to know the number of times Arthur Conan Doyle used the term "Watson" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or wanted to know what the most common word was in this short-story collection. This would be a very tedious task if you just had the hard copy of the book, but it is one you can do in seconds with computer-based text analysis programs. Likewise, these same tools can help us find patterns in texts that we might not be aware of, or allow us to collaborate with others in the reading of texts.

More specifically, we will talk a lot about the process by which we interpret texts, by which we translate ink on a page into meaning in our minds, and about how computers can tamper with and augment that process. We will touch on a number of topics and issues:

  • How can computers help us understand traditional reading processes in new ways?
  • How can we find new ways of reading through technology?
  • How can machines facilitate new types of collaborative reading?
  • How can we use computers to understand complicated categories like emotions and themes?

The implicit claim in these bullet points is that computers affect the reading process positively, but we will also give careful consideration to the wide-ranging and compelling arguments that this is not always the case.

  • How does computer-assisted interpretation undermine the very point of reading?
  • Do these techniques show us anything new, or are they all fancy ways to describe what we already know?
  • How does reading with technology exacerbate racial, social, and economic inequalities?

You will have to decide for yourself the answers to these questions over the course of the book.

Confused? Good. That means you're learning.

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