We (Aaron Miller and Travis Alber) just contributed a chapter to Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto – Collections from the Bleeding Edge of Publishing. The digital book is being released by O’Reilly in three parts. Our chapter, which appears in Part 2, comes out today!
You can buy a digital copy now, and get an update when the rest is released. You can also check it out and discuss the book in-progress on Hugh McGuire’s site, Pressbooks, right now. The entire book (including a print version) comes out later this Spring.
Our chapter “Above the Silos, Reading in the Age of Mechanical Barriers” is part philosophy, part social reading, part internet history, and part technology. We think it’s a good blend of what we built, what we learned about social reading, and where it’s headed next.
Here’s an excerpt from the chapter introduction.
…We think there is a very simple but profound answer to the question of why people read books: people read books to make connections. This can be considered at a cognitive level, through simple, repetitive pattern recognition, or at a conceptual, spiritual level. Either way, the basic work of the reader’s mind is to make connections, and the basic mode of higher thought is to exist both in and out of the physical world for a bit, drawing lines between the two.
In any written work, there is a cognitive process of connection-making which makes up the act of reading itself: glyphs form letters, letters connect into words, words into phrases and sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into a sense of semantic completion. As we read, we progress through linear rhythms of pattern recognition even as we gain higher understanding of an author’s argument, a character’s motivation, or a historical event. By connecting very small patterns together into larger ones, we connect concepts back to the real world around us, to real people and places. The pattern-recognition part can be thought of as a linear progression, necessary grunt-work for the brain to get at the concepts. However, the tangential connections we make are the ones that matter to us — and they’re the reward which is so hard to get to for those who have trouble with the mechanical work of processing the words and sentences. We may even make many unintended connections along the way, and sometimes it’s those surprises that keep us going. From a description of a road on a summer day, we might recall a bike ride from our youth. From a listing of facts about milk, we might be startled by a sudden craving for ice cream. Perhaps during an introspective passage about spirituality, we look up from the page to see our future spouse for the first time.
A book and its patterns, and the place we sit reading it, and the person we fall in love with, can become forever tied together. It is at this level that reading interests and addicts us. We think of it as a solitary act, but it’s often the connections we make back to the real world that make it so rewarding. These connections are sometimes even more interesting when made across larger gulfs. Fake worlds, or extinct ones, can interest us more than the one we live in. We’re fascinated by fictional characters when they mimic or reflect real personalities. Even the most outlandish science fiction can be interesting in this way, because of the allegory, or the grand sense of scale that crisply dramatizes contemporary issues, or the parallels we can make between even the most alien worlds and our own. It’s these very large, meaningful connections that are the ultimate goal of reading. It’s the understanding we gain, or at least feel we gain, about the world we live in, and the people we share it with, that are the deepest connections we make when we read. In that sense, it is entirely social.