There are plenty of studies trying to figure out the differences between digital reading and reading a (physical ) book, for example. A good review can be found in a piece in The New Yorker, on July 16 last year by Maria Konnikova: ‘Being a better online reader’. One source quoted is Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University, who has analyzed the digital reading experience in a myriad of ways.. One of his statements is that ‘skimming is the new reading’. And he says that ‘the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought’.
Skimming is certainly a child of digital/online reading, often jumping trough the inevitable series of hyperlinks, that sometimes are absolutely needed, and other times people put in to either show some credibility, or naively think that it will connect the author to some kind of Pan Galactic Brotherhood where everything is connected.
Skimming may be a child of digital but not the firstborn child. Skimming was invented a long time ago and, cynically, I’d like to propose that it was invented in business management. It has always felt as if the business executive is an exhausted chap whose brain can’t handle more than 2 A4 pages (‘write me a one page on…’) or with such an Attention Deficit Disorder that requires a good dose of Ritalin to read a proper briefing.
And, then, we invented the Executive Summary. The Wikipedia entry for its definition reads: ‘An executive summary, or management summary, is a short document or section of a document, produced for business purposes, that summarizes a longer report or proposal or a group of related reports in such a way that readers can rapidly become acquainted with a large body of material without having to read it all’.
If the bullet points were too much, we then ‘invented’ skimming. People literally say, ‘could you please skim through and see what you think?’ Said in a rather apologetic tome.
When digital came (50% of the readers of these Daily Thoughts do so on their smartphone, according to my little robots at the back end of the system), skimming became faster and in multiple directions.
The progressive reduction of the reduction of the reduction, to a digested and reduced text that it is ‘skimmed through’, will make comprehension and critical thinking more difficult. The endpoint may be an epidemic of Non Sense.
I am convinced that, today, if you want people to read something properly, grasp the meaning, and provoke some informed thoughts, you have to write a proper briefing. Be brave! Challenge the Tyranny of The One Page. Send a note attachment with the request: ‘please read the full version, read it from top to bottom, do not skim through; if you can, make notes with your pen (there must still be some around) and then let me know’.
Even more brave, but I can thoroughly recommend it from my heart, send a physical copy. A highly disruptive, how-many-pages document, stack of paper, that can be put on a table. I am sorry, I don’t buy the forest argument if used as an automatic pilot, smokescreen for perpetuating ephemeral digital non-reading.
For the record, I stopped writing Executive Summaries in my consulting proposals many years ago.
(And, yes, I am writing this in digital, but compiling most of it on a physical book that I hope to launch in days! There you go.)