Again, it seems to me that the increasing focus on the neurological aspects of reading leads researchers and cultural critics to fetishize the act of reading itself rather than to focus on the question of what this reading is for. For instance, discourse producers have always faced the question of what to skim and what to read deeply. If the rise of the Web has increased the magnitude of this problem for them, then has their output (journalistic and scholarly articles, reports, essays, etc.) significantly diminished in quality? Even though this question is too broad to be answered in any meaningful way, it could be broken up into smaller, more empirically tractable parts (say, by looking at only journalistic output or the scholarly output of historians). For lay-people, the research questions are even harder to frame. If there is a shift in leisure reading from a deep-reading of long-form books to a depth-focused reading of short-form web-pieces, what are its implications exactly? Concerns that this may make us less “thoughtful” are too broad and frankly, too elitist, to mean much. A better research question could be: does this shift from long-form books to more short-form web content focusing on politics and current affairs make us more politically conscious? Cass Sunstein and others have speculated that the internet with its tendency to exacerbate homophily (i.e. the tendency of people to talk to people who are similar to them in some respects) may increase the political polarization of the electorate. However, empirical work on this topic is still inconclusive. We need to develop further research questions on similar lines rather than simply thinking about deep reading/skimming dichotomy in isolation.
This is from the blog of Shreeharsh Kelkar, a grad student at MIT, who is both a cognitive scientist and someone skeptical about the way people (especially amateurs) use cognitive science to “explain” complex social phenomena and forms of behavior — like reading. I am very much looking forward to where he takes these thoughts.