See, we’ve got this problem.
We’ve got a bunch of conventions about the ways we read and write which don’t have as much to do with how we read and write as we thought they did.
We’ve got books and newspapers and magazines, and articles and stories, and bookstores and newsstands, and yes, blogs and databases and wikis and lifestreams, and they all start with the mechanisms of delivery rather than the mechanisms of attention.
Or at least anything like the fundamental mechanisms of attention.
If there are any. Because maybe there are and maybe there aren’t.
At any rate, it seems to be the case that these conventions are dependent upon context, so that they don’t necessarily translate if they get taken out of that context. Change the format or screen size, change how we encounter them in space, change our routines of how we pay (and get paid) for them or how we incorporate them into our day, and the whole game could change.
New media, new expectations.
Now, those expectations don’t come out of nowhere. They’re… a mix of different things, old and new.
(So if we’re reading a newspaper on a computer, a big part of our expectations will be our expectations of how we read and have read newspapers, and a big part will be our expectations of all the other things we do and have done on that computer. And those things vary by context, by generations, by culture, by idiosyncratic stuff that we can’t really account for.)
So maybe it isn’t fair to call them new expectations at all. They’re not brand-new. There’s still an inertial weight to them.
They’re remixed. Recycled. Restructured.
Here’s an analogy that comes up often. It’s said that iTunes helped shift the basic unit of commerce of music away from the single album (especially the compact disc) and towards the single track.
But, of course, the music single doesn’t come out of nowhere. CDs were always divided into tracks. So were cassettes and LPs (even though they didn’t really have any reason to be). Radio always played single tracks. So did music videos. And record companies still sold singles — not as many as in the 50s or 60s, but they did sell them and fans did collect them.
And when people started listening to music on their computers, making mix CDs and swapping tracks online, putting their virtual jukebox on shuffle, the single track was the unit of attention. This was a long time before people decided to try to sell them.
So it’s a restructuring of expectations rather than a wholesale reinvention of them.
Do reading and writing have similar inertial moments? Are there latent conventions, or combinations of conventions, borrowed either from reading and writing’s past, or how we’ve come to use these machines, or some combination of the two, that will emerge?
I think that’s what we have to try to figure out.