Friday, July 26, 2013

Reading in the Digital Age

I've been using the internet since about 1994. Since that time, I've noticed a gradual transition in my choices and manner of reading. I've found that with use of the internet, the activity of reading has been transformed from a rather passive activity to something more active.

I used to read lots of books before the dawn of the digital age. Many of you may not remember a time when there was no web. But I remember those days well. The days of pagers, pay phones and when phones had a dial on them. You know, where you put your finger in a dial for the number you want and turn the dial. Yeah, those days.

My first modem connected to my Amiga 500 and GEnie. I also dialed into a number of BBSs. That's Bulletin Board System for those who don't remember. Back then, I played a lot of interactive games with characters represented by ANSI text. That is where the wedge between me and books started. The games were addictive and time consuming. Chatting and gaming were relative constants for a number of years back then.

I didn't discover the web until I got an Apple Powerbook. Back then, the web was slow, still very much in its infancy. The World Wide Web was sometimes referred to as the World Wide Wait. But as I began to do research on Alta Vista, I slowly stopped reading books on a regular basis. I discovered other sources of information, sources that tended to stay fresh, up to date. I rather like that compared to the static nature of books.

Eventually, I succumbed (for about 10 years) to the Microsoft monopoly and bought a Windows laptop. I also bought a copy of Netscape to browse the web, not really understanding that I could use Internet Explorer for free. Back then, in some ways, computers were still confusing for me, but friends still asked me for help. I even coded my own web page and had a little fun with that.

I still read books, but not nearly as often as before. I clung to magazines for quite some time, namely, Car and Driver. God I loved that magazine. They made even boring cars interesting to read about.

But more and more, I was seeing news on the internet. I found blogs. I discovered that there were news sites that catered to my interests in science, technology and politics. At some point, I even dropped my subscription to Car and Driver because I spent so much time on the internet, that I didn't even have time for a magazine. This was a big change because I used to read every article in Car and Driver with each issue. Even if the subject was boring, I read it because their prose gave me inspiration to write.

As I grew a bit older, I noticed that reading books became a bit more difficult. I got bifocals. As an avid internet reader, I found ways to zoom the text, to make it bigger. That makes reading on a screen easier for me than reading on paper. Paper doesn't zoom like the humble web browser can.

Then there is the PDF. With PDF files, I can easily zoom the text or image in the electronic document in ways that I could not with paper. I can download entire books in PDFs. I gotta say that PDFs opened a whole new world of documents to me. I remember downloading my first forms from the IRS and just being amazed at the clarity of the document. But what I really loved about PDFs, is that no matter what operating system I'm on, PDFs will always print the same. Always.

The internet is fresh, constantly updated, a work in progress, documenting the constantly evolving collective consciousness of the human race. It is, in a manner of speaking, the greatest collection of information ever assembled by humans.

The internet is also a sort of river. I put a post on Twitter, and it goes down the river, like a bottle with a message in it. But everyone that follows me can see the bottle at the same time. On Facebook the experience is much the same. I post something and down it goes as posts from other people appear. Google+ also bears much the same experience, but with more scientists and geeks. They are all streams of consciousness for humanity.

It has been a fascinating ride, and I hope it continues, but I don't expect any part of it to remain the same for very long. 
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