transliteracies begins.. reading is complex 06.17.2005, 11:57 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Over the next couple of days, we'll be posting live from the Transliteracies conference..
The conference kicked off with a rich historical lecture by Adrian Johns, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of The Nature of the Book. Johns examined three revolutionary moments in the development of scientific knowledge - Galileo, Newton, and James Clark Maxwell - and their relationship to the evolving print medium and the social practices of interpretation and transmission that were then developing. Beginning with the iconoclastic moment of Galileo's theological collision with the Catholic church, moving through Newton and the incipient system of journal production - "philosophical transaction" - in authoritative matrices like the Royal Society, up to Maxwell at Cambridge University, his breakthroughs on electricity and magnetism, and the development of written examinations. The overriding lesson: reading is complex. We should not overestimate the power of the book purely as the "container of meaning." The surrounding social reading practices, the charismatic human deliverers of certain texts, are no less important. Each book has a sort of periodical system that follows from it - its ideas move through local systems of perusal, reinterpretation and dissemination. It gets continually "re-published" through this human ecology.
Then there is the scientific revolution going on today: information technology and medical information. Medical error - diagnostic and prescriptive - kills thousands each year, largely due to interruptions in information flow. Info tech could create seamless systems that greatly reduce error. But Johns points out that a good half of the systems implemented so far fail to solve the problems. In fact, all of them create new kinds of errors - confusions between the different groups in the massive medical tangle. So here we have a kind of online reading that has been tested in a highly consequential setting. Johns suggests that medical reading is more like literary reading than we think. For instance, physicians and pharmacists read differently. They have differences in training, worldview, sense of self. Seemingly cosmetic features of the text - fonts, color, layout - are of great consequence.