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Technology and the lost art of reading comprehension

Technology has indeed become miraculous and immediately available. Maybe that's why so many of us are losing some important skills--like reading comprehension.

Technology.  The comedian Lewis CK does a funny bit about how lazy and entitled people have gotten when it comes to technology. He says people gripe about their smartphones if they don't get a signal immediately. He says, "Dude, it's a phone. In your pocket. It's a miracle! When I was a kid we had one phone and it had a rotary dial. You hated people who had zeroes in the phone numbers. Stop complaining!"

Technology has indeed become miraculous and immediately available. Maybe that's why so many of us are losing some important skills--like reading comprehension. People everywhere are now accustomed to getting their information in podcasts or image galleries, or in hieroglyphic text messages. The parts of our brains that look at and digest information in a written form (that doesn't include acronyms) are atrophying.

It's something the editors here at TechRepublic witness on a daily basis. It's why, with a blog titled "Ten free iPhone apps," you'll inevitably get someone posting in the discussion "How come you didn't list any Android apps?" Well, that would be in a blog called "Ten free ANDROID apps," now wouldn't it?

And I don't know why, but the people less likely to comprehend words in a blog are the ones most likely to attack it. People seem to be chomping at the bit to find something to disagree with so they don't bother with any perspective given by an article introduction. They read the title of the blog (that's if we're lucky--sometimes they just tee off from a discussion comment without bothering to read anything in the original source), then skip over the first paragraph that states that it is the personal opinion of the author only, and go ballistic over a few phrases they've chosen at random.

What's your opinion? Do we have collective Attention Deficit Disorder?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

45 comments
MissDorkness
MissDorkness

I don't think the lack of reading comprehension and kneejerk skimming reactions are anything new at all. We are just exposed to them in a different way. If somebody misread an op-ed piece I wrote in a newspaper back in the late 90's, they would have grumbled across the breakfast table to their cat, there's no way they would have taken the time to write a letter to the editor, asking them to forward the comment on to me. Their pervasive laziness would likely have prevented that. Now I write a blog post and this uncomprehending reader can immediately grumble in my comments section. I was unaware of the first guy, the second guy lands straight in my inbox. ~shrugs~ Anyone who has gone through school and been forced to work on group projects also knows about reading incomprehension, when one segment of the group insists their method or answer is correct, due to their lack of attending the details in the instructions.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Over the last five decades I've read more and more, starting with reading for rntertainment as a young adult and then having to switch to more comprehensive reading of technical manuals. This has now come full circle in the last fifteen years back to reading for pleasure. I now read a book a week, either paperback, paperbound or hardbound. My library is huge, now over 1,000 hardbound. The paperbacks and paperbound books get passed around among friends and eventually find their way to the flea market. The hardbound volumes get my special label inside the cover and I ask those who borrow and read to sign their names so they know they've read it and I can also track the type and authors they like best. Mostly techno-thrillers with some sci-fi from the major authors. I still have to switch gears when it comes to tech manuals and due to advancing age have had to take notes on important procedures lest I ave to dig through the manual again. Comprehension will always be foremost even when just reading for pleasure.

jahfrey
jahfrey

Since the mid-80's nerds have become the new cool. Nerds have reshaped our society by inventing cool stuff. We are now a high tech-driven, engineer-influenced society. I'm 55. I've got degrees in English and History. I've worked in IT for 20 years, mostly as a tech writer and trainer. What I think has happened is that with the rise and dominance of nerd culture, we've abandoned being smart in anything but math and software. With little exception the intelligent people I work with are completely unsophisticated culturally, and incapable of critical thinking on anything but software or engineering. I'd wager many software types view reading more than 140 characters as a waste of time. The result is no depth of thought, and a mediocre, gadget driven, thoughtless culture. Our entertainment and politics reflects this. When the majority of the IT people think the latest comic book or toy movie is the height of culture, we are in trouble. In my group, everyone thinks Transformers is the movie to see, or whatever crap is out right now. A movie by a sophisticated director, such as Kurosawa, Kubrick, Bergman ,is considered boring. I recently returned from a trip to Europe. While there I attended a stunning retrospective of the careers of Matisse and Picasso. I also attended a Jean Luc Godard film fest. When I got back to work and reported this around the lunch table to highly paid, college educated software engineers, all I got was crickets for a few beats. Then the conversation shifted to the latest ridiculous gadget or stupid Spiderman movie. Matisse who? Godard? Did he make an action character film? This is what you get when engineers run society. Great devices, lousy culture. And lack of reading comprehension. I long for the day the nerds demise again. Long live the right brain!

jkameleon
jkameleon

we have collective Attention Deficit Disorder. It's the only way of coping with the amount of data we are bombarded with.

WesInfo1
WesInfo1

Yes! It's similar to the problem of people not reading the entire email or wanting their news in sound bites rather than a report that might increase understanding understanding. phnx51

leslie
leslie

Loved this comment thread. Very interesting and entertaining. To sum it up, as Blaise Pascal roughly stated..."I would have written a shorter letter if only I had the time." (paraphrased) As a society we have become overly conditioned to expecting "immediate" whether it be through absorbing content we are reading, the number of times we have to click to get to something, the lack of connectivity, or the quickness by which we complete a task. It has led us to a position where multi-tasking is the norm and as a result our productivity has decreased. There is roughly a 20% efficiency loss when you context switch. The "immediacy" we seek is killing our success rate and quality of delivery. Want more focus? Try out the Pomodoro Technique. (they are a type of tomato)

rhawk12
rhawk12

Another reason for the decline is that many young people become bilingual at about age 12 when they start using Twitter as their main means of conducting relationships. It seems quite natural for them to limit a paragraph to less than 100 characters using 'words' of less than 5 characters. Not only does it dumb down grammar skills but it also dumbs down relationship skills. Some public figures claim to have thousands of 'friends' they have never met, and find it quite normal to tell them all what they had for breakfast and when they go to the toilet. I'm not sure if it's them or their thousands of friends I feel sorrier for. The real concern is not a breakdown in comprehension but a breakdown in healthy relationships with [b]real[/b] friends.

SpiritualMadMan
SpiritualMadMan

I work for a Government Agency. Software Documents are written all the time to a schema written by someone who doesn't have a clue as to what a programmer whose never see nthe software product needs to maintain it or even use it. So, I am not so sure that reading comprehension is the only problem. Granted the education system has dumbed down the average user to the point where pretty picture point/touch and click are the rule not the norm. But, good technical writers who are enabled instead of hamstrung are also needed. Every piece of software I wrote also has a "second" guide. :) It may not be "official". But, it is readable and useable.

Professor8
Professor8

"That’s why, with a blog titled 'Ten free iPhone apps', you’ll inevitably get someone posting in the discussion 'How come you didn’t list any Android apps?' Well, that would be in a blog called 'Ten free ANDROID apps', now wouldn’t it?" And you seem to need a more explicit hint: You really should also write and publish an article called "10 free Android apps".

StevenDDeacon
StevenDDeacon

Attention Deficit Disorder is perpetuated by the society we live in. We live in a society where so much is happening and demanding of our individual attention both professionally and domestically that we fall into the trap of believing the only way we can cope is to multitask. The conscious and subconscious minds must find some sort of protection from the onslaught of stimuli. Therefore the mind seeks a diversion or block from that stimuli to be able to process the data from our five senses and then to store, categorize, and relate that data into relevant information. Some of the most common symptoms of this diversion is voracious text messaging of inane information between multiple parties and making and taking frivolous personal phone calls to escape from the inundation of data through our senses. This allows the conscious mind to escape from the barrage of stimuli while the subconscious mind tries to catch up with the demands of cataloging all the data captured from our surrounding environment. The best escape from this insanity is solitude. Taking the time for self-reflective meditation or to immerse oneself in the introspective thought of the natural world rather than the harsh realities of our society. Perhaps the problem is not that we don't read but that we do not take the time to truly relate to and comprehend what we do read.

barrynovak5
barrynovak5

I loved the response to "Ten free iPhone apps" complaining about no Android apps. You should have a "Top 10 Totally Misunderstood Blog Responses Showing Lack of Reading Comprehension" (let the TechRublic editor find a shorter title). That would be a hoot!

ajeskin
ajeskin

Bad writing and bad design are often the culprits. Readers won't "get" WHAT you say if they're too distracted by HOW you say it. 1. Make your point right away. Don't bury it in overblown text. 2. Get rid of long words, jargon, cliches, and buzzwords. 3. Limit the number of fonts and colors. Make them easy on the eyes. 4. Draw attention with good headlines, sub-heads, call-outs, and bulleted lists. 5. Give text and images plenty of space to "breathe." 6. Make sure all images are sharp, consistent, and meaningful. 7. Limit the use of special effects, "boxes," video, and sound. Most readers are "skimmers and glancers." Many are "texters and Tweeters," too. Don't make them work too hard to understand your message.

stevec
stevec

... short blog posts. It used to be that a writer would go into some depth on a subject, do some research and write to a specific article length. Now one can just dash off a couple of quick paragraphs and that passes for an "article."

barb905
barb905

I try to find articles to read on the internet and all too often can only find the information as a video. Or the video is embedded in the article and the entire narration and conversation is transcribed underneath. I've been reading since I was three - that's 47 years - so the assumption that I require the grownup equivalent of "picture books" to understand the information is annoying and one more shortcut for people who are neither as busy nor intelligent as they like to think.

OurITLady
OurITLady

When I leave the office for more than a day or so I've started setting my voicemail box so that it will not accept messages. This is because even though I changed the message to clearly state that I'm out for a week (or whatever period) I used to return to several messages from the same person who was apparently getting increasingly frustrated that I hadn't returned their call. After that happened three or four times (different people, different vacations/training) I realised they either just weren't listening or weren't processing the recording that said I would have no access to voicemail during that time. I'm not sure whether comprehension skills are declining in general or whether it's a symptom of the "now" society that we seem to live in, but it does seem that people only hear/read what they want to - or has it always been that way and I just notice more these days?

andrew232006
andrew232006

I am almost constantly reading. The internet has provided endless amounts of interesting reading material. Although it is usually in much smaller chunks than traditional books. And I sometimes wonder if my attention has diminished making it more difficult to sit down and read an actual book. But I think overall people are reading a lot more. And I think people who normally would never pick up a book after high school are online reading.

foss.paul
foss.paul

I still like to read proper language. Even read books, but I do agree that the much younger generation is lazy to read and write. I am sometimes amazed to see what they text me on my mobile. Moto: text less but write more.

AndreaN140
AndreaN140

It's the same with emails I will always endeavour to present no more than two paragraphs in an email - preferably one. My experience tells me that anything in the second paragraph is unlikely to be read and a third paragraph? Forget it! If I have to run to two or more paragraphs I put the most critical information up front and then expect to spend time responding to questions that have already been answered in the original communication, but further down the page. I don't even bother to point out the fact - it's just the way it is these days.

bkindle
bkindle

Good article. Maybe it's that technology had matured faster than the human brain has. Why would you say "Ten Free ..... " instead of "10 Free ....." ? ;)

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

Sheesh! A "tech" site...you throw out iPhone and Android! Hehe...it must be Wednesday!! ;)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

:D But if I had read it, I would have agreed with it. You know, if I had read it. Which I didn't. Read it, that is. Or agree with it. Either one. But I would have.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

think it is. There are a LOT of on-line story sites and they're all doing well, as are sales of e-books. As an author who does a lot of writing and supplies the end result as a print ready pdf for a printed book or sale as a pdf file, and often also provides a version to be read in html, I AM very worried about the way the e-book industry is going with a lot of the books they provide for reading via iPad, Kindle, Nook, and tablets. The issue I see there is a variety of mixed formats and NONE of them retain any reasonable presentation format to make them look even remotely like a book or something that can easily read on-line. It's because of this I create pdf files for e-books only, despite one of my publishers allowing another publisher create some books as mobi and nook files. The fact my books are available on-line and thousands of copies have been downloaded and read, and all up we are talking of thousands of millions of copies by the time you add in all the authors whose books are available on-line, means that reading comprehension can still be retained, but being able to read a sensibly laid out book on-line is damned hard due to the format fight between nook / kindle / iPad / etc all providing horrid presentations. Edit to add - there is also a difference between being able to retain reading comprehension and those not interested in doing so at all - think of those who love leet and txtng.

Jeff7181
Jeff7181

"What’s your opinion? Do we have collective Attention Deficit Disorder?" Not clinically, no. However, people often call a lack of interest or desire to pay attention ADD now days. So in the modern definition (aka. pop culture definition) yes, society as a whole has ADD. My opinion is that, for some time now, children are being taught in public schools that it's OK to be stupid. Everyone gets the same award whether they win or lose... if they're allowed to win or lose and it's not one of those places where keeping score is taboo. Curriculum's are being dumbed down to meet the lowest common denominator and what would have been considered an average student before are now in advanced placement classes. Many parents shed responsibility for raising their children and blame their kids' ignorance on the schools, which is actually partially correct as I've met some pretty stupid teachers. You'll catch more flack for correcting someone's use of their, there or they're on Facebook than if you're the one using them incorrectly. It's never been "cool" to be smart. I get that. But when did it become OK to be average, or even below average? Why should anyone be OK with being average? Shouldn't you strive to be more? That's what my kids will be taught... not to settle for average when they're capable of so much more if they put in the effort. As for why people on the Internet look for something to disagree with... it's the perceived anonymity that the Internet provides as described by this image: http://tctechcrunch2011.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/shitcock.jpg I think it also speaks to the general state of mind of society. We've become pessimistic as a whole. I blame mainstream media for that. They thrive on reporting horror stories and tragedies. A good 75% of the evening news is negative, but I have to believe that there is more positive in the world than negative as we haven't yet plummeted into another world war in spite of what CNN and other mainstream media would have you believe.

ocwebmaster
ocwebmaster

In my opinion Toni you hit the proverbial nail on the head. People today seem to be able to read approximately 140 characters give or take a few. I am always astonished at some of the comments I read here and on other blogs that you can tell the commenter has never read the original post. I hope you and the rest of the TechRepublic team keep publishing worthwhile content for us and don't let the morons amongst us stop you.

bamabryant
bamabryant

This why it helps to keep up real reading as a practice. I have so much electronic reading in my life, I refuse to read magazines or books electronically. Plus, actual books and magazines are a bonus when flying because I can enjoy my reading during takeoff and landing. I think your view is spot on.

jahfrey
jahfrey

I forgot to rag on the stupid, stupid business school graduates who don't read or learn in depth because there is no profit in it. Between techies and business types, we've got a screwed up political system and a lousy, unrewarding culture. I know I may seem to be pinning all the blame on those two groups, but those are the groups that have dominated the last 40 years. And we have the screwed up society to prove it. Most of my liberal arts friends work in tech or business because they have to. One other small rant is the forgetting of history, again viewed as "boring" by techies. I can't count how many times some idiot software person has told me they are "libertarian", which they poorly understand, and all the while these non-unionized dorks have no idea why they have weekends off, health care, 8 hour days, holidays off, and so on. Why do they not know this? Because Batman is more interesting than knowing the recent history of labor, history their parents and grandparents created and lived through. Most of them think their job setup "was always like that". Sheesh.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

he was dyslexic and had problems with reading anything, so he only ever read the first page of the summary of any report given him - one result was Singapore where all he saw was the bit about it being impregnable from the sea, but missed the bit on the next page about being very vulnerable to a land based attack. Many thousand taken prisoner and tortured etc. Which just shows the need to read an understand it all, and not to cut the report short to meet space.

jahfrey
jahfrey

Pomodoro is ALL tomatoes, not just a type. It's the Italian word for tomato! You do quote Pascal, which is a sign of some cultural depth, but your last sentence kind of proves the point here. Sorry...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Ten Most Idiotic Responses to a TR Blog (Exclude anything from BALTHOR.)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

simply cannot be communicated in words of one syllable.

eScoop
eScoop

With all the emphasis on removing offending "long words" that are "hard", putting in idiot free bullet points, "bold" words and headings with lots of breezy space, aren't we doing stupidity by natural selectiion? Most of what we read these days does in fact seem way too easy on the eyes. As such, we encourage the texters and Tweeters and don't reward those who can actually peice together the occasionaly brilliant logic stream whose only sin was that it used "big words" and ran on to the unforgivable length of 150 characters.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

to the message and often leave a message when they've got a wrong number that's gone to voicemail. When people finally contact me an abuse me about not returning their call, they get very red faced when I remind them I do NOT use voicemail, thus they had a wrong number. When I use an answering machine now I have it set to refuse message and it tells them to send me an email. For me, my mobile phone it to be able to speak to me, if I don't answer it, I don't want the call at this moment - end of story. edit to add - one down side of answering machines and voicemail is people believe once they leave a message their job to contact you is all over, especially when they got the wrong number. Well, you want to talk to me, you got to get a hold of me while I'm awake and answering the phone.

Professor8
Professor8

"How dare you not be immediately accessible?!", seems to be their attitude. Telephone calls are an invasion of private space and time (and iPhones and iPads triply so)... and the last time anyone I knew was involved in any way in a genuine emergency that called for immediate communication -- at home or work -- well, It's been years.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

But the Number who read a lot and Comprehend very little to nothing. It's still no good reading if you don't really understand what it is you are reading. Col

Professor8
Professor8

"with [e-mail messages] I will always endeavour to present no more than two paragraphs in an [e-mail message]" I don't get this. How can you list your data and build a multi-step line of reasoning in a mere 2 paragraphs? How can you respond to each of the errors and mis-representations in an article in fewer than twice as many significant paragraphs as there were in the article (i.e. erroneous assertion, refutation, assertion, refutation...)? Of course, if the first paragraph is the basis for all the rest and you totally refute that, it's often unnecessary to address the fluff. Then again, most B-school bozo execs can't cope with more than 3 extremely watered-down bullet points. If they had to actually look at data from multiple sources, plus the source citations, descriptions of the analysis, their tiny little brains would explode.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I resend the original message, with the relevant information bolded, underlined, and in a different color and larger font.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

and probably before. When society chooses idiots for heroes...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

No true "nerd" would ever choose to limit the information available to another person, which pretty much removes the foundation from your "blame the nerds" theory. People are a product of their culture and education. Our American culture is obsessed with money and profit. The arts have been removed from our education system by those who care more about money than mankind, so today's (and yesterday's) children are not exposed to art, music, and literature outside the currently popular.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

" Sometimes it takes me three pages to say, 'Hello'..."

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You put all that in the attached PowerPoint file :D