by Martin Veitch

Google’s ‘deep reading’ fears lost in shallows

Jan 31, 2010
Security Software

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week the tone was one of uncharacteristic caution. Having been surprised by the big wave of financial chaos, most speakers appear to have been oddly sotto voce. Whisper it, but the masters of the universe were looking at their toes and perhaps expecting to see feet of clay.

Amid all this, perhaps the most interesting side-note came from Google CEO Eric Schmidt who said he feared changes in the way we read.

“The one that I do worry about is the question of ‘deep reading’,” he said. “As the world looks to these instantaneous devices … you spend less time reading all forms of literature, books, magazines and so forth.”

Well, amen to that, as people probably won’t be saying in 100 years if Schmidt is right.

It’s a very serious point and the problem is easier to agree on than correct. If we can instantly find answers, summaries, automated solutions, quick fixes, templates, workarounds, FAQs and so on, what happens to that part of our brain employed for ruminating, taking the long view, considering, testing and so on?

This is not just about the age of internet search. The rewards pertaining to financial trading mandate repsonses faster than human calculation can manage so we create rules, arbitrate for risk, build in sophisticated formulae based on petaytes of data… and get it wrong.

Similarly, US company stock values are built on quarterly earnings reports with hundreds of interim tweaks based on morsels in news wires, analyst notes, peer performance and so on.

The media must confront the collapse of daily and weekly print presses with off-the-cuff analysis. Complex documents  like national budgets and political prospectises are summarised, made into charts, dismissed and satirised within hours. The news is not so much tomorrow’s chip wrappers as thoughts no sooner committed to the virtual page than forgotten.

To keep up, businesses and governments, aided by a growing class of PRs and marketers, compete to gain attention. We hardly know what we believe but we have somehow imbibed a sense of what we dislike and cast our ballots, and our opinons, accordingly.

In simpler times there was a neologism created for all this: short-termism. Perhaps school-leavers will have to demonstrate their comprehension of 500-page texts. Maybe there will be more checks and balances applied to the financial markets. But who, realistically, will change the desire for instant gratification, no matter how shallow that gratification turns out to be?