Monday, August 25, 2008

Technology and the economics of reading 2.0

This article is about how various kinds of technology at the same time as making things to read more available, can make it more difficult to get proper reading done. It is a second attempt at a topic I wrote something about a little while ago (here’s version 1). This version is substantially longer and I think better.

In the first version I acknowledged an article I remembered but could not find by Tim van Gelder. In correspondence with him I figured out what the article was, and he sent me a PDF. His article is called "Penicillin for the mind? Reason, education and cognitive science", and as far as I can tell it isn't available on the web. (I've suggested to van Gelder that he post it on his blog, and I hope he does.) The paragraph that got my thinking going is the following one:
My mother was a philosophy major at the University of Melbourne some 25 years before I arrived to do the same degree. In those days, there was often only one copy of a book or article, and it was in the library. She went there to read it, and anything she took away had to be in her head or in her laboriously handwritten notes. This forced her to distil the text down to its essentials; and she did this time and time again. Today, almost nobody does it; if something is worth reading, it is worth copying first. In the library at the University of New South Wales students make 15 million copies a year (cost: 400 large trees). Photocopying fosters the illusion that knowledge has been acquired. The mental effort of comprehending and remembering has been postponed, often forever. These days teachers arrange to have class materials copied in advance, to save students the trouble. As a result, students get much less practice digesting a text. They are losing the disposition and ability to do such basic things as identify the main point and the main line of argument. They cannot form a critical response because they never engage with the reasoning in the first place.
I think van Gelder is onto something important here. What I found when I returned to his text, though, was that the way I'd "remembered" it included a more explicit economic concepts (not many, mind you), and I realised that was mostly the way I'd been thinking about it, and a product of my own research interests. So what I offer here are some reflections largely provoked by reading van Gelder's remarks a few years ago, but adding to them, and in some ways suggesting corrections to them. I don't actually think that the key problem is that copying fosters an illusion of knowledge acquisition, but that availability -- of texts and distractions -- does something to the value of individual reading episodes. In case it's not already obvious, I'm mostly talking about academic reading here, although some of the points probably generalise.

When I was an undergraduate student it was regularly the case that a key reading for a course with over 100 people in it was only available in a part of our main university library called the "Reserve Room" items on reserve could not be taken out, but only used for limited periods of time in the Reserve Room. There were waiting lists for high-demand items, and although it was possible to use your time to make a copy of the text, what most people did most of the time was sit down and give it a good thorough reading. This often meant trying to make notes in sufficient detail to make it very unlikely that a second trip would be needed. As a doctoral student I had a similar experience working at the British Library, which is not a lending library. On mornings when I worked there, I'd approach my reading with a view to doing everything so thoroughly that I'd not need to go back.

Now, in common with many people, I have close to permanent access to large numbers of versions of things that I believe I need to read, and yet seem to spend less of my time than ever before engaged in the sort of serious, deeply focussed reading that I've just described. The access I'm referring to amounts to the following: on my office PC, and my laptop, I have substantial numbers of dowloaded articles, with something around 100 of them at any time in one way or another designated as "things to read soon". I can print any of them with almost no delay, and take the laptop with me. Without doing anything, then, I have significantly more material that I want to read on hand right here and now, than was available to me in the old Reserve Room, or than I could have hoped to get through in a week at the British Library. So why am I not reading more things, but with the same intensity? I admit, a lot of other things have changed. I'm older (maybe dumber), have a bunch of responsibilities I didn't have before, and so on. It seems clear to me, though, that besides those differences, there's something important about the different reading situations -- the old ones, and the ones I routinely face now.

The first thing is that in the two cases above (the old Reserve Room, and the British Library) the costs of wasting, or semi-wasting, a reading session were quite high. In both cases it meant waiting at least hours, and maybe days, before a second chance. Making use of the chance itself took up a decent amount of time. The delays could have serious 'knock on' effects, if work I was planning on doing later on was dependent on what I'd been hoping to find out in the reading session. This is just not the way it is when I can start reading just about any time. If I procrastinate for 20 minutes, I can almost always start again in 20 minutes.

How is this an economic phenomenon? Well, it drives down the (apparent) costs of procrastination - and if our sometimes fickle and unreliable selves are thought of a buyers of procrastination, we can expect ourselves to buy more of the same thing when the manufacturers lower the price.

A second thing that is dangerously seductive is the almost free availability of various ways of "foraging" for things to read. Again, let me compare two cases.

Back in the day, when I read something I'd regularly encounter references to other works that it seemed I should read too. Mostly I'd make notes about that fact, and later make the results of a bunch of such note-takings the basis for a trip to the library. If I was already working in the library, I'd very occasionally get up and look for the document right away. But mostly the costs of searching around didn't seem worth interrupting my work for, and so I'd wait until I had enough on the "things to find" list to justify a proper expedition. Now if I'm reading a paper and see a reference to an interesting looking article, I can be reading the abstract of the paper within a few seconds if I'm online, which I almost always am. If the abstract looks important, I can be downloading the paper into my "things to read later" tray. I can do a quick search to find papers citing the paper I've found, look to see if any of them are important. Or find the web page of one or more of the authors to see if they've done other cool stuff I "should" know about. Sometimes I don't even finish one paragraph of an article before getting side-tracked like that, and after 30 minutes I've read hardly anything, but skimmed a pile of titles and abstracts, and added 20 papers to the "things to read" pile. It's close to going backwards, and relative to old-style reading it is clearly inferior.

This foraging is important - a key part of reading is working out what to read. But it shouldn't be allowed to eat into the reading process too much, at the risk of displacing proper reading with the kind of superficial knowledge that comes from having seen a bunch of abstracts and done little else. Even people who're honest about the fact that they've not yet read anything properly (and so not endorsing the "illusion" that they've acquired knowledge) may find it hard to stop being distracted and foraging to much eating (reading) too little. You need to invest some time in prioritising, and cheap foraging might (at least for some people) make it harder to settle on what to do, because you have a wider range of things that you "could" read at any moment, and so can more easily spend time browsing before settling down.

Again the phenomenon is partly economic - when the costs of foraging get lower, you'll buy more of it. And it's seductive in a way that other kinds of procrastination like fooling around with social networking aren't, because it really is a part of the working process.

A third problem (related to the above, but different) is the frankly awesome availability of distractions with close to zero start-up costs. One key distraction is socialising. Again, when I was a nipper working by myself at night if I wanted to mess around there was less TV to chose from, and social interaction usually meant making a phone call, or maybe wandering around the university residence to see who else was awake and trying to bug them (with mixed success - I was less charming then). Now I typically have two email accounts and facebook running in tabs on my browser at the same time as I've got a PDF of a paper open in another application, or a draft of something I'm writing open in a word processor. The occasional knock on the door or phone call of someone else looking for escape has been replaced with the steady pinging of mail notifications from a network of friends and acquaintances in almost every time zone, who I can also bother more or less ad lib. Again, a tempting product (and also one that is important to some extent) has been made cheaper.

So what can we do? How is it that anybody gets any proper reading done (since many clearly do)?

I think there are a few things.

First, we can make more of an effort to be clear with ourselves about the costs of delay are. It's not hard to keep track of costs when they're obvious things like having to make additional trips to libraries, it takes more effort to keep aware of the opportunity costs of the wasted hour you're right in the middle of it when it seems as though you can start work with no cost at the end of the hour. But our time is at least as scarce as ever. It also helps to me more clear about why pseudo-work like foraging can be counter-productive. Having definite targets so that you can tell whether you're falling short of them helps too.

Second, we can manufacture scarcity in various ways. Go to lunch (without a laptop!) taking only one article to read. If you don't read that one, you've failed, and you can't mask the fact so easily because there's no citation index (or facebook) to mess around with, or giant folder of downloaded articles to organise and browse. I've found that a terrific place to get reading done is in meetings. It really is possible, with only a little practice, to keep track of a basically administrative meeting and participate in it while reading something unrelated. And in meetings where you really are mostly expected to sit still and keep quiet, reading becomes a merciful release from the tedious and often inefficiently conducted business at hand. Part of manufacturing scarcity is raising the costs of distractions, and even small barriers can be helpful. Work off-line, or at least close down email and social networking stuff, for fixed periods.

These three suggestions are presented impressionistically - in some cases I know of peer-reviewed research that suggests they really would help, but in others I'm pretty much saying something about what I try to do, which seems sometimes to work. I'd welcome more research on academic reading from a behavioural economic perspective, and especially work on strategies and interventions to encourage intense critical reading.

Something I'm also very interested in is how all this plays out for new students, who've mostly never experienced the sorts of scarcity that give me the backdrop for assessing the effects of the current situation. It seems to me that many of them are far less likely to get any proper reading done than they should be. I'm just not sure what to begin to think about how to help that.


van Gelder, T. J. (1998) Penicillin for the mind? Reason, education and cognitive science. Preprint No. 1/98, University of Melbourne Department of Philosophy.

Top cartoon - "Hard Read" from the Perry Bible Fellowship.


Signe said...

Great post: you describe the conundrum of getting focussed on reading perfectly (I've found another distraction is compiling wish- or to-buy lists on Amazon, only to abandon it when everything I "need" is clearly beyond my economic reach).

The question of new students is an interesting and important one: I've been getting Commerce students to do simple summaries of articles, only to have it confirmed that they are (mostly) patently unable to separate main idea from supporting evidence, and to distil ideas into their own language (which is also why I ban highlighters from note-taking: bright colours parade as insidiously as photocopies as "gathering" knowledge). What to do about it? As you rightly point out, without the memory of focussed reading, trying to instil it in competition with everything else may very well be a lost cause. As depressing as it may sound, the weight may be on us as teachers to accept that reading in the British Museum belongs to another era, and get creative about how to manufacture attention where there is too little, and way too much information. Wish I had the miracle cure...

Doctor Spurt said...

Thanks very much for the comment. It seems to me that at the top end students are if anything more focussed and competitive - sometimes I think excessively so. But away from that end, it seems we do face a real problem. And focussed reading is a skill that requires practice, so it's harder to imagine plausible interventions.

Samantha said...

It took me *days* to get around to reading this, which is significant in context. I'm glad I finally did it. I'm guilty of all the same defaults, and find it next to impossible to switch off the distractions. I've recently found a neat little app that blocks your internet and only unlocks it at the preset time, thereby forcing you to stay offline and do some actual reading/writing. I think I may have to download it.

Doctor Spurt said...

Thanks, Sam. There's a Firefox extension that allows you to set limits on some sites (e.g. a number of minutes an hour, etc.) which could be a bit more sophisticated. I'd be playing with it, except I've already mostly switched to using Google Chrome.

Doctor Spurt said...

There's a discussion of whether the internet is making us stupid (which I don't think it is) over at Britannica:

Michael Meadon said...

Interesting and relevant: