Do two wrongs make a right?

Last week when I was in London at the Researching Second Life event, I chanced upon the Grauniad in a coffee shop (I was a little early with some time to kill) – and a Steve Johnson article ‘Dawn of the Digital Natives‘. This is a response to a scary report from the US National Endowment for the Arts (‘To Read or Not to Read’), and Johnson argues quite persuasively that the findings of the report are exaggerated and that there is little cause for alarm based on the data presented.

In ignoring screen-based reading from the study, Johnson accuses the NEA of “sleight of hand”, but I think he is equally guilty of using some degree of sleight of hand in his own arguments…

When discussing the increase in screen based reading, Johnson notes:

A recent study by the British Library of onscreen research activities found that “new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ … “

The study he is referring to is the same one I blogged about here, the report which argued that not only were the research habits of todays youth severely lacking,  but that browsing-based poor quality research methods had actually spread right through the age groups. This is what it means to ‘power browse’. Indeed, if you follow the link in Johnson’s article, you’ll find the following text in the opening bold faced paragraph:

…although young people demonstrate an apparent ease and familiarity with computers, they rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the web.

Towards the end of his piece Johnson lays down a challenge:

I challenge the NEA to track the economic status of obsessive novel readers and obsessive computer programmers over the next 10 years. Which group will have more professional success in this climate? Which group is more likely to found the next Google or Facebook? Which group is more likely to go from college into a job paying $80,000 (£40,600)?

Aside from the issue of whether economic success should be the measure of education (there are many critics of this notion), this challenge has been heavily skewed by Johnson. A fair comparison would be obsessive novel readers and obsessive computer users, not programmers. Obsessive computer users might well fail – and fail badly – on a software engineering course, while obsessive computer programmers might well go on to earning the high income Johnson suggests.

I’ll close with a comment on a section which is not a sleight of hand, but is I think worthy of comment:

Odds are that you are reading these words on a computer monitor. Are you not exercising the same cognitive muscles because these words are made out of pixels and not little splotches of ink? According to the NEA you’re not, because in almost every study it cites, screen-based reading is excluded from the data. …

Yes, we are reading in smaller bites on the screen, often switching back and forth between applications as we do it. A recent study by the British Library of onscreen research activities found that “new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ … “

I’ll agree whole-heartedly that studies should include screen-based reading. But here we are asked first “Are you not exercising the same cognitive muscles…?” then we are told “…we are reading in smaller bites on the screen, often switching back and forth between applications as we do it.”

This suggests that there is a significant difference in the reading habits and in how we relate to information. Perhaps even about how we think and process information and arguments. So we will be exercising some of the same cognitive muscles, but as the Google Generation report highlighted, we might not be exercising all of the same cognitive muscles.

Leave a Reply