4. Swimming upstream

So far, I’ve (1) suggested that America’s defection from textual to streaming media is a shift in the culture that needs to be understood, (2) reviewed some recent statistical evidence of this defection, and (3) presented some anecdotes from my own experience that may also reflect the shift. In this post, I want to consider how the differences between textual and streaming media affect the uptake of information.

I’ll start by trying to answer a question posed by a reader yesterday: What’s wrong with moving your lips when you read? Nothing, of course. Reading aloud might indeed be a response to the beauty of a text. In my own case, though, I most often move my lips or read aloud when I’m having trouble. It’s a sign not of pleasure but that the process of reading has become effortful. A little effort won’t usually deter me, but an economist would point out that even small deterrents are significant. If distractions or a lack of practice have made reading more costly of effort for many people than it once was, they’ll be more likely to choose an alternative when they can. They’ll flip through Power Point slides instead of reading a 1500-word Wall Street Journal article, or turn on CNN instead of picking up the New York Times. It’s not reasonable to suppose that very many people take reading itself as a goal. Most people read with a motive—to be amused, to be brought to tears, to learn about the world. If they accomplish these aims by other means, what will they lose and what will they gain?

First, the absorption of certain kinds of information will be less efficient. Fluent readers can sift through the transcript of a television show in much less time than it takes to watch it. On the other hand, information about the demeanor, facial expression, and tone of voice of a person will be much richer in streaming media. A consumer of streamed media will probably pick up fewer legal details and may have a flattened sense of a story’s chronology, but he will learn more about the personality of the people pictured, whether those people are the subjects of the report or the presenters of it. Emotions are probably conveyed more vividly in streaming media.

The finer the grain, the more anomalies are visible, and because they acquire more detail, readers probably notice more of the small inconsistencies in reported stories than viewers of streamed media do. Their faculties of suspicion may be proportionally better developed.

I chose the word “streaming” because it highlights another difference: It’s much harder to replay at will a moment in a streamed transmission than it is to revisit a paragraph in a textual report. As you watch it, it trickles away. They key phrase here is “at will.” Some streamed moments get selected for frequent replaying, and these repetitions become overwhelming in their ubiquity. But an individual viewer cannot select them. To replay a moment not selected for repetition requires great effort—maybe even a trip to the Museum of Television & Radio. Some transmissions are available now on the internet, but even when they are, finding the moment that interests you is cumbersome. Faced with a film or television broadcast, a reporter takes notes—reduces it to text—even if he has it on tape or DVD. Otherwise he can’t work with it.

It is easy to compare two texts simultaneously. You just lay them beside each other. Not long ago, for example, the Times printed what Colin Powell told the U.N. about aluminum tubes early last year next to what we know about those tubes today. Also nearby on the page was a description of what Condoleezza Rice very likely learned about them in the weeks before Powell spoke. You don’t read such a presentation in any set order; your eye jumps from one text to another and back again, oscillating between them as many times as you need to in order to satisfy yourself of the nature of the contrasts. In a streaming media, you have no such luxury. You must listen to the disparate texts in sequence, and after the last has been read to you, you probably won’t be given a chance to hear the first one again. In other words, it is much more difficult in a streaming medium to present evidence that someone has contradicted himself or, for that matter, that any narrative contradicts another. If a contradiction is presented, you may decide to resolve it not by sorting through the competing claims but by recalling whom you trust.

Most conversations put a higher priority on solidarity between those speaking than on the sharing of facts not known to all speakers. But the differences between text and streaming probably shift the style of talk further toward solidarity, because facts are less likely to be available to speakers in much specificity. Conversations informed by streaming media are more likely to focus on interpretations than events, and you are less likely to have them with people with whom you suspect you will disagree, because the unpleasantness of dissent probably will not be offset by any gain in knowledge.

To sum up, a person who relies on text for his news acquires more verbal and legal detail about events and is likely to be more confident of his ability to judge between competing narratives. A person who relies on streamed media, by contrast, has access to more of the personal and emotional qualities in stories, but he experiences the stories in a sequence he cannot control, a loss which may impair his ability to judge how plausible they are.