No, technology has not led to the demise of reading, as many have predicted. In fact it has increased the importance of both reading and writing. People with poor grammatical and general writing skills stand out for all the world to see on Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, and even on Twitter.
Technology, however, is having a major impact on the way people read, and that change can be expected to intensify.
It is well known that attention spans today are shorter than they were a few decade ago. People expect to find information fast, and get impatient when they aren’t satisfied quickly. So we no longer, as a rule, are happy to read long books and articles to gain information. Instead, we jump around, clicking links that seem to have the most potential for speedy satisfaction.
Thus we have the demise of linear reading. Google and web sites generally have contributed to this trend. But now there are emerging technologies that will accelerate it. In particular, there is the technology of tagged information databases, using extensible languages such as XML (eXtensible Markup Language).
XML has been around for almost twenty years and has been widely used by a range of applications. Initially it was used primarily for financial and related applications, for organizing data. Gradually it spread to non-financial applications and today we find it in a variety of tools, such as those that index books for online stores or air reservations for airlines, to cite just two small examples.
What XML does is to “tag” data with metadata, or data about data. In other words, the data is expanded by including information that explains it or places it into context. A common example is a customer database, which includes addresses and phone numbers. Tags can be added to a customer name for the address and phone number, such as “addr” and “phonum” which actually move around with the core data. That means that the data can be understood by other computer systems, without having to go to an originating system or database.
XML is a fundamental part of the semantic web, which was forecast several years ago by Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
With the use of XML, related data can be readily identified and pulled together. A good example can be found on the site semanticbible.com. This site is mentioned not for any religious purpose, but rather because many people have some familiarity with the bible and it is a good example of the use of XML for reading purposes. It also demonstrates the phenomenon of non-linear reading.
In the semantic bible, one can pull together all references in the book about a particular topic, such as “miracle” or “plague”. In addition, it shows how stories can be reconstructed. For example, the story of Jesus is told in the traditional four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There have been many attempts to pull this story together into one cohesive whole, with varying degrees of success. The semantic bible, with the use of XML, does a remarkable job of this, showing the repetitions and inconsistencies among the four gospels but also converting the story into a coherent, sequential one. Thus non-linear reading can be converted back into linear reading, but in a desired form that is more customized.
We can expect to see a lot more use of tagged data to reorganize and repurpose information in the future. As the semantic web grows, we will see more non-linear reading, but also we will see it repurposed into more useful and informative forms.