textual displays

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In examining whether book collectors are real readers or cultural snobs, Frank Furedi asks, "Is book ownership still a sign of public cultural distinction in the digital age?" His answer is informed by history, and he notes that "to this day, many readers regard books as a medium for gaining a spiritual experience:"

Since text possesses so much symbolic significance, how people read and what they read is widely perceived as an important feature of their identity. Reading has always been a marker of character, which is why people throughout history have invested considerable cultural and emotional resources in cultivating identities as lovers of books.

He mentions Seneca's remark that "many people without a school education use books not as tools for study but as decorations for the dining room:"

Seneca's hostility towards the ostentatious book collector was probably influenced by his aversion towards the public reading 'mania' that appeared to afflict the early Roman Empire. This period saw the emergence of the recitatio: public literary readings conducted by authors and poets that many wealthy citizens regarded as an opportunity for self-promotion. Seneca looked on these vulgar performances of literary conceit with contempt...

In the present day, Furedi worries that "21st-century toddlers might abandon the showy display of reading a book in public and adopt the habit of regularly checking their smartphones:"

If Seneca or Martial were around today, they would probably write sarcastic epigrams about the very public exhibition of reading text messages and in-your-face displays of texting. Digital reading, like the perusing of ancient scrolls, constitutes an important statement about who we are. [...] Young people sitting in a bar checking their phones for texts are not making a statement about their refined literary status. They are signalling that they are connected and - most importantly - that their attention is in constant demand.

With the rise of digital technology, the performance of reading has altered. The contrast between a woman absorbed in reading a book in an 18th-century portrait and a teenager self-consciously gazing at her smartphone illustrates the different ways that individuals construct their identity through reading.

Another Aeon essay, this one by Michael Schulson, discusses the addictive nature of the Internet, and I think it's worth discussing the two pieces in tandem. Schulson's "hypothetical example [is] Michael S, a journalist:"

Sending and receiving emails are important parts of his job. On average, he gets an email every 45 minutes. Sometimes, the interval between emails is only two minutes. Other times, it's three hours. Although many of these emails are unimportant or stress-inducing, some of them are fun. Before long, whenever Michael S has an internet connection, he starts refreshing his email inbox every 30 minutes, and then every five minutes and then, occasionally, every two minutes. Before long, it's a compulsive tic - the pecking pigeon of web usage.

Should we blame Michael S for wasting hours of his life hitting a small button? We could. He does have poor self-control, and he chose a profession in which email is an important form of communication.

Then again, would we blame Skinner's pigeons, stuck in a box, pecking away until they get their grains and hemp seeds, while a pioneering researcher plumbs the glitches in their brains?

"Psychologists have been discussing the possibility of internet addiction since 1996," Schulson writes, "just three years after the release of the first mainstream web browser... for millions of people, the internet is often understood in terms of compulsion:"

So should individuals be blamed for having poor self-control? To a point, yes. Personal responsibility matters. But it's important to realise that many websites and other digital tools have been engineered specifically to elicit compulsive behaviour. [...]

Tristan Harris, an ethical design proponent who works at Google. (He spoke outside his role at the search giant.) Major tech companies, Harris told me, 'have 100 of the smartest statisticians and computer scientists, who went to top schools, whose job it is to break your willpower.'

In short, it's not exactly a fair fight.

He breaks down the design process of trigger-action-reward [from Nir Eyal's book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2014)] that leads to user investment, and suggests some partial remedies--which is a useful analysis. My preference, however, is for something far simpler: a pot of tea and a comfortable chair amidst my bookshelves.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on October 21, 2016 1:31 PM.

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