whether the words are on a horizontal surface or a vertical one? And as for so-called “multimedia,” movies have been around for over a century and still pictures since the caveman. Do we really care what kind of screen we view them on?
But it’s not that simple. The computer is not a book, neither is it a library, an art gallery, or a movie theater. And reading on a computer is fundamentally different from reading a book, or a newspaper, or a scholarly article. On a computer, text tends to come in small snippets (for a reason that is still unclear, no one wants to read much more than one screen at a time) connected to each other by hyperlinks created by the author. Sometimes the semantics behind those links is obvious, sometimes it is obscure— and sometimes the link leads to a different Website altogether, which may have been created for a slightly different purpose and audience. To “read” a computer, students need to learn how to follow hypertext links without getting lost or forgetting what their original intent was; they need to master a certain form of nonlinear thinking.
The plethora of unfiltered information available on the Web also places increased emphasis on students’ ability to evaluate that information, to identify disinformation and propaganda, and to check sources for consistency and coherence. In one of the more useful neologisms of this age of the search engine, our students need to learn how to Google. This knowledge involves much more than typing a key word or phrase and then browsing the first 10,000th of 1 percent of the resulting hits. Students must learn how to make sense of all that information, how to place it in context, connect it with their existing knowledge, and run it past an internal censor before accepting it.
There is an interesting parallel between the invention of printing and the appearance of the modern search engine. Even as printed books increased the importance of reading, they were devaluing another, more ancient, skill: that of memorization. Today, we find it remarkable that before the 16th century so many educated people were able to memorize the Bible or the complete works of Cicero. The “literature” of authors such as Homer depended on such prodigious feats of memory, the art of which has now been abandoned in favor of techniques for rapidly locating information in books. By automating the search process and making it vastly more powerful, Google is making such “librarian skills” obsolete while simultaneously raising concerns about what new knowledge students will need if they are to manage their new-found powers wisely.