[-empyre-] post for convergence; print to pixels

katherine hayles nk_hayles at yahoo.com
Thu Jun 10 02:07:40 EST 2010

Please post the following to the convergence publishing to pixels thread.  
It is also attached as a docx.  Thanks, Katherine Hayles

Hi everyone, I am delighted to be joining in the conversation on publishing, copyright, and other matters associated with this month's topic.  My own view comes from my position within academia, so it isn't applicable everywhere or for everyone.  I would like to comment on university presses, a small but important part of the publishing world from an intellectual point of view.  I sit on the editorial board of one university press and co-edit a series at another.  For the most part, the people associated with university presses are not concerned with making a profit; indeed, most university presses just manage to break even, and some run perennial deficits underwritten by the associated university.   The press folks are generally hardworking, dedicated people who aim to produce high-quality, carefully edited books.  But in a way, that's the problem.  Book publication assumes and creates a certain kind of reader--a reader who will be attentive,
 patient, and care enough about the topic to read the book, if not all the way through, then at least a substantial portion of it.  
Web reading, on the other hand, assumes and creates a very different kind of reader--a reader who will skim material, skip from one text to another, and supplement any text with hyperlinks, lateral references, etc.  It also assumes and creates a reader in a more or less constant state of distraction, one who is constantly leaving a text to check email, surf the Web, chat online, etc.  The consulting firm Neilson Norman Group, which does research on how people actually read Web pages, uses a methodology that asks text subjects to deliver a running oral commentary, which a (human) tester records.  At the same time, they use eyetracking equipment to follow the subject's eye movements.  What they have found is that Web reading typically follows an "F" pattern--the user readings the first two or three lines, then has a shorter line pattern as the eye moves down the page, and by the bottom third of a page, the eye is following a straight vertical line
 down the left margin.  (Query to readers:  how are you scanning this post?) The worst place to put important information, then, is in the lower right corner.  This research, as well as a ton of other evidence, indicates that the issue of print to pixels involves much more than dissemination mechanisms, copyright, etc.; it involves the collision of different reading styles and indeed different readers.  
    There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that different media wire the brain in different ways, just as Marshall McLuhan claimed in his famous proclamation "The media is the message."  The neurological re-wiring takes place quickest when small repetitive tasks are repeated over and over, reinforcing synaptic pathways and encouraging the associated neural nets to grow--as, for example, clicking a mouse, scanning a web page, etc.  Nicholas Carr in "The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to our Brains" goes into much of this research; another good resource is "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan (notwithstanding that the latter is written in the bland tones of a physician writing out a prescription, with little recognition of how controversial some of the material is).  
    Back to university presses.  As more people are trained (and entrained) by Web reading to skim, scan, fragment and juxtapose, is there a place for carefully crafted texts that authors labor for years to create (for example, I worked on the "Posthuman" book for six years), in which every word is honed and every turn of argument tested and re-tested?  Is there a place for editors who invest mega-time in suggesting revisions, proofing texts, helping authors refine and strengthen their texts?  The point here is not so much the medium of delivery, whether print or Kindle or an online journal or a blog or listserv--as it is what Carr calls the technological ethic, the assumptions and associated neurological wiring that create a certain kind of reader and a certain mode of reading.  The university presses that I am associated with are dedicated to turning out what we may call the Rolls Royce model of scholarship--carefully edited, densely written
 (i.e., hand-crafted) books with meticulous attention to detail.  But are readers any longer interested in giving the kind of patient, attentive care to those books that the writers and presses assume?
    In my capacity as a series editor, I read a lot of manuscripts, and among the younger hipper scholars, I see a clear tendency to move toward a Web kind of writing, even if the final product is meant to be a print book--texts that lend themselves to skimming, that have much shorter blocks of prose and argumentation, that can be perused in an hour or so and put down without feeling that you have missed too much.   I also see a lot of book manuscripts where the main argument appears in the first chapter, with subsequent chapters merely setting out variations on a single theme; these too can be skimmed quickly, perhaps reading only 10-20 pages with care, and getting the gist out of the rest.  
    I would like to conclude this post with some personal reflections.  Like most of the readers of this list, I too skim quickly, get distracted easily, scan even the archives of previous discussions on this month's topic without reading carefully, patiently, and attentively.  But in the last couple of months, I have also had two reading experiences that were quite different.  In these cases, I picked up two influential, important books and read them cover to cover, slowly, taking my time, pausing to make notes, reflect, re-read.  I really understood them in a deep sense, and they changed my mental landscape.  Significantly, I read both of them in a different room from where my computer is; I was alone in the house; and no electronic prosthesis was on during this reading time.  I would not want to do all my reading in this way; the breadth, liveliness, and scope of Web reading has become second nature to me.  But my feeling as I read those
 two books was of entering a different world, a world in which I was in passionate and deep conversation with the authors.  The experience refreshed me in a way that no Web reading has, notwithstanding the huge advantages of Web reading.  What I fear is not the passing of books--I think they have too many advantages to be going anyway anytime soon--but the passing of a mode of engagement that is not distracted, not hurried, not always rushing toward the next big thing.  How can I make sure that the re-wiring of my brain, which is surely well advanced by now, still has the capacity to have this kind of experience?
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