Book Review: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf
Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
by Maryanne Wolf
Harper, 2018

I picked up this book expecting an exploration of the neuroscience and physiology of the effects of reading on the brain, and how reading in print and digital formats differ. I got that, and so much more.

Wolf presents a balanced account of the different effects of different mediums, both negative and positive, and how we might use this knowledge to do better for our children and ourselves. It’s a welcome perspective.

It’s also a deeply humanist and moral meditation of the capacities of the human mind and the importance of storytelling. It’s a clarion call to fulfill the responsibility we all bear toward our fellow human beings and to the future. This is a work of tremendous empathy and passion.

It may well be one of the most important works of our age.

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Digital Technology: It’s Just a Tool

Let’s not make more of it than it is.

 

This is the second of my point / counterpoint posts. Read the first post here.

 

When we think about digital illiteracy, we picture people who lack familiarity or skill with technology, people who lack knowledge or comfort with digital information resources. We think about luddites—some willing, some unwilling.

But there’s a kind of digital illiteracy that exists at the other end of the spectrum: technolust. People who adopt new technologies and digital resources too enthusiastically.

An uncritical acceptance of digital technology fails to understand it in a way as profound as any luddite.

Digital technology provides us with tools. A proper understanding of our tools doesn’t just mean knowing what they can do—it also means knowing what they can’t do, and what we shouldn’t try to make them do.

Understanding our tools means knowing their limitations as well as their strengths.

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Luddite Librarians

Digital technology is part of our job now, whether we like it or not.

 

This post is the first of two that I plan to present as a point / counterpoint kind of thing. Read the second post here.

 

Every library, it seems, has a handful of staff members who just won’t get onboard with new technology and new digital services. Some of them even make it a point of pride—they see themselves as stalwarts, holdouts against unnecessary change.

Some say they’re too set in their ways and technology changes too fast to keep up with it. Some flat out don’t trust new technology or digital information resources.

As a profession, we grimace and shrug and resign ourselves to the fact that some of our coworkers are going to be like that.

But consider it from a different angle:

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Teaching Digital Literacy

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over these past few weeks thinking about digital literacy. I try to compare it to reading and language literacy.

The comparison is illustrative.

Consider language literacy:

  • It takes years to learn and master a language.
  • Immersion is universally recognized as the best way to learn a language.
  • The more words and phrases you’re exposed to, the more you’ll learn.
  • You have to start simple and work your way up to the complicated stuff over time.

Consider reading literacy:

  • It takes years to learn how to read.
  • Constant exposure to reading is the best way to learn—being read to, reading on your own.
  • The more you see other people in your daily life reading, the more likely you are to make reading a habit for yourself and the greater your comfort level with reading will be.
  • You have to start simple and work your way up to the complicated stuff over time.

“Years to learn,” “immersion,” “exposure,” “work your way up”—developing literacy is a long process that needs to be a part of your daily life. Literacy involves more than just the mechanical tasks of speaking and reading—it requires habit and a level of comfort.

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The Unnatural Phenomenon of Using a Mouse

My first real encounter with a usability challenge in a digital environment happened when I worked as a file clerk in a medical records office. We converted our office from paper records to electronic and had to learn a whole new computer-based record keeping system. One of the women who worked in the file room had never used a computer before. It was my job to teach her this new electronic system.

I’ve told this story before…

The biggest challenge for me was that I failed to comprehend the depth and breadth of my coworker’s digital illiteracy.

She didn’t know how to use a mouse. How do you teach someone to use a data system which functions through a GUI when they don’t know how to use a mouse?

Before I could even begin to teach her the new record keeping system, I had to teach her how to use computer peripherals.

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Web Design Can’t Fix Digital Illiteracy

For some time now, I’ve argued that it should be possible to create digital interfaces that are intuitive enough for anyone to pick up and use successfully regardless of previous experience or knowledge.

As an ideal, I think this is a good one.

In practice, of course, it’s a lot more complicated.

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently that brought home to me an obvious fact about designing digital environments:

Usability isn’t just a matter of design. It’s also a matter of digital literacy. But here’s the thing—design can’t make up for a user’s lack of digital literacy.

By itself, web design is a tool insufficient for the job of teaching digital literacy. No matter how easy to use a website or interface may be, no matter how intuitively the information architecture is constructed, if a user has no experience with digital technology and doesn’t feel comfortable interacting with a digital environment, they won’t know what to do. They’re going to be lost.
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