by Christina Cullen
Last week my father asked me “What do the letters A.D. stand for?” as I racked my brain for the Latin Anno Domini and realized how little I had paid attention during my Catholic school days. He continued, “You know, when you search for something on Google, you sometimes see the letters A.D. What does that mean?”
My father recently retired from a corporate job and started his own signage business. He is a master networker and can make personal connections in minutes, but for him the online realm is a new landscape. Despite being the first in our family to own a computer, smartphone, and tablet as well as the fact that Google Adwords, the world’s first “self-service advertising program” was launched in 2000, two decades passed before he realized these two tiny black letters at the top of a Google search are the abbreviation of advertisement.
In many regards, this feature has been designed exactly to be ignored. In the digital world, there is a wide use of subheadings. Within these subheadings, there is often subtext. For example, when we see an advertisement, it might be unclear who paid for that piece. We may not fully know why we are seeing it on our screens or what data is being captured.
Historically, we would see a television commercial and recognize the sponsor. It was a guarantee that the same advertisements were broadcasted to each neighborhood television. When print newspapers were left on doorsteps, they all displayed the same headlines. On the other hand, each of our digital feeds is now curated based on data analytics and algorithms. Advertisements, news headlines, social media content, and cartoons (now, memes) have all transformed to fit this space. A constant flow of verbiage is targeted through data across multiple platforms of digital media. With this in mind, it might be important to consider that language is not an art lost in the days of print, but rather that its conventions are arguably becoming more nuanced than ever.
In other words, in today’s world perhaps it is not what we are reading but what we aren’t.
Our decreased attention spans and ability to overlook details are certainly not new topics. Instead they are some that continue to be of major discussion as the internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous. One early example is Nicholas Carr’s 2008 piece in The Atlantic “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which I recently assigned to my College Composition I class in connection to an exploratory assignment. In this piece, Carr confronts the ruination of his own deep reading process in the rising age of search engines.
For Carr, as the ability to bounce from one website to the next sits at our fingertips and we are viewing more text than ever before, reading has become more of a decoding process than one of lengthy engagement. He correctly foresees Google’s intentions to profit off of our “crumbs of data” and build a platform run by Artificial Intelligence that is based on efficiency and engagement. All of this was said, too, before the age of smartphones.
As late Gen Zers who have spent their lives living within the world that Carr illustrates, my students have had no trouble reading and analyzing this article as an academic text. They highlight important quotes, summarize complex ideas and information, and make meaningful connections between the piece and themselves. These are skills that have been ingrained throughout their academic lives, as they have within each of our own.
Yet still, twelve years after Carr’s piece, we do not center a class around decoding a single tweet. In my first-year writing course, we still engage in the deep reading process of lengthy articles and studies, but I do not formally teach the rhetoric of social media posts, Instagram comments, or four word inflammatory news headlines in a popular app.
I am sure I am not alone in this. It’s just a couple words - how hard could it be to understand? Is it justified to consider a few select words to be worth the same amount of time and dedication as a proper academic source?
The answer to these questions may lie within another that I will ask each of us across every generation: If we have entered a new realm of reading, one that requires different decoding and analysis skills than what have been taught to us in our formal educations, how will we process the complex information being presented to us in a few words or phrases?
Right now, it could be argued that we aren’t.
A 2018 MIT study revealed that “false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.” The researchers explain this is the result of emotion rather than logic, as false news stories usually are more shocking or outrageous than fact-based headlines. While there are obviously different motives behind sharing or retweeting a false news story, it is important to evaluate how these pieces of information are being wedged alongside native advertisements and opinion editorials. It is increasingly difficult to discern what is actual news and what is not. Ultimately, this distinguishment comes down to the processing of a few words.
If we trace this pattern, it becomes clearer that singular words and phrases can be used to shift thoughts and ideas within our current digital societies. Let’s try something now as we look at the word: sheep.
Do you see a fluffy white animal enjoying a nice blade of grass in a verdant field?
This pattern can be harmless, even when it spreads alternate meanings to words such as sheep. The problems start to appear, however, when we stop questioning the sources of these meanings and our interpretations of them.
The MIT study even made a point to note, “the researchers also settled on the term ‘false news’ as their object of study, as distinct from the now-ubiquitous term ‘fake news,’ which involves multiple broad meanings.”
At a certain point in our lives, we attain an acceptable level of vocabulary that stays with us in everything we do. Every now and then we might hear a new word from a friend, learn an academic term, hear something in a video that becomes our slang. But when do we stop to think about the meanings or intentions behind words we think we understand, especially in a political or social context? Along those lines, we must always remember that aside from the standard definition of words or ideas, language is complex and can be used in a variety of ways to achieve certain goals. This is something that I certainly teach my students.
In Carr’s article, he offers “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.” As we can surely all relate, there are much less distractions within the pages of a printed text than a smartphone on constant alert. Despite these challenges, he leads us to consider that critical thinking, inherently associated with critical reading, should not be lost in short-form text.
As we are already starting to see, deep reading may come to mean something else entirely in the age of digital communication. Perhaps it comes down to the amount of time we are willing to spend with language. We now have the ability to process information faster than ever, but with that comes a responsibility to take an extra step to process what has been shown in front of us, even if it is just a single word.