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The computer screen, attention spans and the birth of blogging – thoughts on “settling down” to read something

Glenn Reynolds‘ latest TechCentralStation piece is up, and in it there’s a link to one of those Famous Articles you know you should have read, in this case Garrett Hardin‘s 1968 piece called The Tragedy of the Commons. I went to it, and since it’s not a piece I actually know very well (I may or may not have read it, and if so how thoroughly I can’t remember, a long time ago), I decided to have a read of it.

And I immediately, without further conscious thought, whistled up a complete print-out.

This was, I feel, one of those revealing moments. Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but here’s my surmise.

The much famed “collapse of attention span” that we’ve all been suffering from lately is mostly no such thing. All that we are suffering from is the limitations of the computer screen compared to paper, which (to recycle a very old joke), if it had been invented after the computer screen rather than several centuries before it, would have been hailed as a huge advance.

When I am thinking about reading something – anything – I need to know when I start what I’m getting myself into, so that I can decide now if I have the time and the effort ready for the job, and so that I can generally work myself up into the correct state of determined receptivity, like a sportsman psyching himself up at the start of a long race or a big fight. That’s maybe over-dramatising it a bit but that, in a mild form, is what’s going on when you “settle down” to read something.

When I have my read in my hands, on paper, I can immediately tell approximately what I’m in for. But the computer screen, despite all kinds of software trickery that’s been devised to help with this exact problem, only really tells you what you are facing if you can see all of it on your screen, or at the very least can scroll down very quickly to the end. (Am I the only one who often finds a brief moment of scrolling a wildly inaccurate method of guessing length?) If I stop this blog posting very soon, I’ll just about be in under this particular bit of wire, and I will in fact try very hard to do just that.

Another way to answer the length question for the reader is to establish a pattern that readers are familiar with, the way samizdata does. Our readers know that even if it says “MORE” on one of these things, they’ll only be troubled for a certain sort of length of time, and thus they can embark on the reading with that vital part of “settling down” process having been done for them. (And by the way, clicking on “MORE” has the effect of “separating out” the piece from all the other bloggage here present, and thus making an assessment of the length even of the not-so-short samizdata pieces that much easier to do. At the end, there’s not more bloggage, there’s just empty space, which makes length-guessing a lot less confusing. At least you know which piece this ending is the ending of.)

Computers have created a new niche for pieces short enough to be “settled down to” very quickly, without you having to scroll down carefully or go to the bother and expense of a print-out. But because our attention spans have not in fact collapsed that enormously, computers have created a very big niche, for a lot of such pieces. In short they have created the blogosphere.

I could, I’m sure, say a lot more here about all this, but that would obviously be a very foolish thing for me to do.

9 comments to The computer screen, attention spans and the birth of blogging – thoughts on “settling down” to read something

  • A couple of days ago, I found a sample chapter of the new William Gibson novel on the web. I attempted to print it. It didn’t work. I fired up a different web browser. Still no ability to print. At that point I looked at it carefully, and it was an Adobe Acrobat document with printing disabled. I then did a quick search to see whether there was an easy way to turn printing back on. (If I was in the US, I could no doubt be imprisoned for ten years under the DMCA for doing this, but I don’t greatly care). The gist was that this would take me a certain amount of effort, and at that point I gave up and just went and read it on the screen.

    I did most of this largely unconsciously, but what is strinking is the amount of effort I was willing to go to to avoid reading a serious item on the screen. Whether it is eye strain, all the scrolling, or whatever, on screen is a very inferior way of reading anything of length.

  • Xerox is a developing a kind of display technology based on alligning a large number of plastic balls with different colors printed on each side. This could have resolution equal to a laser printer. Phillips, Samsung, Lucent and an upstart company called Cambridge Display Technologies are developing displays based on organic light emitting diodes which could produce vibrant flat-panel color displays of high resolution. They’ve already appeared in some cell phones pushed by Sprint in the U.S. (and perhaps in Britain?). In the case of Cambridge Display Tech., they’re developing a way of printing off these LED’s with a device like an inkjet printer. These technologies both have the advantage of a refresh rate of zero. Pixels are totally constant until they are changed, unlike cathode ray tubes (which both have to be refreshed constantly, and can sometimes lead to interference with florescent lights). It seems likely to me that there will be a reduction in eye-strain in the next few years, all thanks to capitalist innovations.

  • the lost art of reading..and reading.. and reading, etc can be, and is being restord by one Steven Den Beste. It’s really good stuff, and very complete. It ain’t Herry Potter but it’s kinda mysterious.

  • Tim Haas


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  • Dale Amon

    In case anyone else read the article… I found it fascinating and terribly obsolete given current knowledge. Rather than a Malthusian disaster which was so much the belief in the ’60’s, we have, without the use of force, populations growth declining virtually every where on Earth and a strong correlation between wealth, education (particularly that of women) and that decline. Europe has a negative growth; without immigration and the birth rates of the first generation new comers, the US would also have declining population. Current projections are for a peak global population in the middle of this century with a slow decline for the foreseeable future after that.

    Additionally, the comments in the second part of the article have been shown to be pure balderdash: American cities have not tribalized, they have regenerated because of the need for cultural centers and meeting places. That “unique american culture” is alive and well 35 years on and still making idiotarians ill.

    Hardin made some good points but went off into the realm of State control and coercion to a much greater extent than anyone would now consider necessary. The power of property rights has been proven again and again… although there are those who miss this truth at their peril.

    Altogether worth the read and the post-read ponder.

  • back40

    Hardin (and even Reynolds) don’t get it: the tragedy *is* the commons. All over use does is accelerate an inevitable process. Their confusion comes from lack of domain information, static thinking and a narrow perspective.

  • Indeed so. I’ve seen a statistic thrust at me repreatedly throughout my life that the U.S. uses 20% of all the current resources, but only has 5% of the population (or something like that, those are from memory). The implication is that we’re doing something unfair by taking resources away from those who get less of them than us. Of course, the solution is not for U.S. consumers to consume less (though that frequently makes good economic sense), but for everyone else in the world to find new resources and develop technologies which allow for more efficient use of current resources. As G. W. Bush once said “Make the pie higher.”

  • Lucas: I was reading off an active matrix LCD display, which also has a refresh rate of zero, although it has one or two other problems (being highly directional for instance). I am not sure whether the problem is the screen clarity or simply the nature of reading from a screen with fixed size and location.

    And on your other post, the cost of virtually all physical resources has been dropping consistently in real terms for as long as anyone can measure, because (often US developed) technology is making it easier to find and extract them. The issue is not the availability of resources, but the ability of people to use them.

    Which is not to say that resources are not at times used wastefully or inefficiently. However, if they are, this is because they are cheap and readily available. If they were genuinely scarce, they would be used more efficiently.

  • I read practically everything off the screen now.
    I almost have to force myself to pick up a newspaper.