Reading the Net

Adding a search function to Turning Signs has caused me to reflect a bit on different modes of reading and the effect of the internet on them. Searching – looking for something very specific in a text or a network of texts – has been vastly speeded up and extended by access to search engines, as compared to the searching one can do in printed texts.

local browser

Browsing – meandering casually from text to text (site to site, page to page) on the chance of finding something interesting – is almost the opposite of searching, but has also been facilitated by the internet. It’s no accident that the software you are using to read this webpage is called a ‘browser’; it’s optimized for dealing with the miscellaneous. But if you have actually read this far into the page, you’ve entered a different reading mode, either skimming or scanning.

Skimming is the speed-reading mode you use for a newspaper or facebook page, when you just want to get the gist of the information offered there without getting deeply involved in the text (which you don’t expect to be carefully constructed). Scanning is a much more intense and concentrated mode in which you study the text closely without skipping over any of the details. However, even scanning does not necessarily involve the kind of deep immersion in a text that i call whole-body reading or the experiencing of a turning sign. In order to do that, you have to focus on the dynamic object of the sign through the text, in order to deepen your experience of it, your intimacy with it.

Using the internet for this last and deepest kind of reading is certainly possible, but the practice seems to get swept aside by the habits of skimming and browsing encouraged by this medium. When we do get immersed in an e-text, it’s often something we found by searching, which makes it all too likely that it will confirm our prejudices instead of challenging them. This will discourage critical thinking – which is an important part of experiencing or deep reading – unless we make a conscious effort to choose our modes of reading with care.

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