Technology changes reading

By bringing authorship to the masses, digital media is broadening the very nature of reading and writing, a panel of authors and professors agreed Wednesday.

Before an audience of about 70, the panelists — author Steven Johnson, researcher Danah Boyd, Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin and writer Julian Dibbell ’86 — discussed the ways in which everyday people use technology to publish their ideas and opinions. While participants praised technology for expanding the definition of literacy, they cautioned that online communities can occasionally become dangerous.

The new age of digital technology builds on the continuous evolution of the written word, said Dibbell, the author of “Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot” and a contributing editor at Wired magazine.

“Really, the first digital technology was writing itself,” Dibbell said. “This is a phase shift in a very long evolution of digital technology, beginning with writing.”

One of the most notable outcomes of this evolution is that people are no longer reading in a linear manner, Johnson said. Rather, readers skip from link to link on the Internet.

The panel was held to mark the launch of Johnson’s collection of essays, “The Best Technology Writing 2009,” many of which examine the ways in which the Internet has changed everyday life. The collection does not aim to conjecture about the future of technology but instead focuses on the uses of digital media in practice in today’s world.

One essay in the collection examines the phenomenon of young Japanese women writing entire novels on their cell phones, Dibbell said. Unlike typical Japanese text, which runs vertically, these novels are written horizontally in order to accommodate the cell phone’s screen, and print reproductions are similarly formatted.

The result is a generation of Japanese women learning to read in a different literary system from the cultural norm, a shift brought about by technology, Dibbell said.

“They’ve gone horizontal on us!” Dibbell quipped.

The advent of digital media makes authors more accessible to their readers via blogs and e-mail, said Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England.

“Online media is a reminder that the author is not dead,” Boyd said. “Nothing is finished.”

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