Reading as transaction

It’s probably happened to you before: There was some article, poem or story that you really loved, and you told your friend to read it. They did, and maybe they said, “Yeah, it was good,” but they just didn’t seem affected by it like you were. How do we account for two people having vastly different experiences with the same piece of text?

Louise Rosenblatt was a researcher who wanted to understand how humans experienced literature. She proposed a model (based on the work of philosopher John Dewey in his famed Art As Experience) wherein both the reader and the text are active participants in the encounter we call reading. In her words:

Instead of two fixed entities acting on one another, the reader and the text are two aspects of a total dynamic situation. The “meaning” does not reside ready-made “in” the text or “in” the reader but happens or comes into being during the transaction between reader and text… “Meaning” is what happens during the transaction.

The act of reading, then, is the fusion of a person, along with their lifetime experiences, thought associations, current state of mind and interests, with the text.

According to Rosenblatt, these transactions result in experiences along the efferent–aesthetic continuum. Efferent experiences are characterized by intellectual analysis, focusing on information to be extracted from the encounter for later conscious, public use. Aesthetic experiences, on the other hand, are private. They are artistic and of-the-moment, incorporating the background, emotional state and thoughts of the beholder. Aesthetic experiences are moments of epiphany—almost spiritual. They are when a piece of writing, as we often say, strikes a chord with us.

Efferent–Aesthetic Continuum

Rosenblatt highlighted that, as we read, we are constantly navigating this continuum. Some parts of a text might strike us more aesthetically, and others more efferently. Even reading the driest of academic treatises might spark moments of aesthetic, just as reading the most beautiful poem might trigger efference.

Now, Rosenblatt focused on the experience with literary texts, but there is so much more to consider. In a recent article in the Journal of DocumentationKiersten Latham extended this model to describe experiences with museum objects, demonstrating its versatility in describing information behavior. But even in the world of text, there is so much more than just the text itself: There is the typography, the kind of paper (or screen!), the print quality… All these factors contribute to the reading experience, even though we don’t often think about it. (Granted, the growing pervasiveness of e-readers in recent years has actually caused many more of us to consider this than otherwise would have.) Latham notes, for example, that “many people talk about the handling of the paper as part of their reading experience.”

What is the point of theorizing here? I think questions of person–document experience are important in today’s archive environment. As we rush to digitize everything, are there aspects of the physical experience that we are depriving future generations of? What can we learn from the study of information experience to hedge these losses? Where should we direct our efforts as we develop new technologies (e.g., high-density displays, haptic response)?

Religion and information technology

Religion has always depended on information technology. Vital to the longevity of a religion is getting new followers, and in order for that to happen, the sacred texts, beliefs and rituals need to be spread and passed down. Central to this process, historically speaking, are books. We’ve talked before about the sacred origin of our reverence for the written word.

Of course, there were also times when information technology and religion have butt heads. The Catholic Church, for example, was famous for this. In its earliest days, it was against writing entirely. When printing came around, the Church was delighted by the ease with which they could print letters of indulgence and thereby raise money for their projects, but they were likewise horrified by the ease with which the general public could spread heretical ideas (see The Protestant Reformation).

Today, we’re very comfortable with the concept of finding sacred texts in books. But what does the next wave of innovations in information technology have to offer?

Buddhists are one group that has been quick to adopt new technology. Joyce Morgan wrote a wonderful article on the Huffington Post about why this might be. Indeed, historically speaking, Buddhists have always been on the cutting edge. Buddhists in Japan and in China were the first people to adopt wood block printing on a large scale in order to mass produce and disseminate their sacred texts. That was a huge innovation in a predominantly oral world. And today, some Buddhist communities are taking advantage of the Web and podcasts more than practitioners of many other religions. ZenWest, for example, is a Zen community in Canada that cultivates an e-sangha, where Buddhists from all over the world can take part in a religious community—which is especially helpful for those who do not live near a physical community. On their website, newcomers to Zen can even take online orientation courses and join in discussions. They even have a podcast with regular lectures.

In the Great Courses audio series on the Sacred Texts of the World, Professor Grant Hardy poses this wonderful question:

With the advent of the technological revolution knwon as the Internet, is there some religion that might be able to harness its power to their own spiritual ends? Are there certain kinds of religious practices that may be better suited to the Web than to codices? In some cases, for example in Sikhism, it’s easier to find their sacred texts online than in printed form. And for traditions such as Hinduism, in which the chanting or the singing or scriptures and ritual performances might take precedence over solitary study, YouTube is a marvelous resource. I’m sure that the Internet will transform religion in future generations. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and how that affects different religious traditions, because one of the secrets to having a tradition that continues and expands is being able to take advantage of technological and also scholarly resources that come along.

Autocorrect does have a good side, doesn’t it?

Wired has recently published an interesting piece on the history of autocorrect. One important point the author brings up is that, though we seem to focus on the bad side of autocorrect, it certainly is an amazing achievement. That we often miss it probably has to do with the salience of the negative (over the positive), a phenomenon known as negativity bias. (Why can’t we be happy?) The author fleshes this particular case out a bit further:

Given how successful autocorrect is, how indispensable it has become, why do we stay so fixated on the errors? It’s not just because they represent unsolicited intrusions of nonsense into our glassy corporate memoranda. It goes beyond that. The possibility of linguistic communication is grounded in the fact of what some philosophers of language have called the principle of charity: The first step in a successful interpretation of an utterance is the belief that it somehow accords with the universe as we understand it. This means that we have a propensity to take a sort of ownership over even our errors, hoping for the possibility of meaning in even the most perverse string of letters. We feel honored to have a companion like autocorrect who trusts that, despite surface clumsiness or nonsense, inside us always smiles an articulate truth.

Here’s another snippet from the article I found particularly interesting:

A commenter on the Language Log blog recently mentioned hearing of an entire dialect in Asia based on phone cupertinos, where teens used the first suggestion from autocomplete instead of their chosen word, thus creating a slang that others couldn’t decode. (It’s similar to the Anglophone teenagers who, in a previous texting era, claimed to have replaced the term of approval cool with that of book because of happenstance T9 input priority.)