Last & Least
“The print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries.” -- Robert Coover, “The End of Books”
Dr Binoy Barman
INFORMATION technology has changed people's life style in various ways. It has given rise to such cultures as cyber café, chatting, gaming and blogging. Many people now remain glued to computer screen and stride along the virtual world in search of information and fun. Just with a click of mouse they reach a new view, and they go on clicking without any boredom. People whose occupation or preoccupation is reading find it much more intriguing. They read on the screen online, and following links, jump from one page to another, like grasshoppers. They do not need to turn over pages with their fingers but only click.
Reading online texts, bound by interlocking hyperlinks, has been called 'hyper-reading' in recent times. It is a new phenomenon based on computer technology supported by internet. The readers access the virtual materials spread around World Wide Web as they like. It is just like magic. The whole library in there and the readers choose to read any book or journal or anything else with a click. One need not visit the library physically and pick up the book from the rack to read. For hyper-reading, one just has to know the URL or the website address, with a valid entry authorisation for it. And one can read day and night as there is no closure of the library.
Now the question arises: is hyper-reading different from paper-based reading at all? If it is different, then, to what extent and in what respects? We can explore the issue a bit.
One might notice that both types of reading require visual acuity but hyper-reading is less tactile than paper-based reading. What is meant by this is that, for paper-based reading, one has to touch the book and turn over the pages with his/her fingers while hyper-reading is devoid of this feature. The pages in digital format have no physical existence and so cannot be touched. Its existence is only virtual, made up of electric signals. That's why paper-based reading is sometimes referred to as 'hard reading' and hyper-reading as 'soft reading'. The two are not disconnected, however. Paper print is the 'hard copy' of the digitized item known as 'soft copy', in common parlance.
Our reading materials in print are rather symmetrical, in the sense that pages in books or magazines are cut and bound in equal size in a volume. The matter is different in web publication. Here the pages are unequal in length. For example, a collection of poetry may have fifty pages, each containing one poem, be it short or long, in web version. But in print, usually, due to paper size constraint, a long poem may stretch over several pages and several short poems may be placed on one page. Moreover, a website starts with a front page, with internal links, which is called home page. It may be compared with cover page in print though it is very dissimilar in look and purpose.
Hyper-reading may be more attractive than paper-based reading, in fact. The website designers may use pictures, audio and video along with the text to make reading more exciting. It may be illustrated in superb ways, with captivating background.
Even the texts may be animated and coloured in numerous shades, which are capable of making special appeal to reader's fancy. This is the reason why hyper-reading is being more popular with the children in particular. They read on computer besides preparing assignments with its aid, amid great fun.
Paper-based reading is linear. That is, one starts reading and goes through the pages turning over sequentially. But this linearity is broken in hyper-reading. Linear narrative is deconstructed to a non-linear and non-sequential pattern. In hyper-environment, multiple pages of a volume are structured through branching and embedding, activated by direct click connections. A page on a website is connected with other web pages with hyperlinks, allowing readers to move to and fro. Hyperlinks are the holes through which the readers slip into other domains. It is not possible in traditional paper-based reading, in which one has to collect another book, travelling to library, suffering a lot of hazards. In this respect, paper-based reading is 'exclusive' while hyper-reading is 'inclusive'. The hyperlinks give readers a great advantage of instant textual connectivity.
However, hyperlinks may sometimes be distracting. Jumping from one page to another is an endless process. It is just like roaming in the forest of information where it is easy to lose one's way. As one walks deep into the forest, one may find it difficult to return to right where he started. Much time and energy are spent in peripheral concerns and the core concern is forgotten. Ultimately hyper-reading becomes bumpy, with fragmented concentration. The lanes and by-lanes of hyperlinks may lead to the blind alley or to undesired spot, far away from home. That is why hypertext is sometimes mockingly called 'electronic labyrinth'. A heavily linked text really defies reader's purpose. The surfing of web pages may make reading discursive and the reader shallow.
There are other hazards of hyper-reading as well. Hyper-reading sails smooth as long as the machinery and mechanism are all right. Reading may be disrupted if there is any malfunction from technical side. Computer hardware, software, internet connection and websites -- all should be in proper order. The reader will have to acquire some technical knowledge, beyond knowledge of alphabet, to enjoy this type of reading. There are risks too. Computer or server may crash. It is something like unintentional loss of books coming in the form of damage by worms or damping by water. Hyper-reading is less secure. Once virtual data is lost it is lost for ever and can hardly be retrieved. For paper-based reading, one may collect another copy of book from the market, which may not be possible in case of hyper-reading.
A question is vital with respect to the changing reading mode of people. What effect does it have on the psychology of the reader? Does the human brain also change with the new reading mode? Does it affect the information processing system in brain and the perceptual capacity of the technology user? This is a fertile field of research for the cognitive psychologists of present and future times.
It is apparently true that the pragmatics of reading -- the speed of our reading, when we pause, how long we can concentrate, how often we skip over material or jump back and reread, and so forth -- take a different shape in hyper-reading, and this difference must have an effect on the ways that we interpret, understand and remember what we read. Links are often made between very dissimilar things, which may surprise readers. The heterogeneity of linked texts affects the normal sense of causality. The syntax and semantics is also different in a hypertextual setting, which has a clear bearing on the cognitive faculty of humans.
The reading on the internet is interesting. Hyper-reading is undoubtedly a new mode of reading, having many advantages over traditional paper-based reading. The new brand of reader is a 'hyper-reader', who appears smarter than 'paper-bound reader'. With the spread of technology, the paper-based readers will gradually be transformed into hyper-readers. Hyper-reader psychology, being different from that of paper-reader, demands a different educational environment. They need different curriculum and pedagogy. It will ultimately usher in massive educational reforms in the days to come. The change is inevitable. The twenty-first century is for technology-based education, endorsing a virtual reading culture, brought about by HTML revolution.
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)