/A time of skim and scan

A time of skim and scan

From Shaman’s Rock
By Jim Poling Sr.

A very old guy with snow-white hair and snow-white beard fishes the ocean for weeks without catching anything. Finally, he catches a mighty marlin, but sharks eat it before he can get it to shore.

Tough luck. Stuff happens. Move on to the next story.

That’s a likely Internet simplification of Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea. A quick scan. No details. No context. No messages. No learning. The kind of thinned out, often inaccurate, stories we see on social media sites every day.

If you went to a library and read the book you’d discover the full story and its valuable messages. The main message being that life is a struggle with an inevitable end, but perseverance and dignity can help us through it.

Sadly, many of us don’t go to libraries or get our information through print sources. We scan and skim smartphones, tablets and PCs for news and information on which we base our opinions and decisions. Brief, incomplete, often manipulated stuff presented as fact.

The majority of people living in the developed world now have fingertip online access to just about all factual information that exists. Yet we are moving farther away from consuming complete, balanced, factually-based information needed to help solve the many difficult issues facing today’s societies.

Research has found that individuals instructed to find specific information online found it faster than others using printed encyclopedias. However, the online searchers were less able to recall the information accurately.

A New Zealand university study concluded back in 2014 that online reading has a negative impact on people’s cognition. The study, titled Is Google Making Us Stupid?, found that concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates were much lower when people read text online.

Research shows that the digital age also is reducing our attention spans. Some experts say the attention span of a learner now averages 20 minutes.

So, when we skim and scan online we go through more material, but comprehend it less than if we had read it on paper. That’s not good news considering that we face major issues that demand action supported by thoughtful and accurate information.

The move away from reading printed newspapers, magazines and books has happened astonishingly fast and is increasing. U.S. newspaper and periodical revenue has fallen 40 to 50 per cent in the past decade, and Canadian figures are believed to be similar.

A Canadian Book Consumer Study says19 percent of Canadians borrowed a book from a public library in 2021. Also, The Canadian Pediatric Society has said that while 20 percent of adolescents never read a book, almost 50 percent frequently read blogs. 

Print has tried to fight back by offering their products digitally, with little success. Many newspapers, for instance, are offering skim and scan headlines that encourage one- or two-minute reads that don’t come close to giving readers a full sense of what is happening.

Nothing is gained in bemoaning this change in society. We are living through a Digital Revolution, also being called the Third Industrial Revolution. Digital life online is here to stay, shrinking the importance of print.

The goal now should be to build the benefits of online reading while restricting the detriments. Young people especially need to learn how to avoid the negatives of online reading and increase concentration and absorption.

How can that be done? Good question but few solid answers.

There are suggestions like doing more online reading on a large screen, rather than a cellphone. Taking pencil and paper notes during online research is another suggestion.

The Internet is only 30 years old and there simply has not been enough research on how time spent on computers affects cognitive development, especially in children. More research is needed to find practical ways to ameliorate the detrimental impacts.

Libraries perhaps hold part of the answer. They are places where print and digital share space, offering the advantages of book learning and online learning.

Libraries also are great equalizers. Many people who can’t afford books or a digital devices get access to information, print or digital, with a library card.