Wow, what an essay! Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Michael. And congrats on the book--I can't wait to read it!

I'm a longtime reader but a first-time commenter. I'm an Information Science grad student who is studying how reading has changed in the digital age (particularly with the advent of algorithmic "reading" and "writing"), so I couldn't resist popping in with some thoughts and questions. I'm also a big fan of your work--Thank you for your invaluable ideas and inspiration! 

I haven't read Illich yet (I know, shame on me. I just ordered "In the Vineyard of Text" though.), so I hope I'm not misinterpreting your reading of him. (Sorry if I am!) Illich's suggestion that the cultural shift often attributed to print technology actually began earlier with changes to manuscripts that, in turn, changed how readers read texts is fascinating. It also seems to be at odds with how Ong represents that cultural moment in "Orality and Literacy."

I just leafed through that section of his book and was struck by how Ong links the "oral-aural" nature of manuscript culture with memory: "Manuscript cultures remained largely oral-aural even in retrieval of material preserved in texts. Manuscripts were not easy to read [...] and what readers found in manuscripts they tended to commit at least somewhat to memory [...] Moreover, readers commonly vocalized, read slowly aloud or sotto voce, even when reading alone, and this also helped fix matter in the memory." Ong continues: "well after printing was developed, auditory processing continued for some time  to dominate the visible, printed text." 

He argues oral cultures carry a strong "oral residue" (my favorite Ongism!) even after they transition to print, including reading aloud from printed texts instead of internalized reading, as if the act of reading were a speech event. I've often wondered how Ong's concept of "residue" relates to our current communications era. What practices have stuck with us from print and electronic media cultures? (For instance, the organization of digital information into "files"?Sidebar: I loved your thoughts about this in your "The Inescapable Town Square" article in "The New Atlantis." I even wrote a couple papers about "the posted word." :))

Ong talks more about the connection between our senses, language and thought, claiming writing “was and is the most momentous of all human technological inventions. It is not a mere appendage to speech. Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well." I wonder: Is a similar transformation happening now, as we (arguably) move from print to digital? Are we moving from text-visual to multi-sensory communications like video, which is both oral-aural and visual (and more fluid than static)? How might this relate to how we organize knowledge? 

File folders are static, visual representations of a knowledge hierarchy. Files seem to me very much rooted in the culture of print (they are designed to hold printed papers), which (as you point out) is a static, visual medium organized around clear hierarchies like pages and chapters. Print is also a tangible medium which allows for books to be organized in externalized "memory palaces" like libraries. These are, in turn, organized around clear, hierarchical info management systems like Library of Congress subject headings. 

In the opposing corner, we have the "hot mess" info slop bucket that is the contemporary internet. As a point of comparison, let's say a social media post (or "message") is the equivalent of a book in this brave new world and a social media platform, let's say Facebook, is the equivalent of a library (an archive where our externalized memories are stored and organized). How are Facebook posts organized? Who's organizing them? And, to return to your essay, how does that impact how humans conceptualize knowledge and understand our sense of self?

I don't have any answers to these questions. But I find it fascinating to think about them. I keep coming back to the idea of how our communications on social media are shaped by two opposing forces: externalized mnemonic devices we can see and control (like tags or chronological sorting functions) and "internalized" functions we can't see or control (like the black-box algorithm that decides what content pops up in Facebook's NewsFeed). (I'm using "internalized" to mean internal to the machine, not to us humans, which is strange and maybe telling!) I like to think about how social media offers us the illusion of controlling our communications (Personalize your feed!), but really so much of how our communications on are organized, stored and displayed on SM is actually dictated by those internalized forces that are invisible to us (algorithms, Facebook's profit motives). 

The search function seems like a perfect example of that tension. Search functions offer us the promise of being able to find whatever we need whenever we need it, but in reality they filter the results we see based on a whole hidden schema of knowledge that has been selected and organized by others, including machines. This creates a kind of "epistemic inequality," as Shoshana Zuboff has called it, between human users and the machines/corporations we rely on for knowledge that has introduced a host of problems like the amplification of misinformation and racism. Safiya Noble and others have argued about the injustice and inhumanity of that system. What would a more humane digital information management system and/or ecosystem look like? Maybe more of the visible devices we can see/control and less of the sketchy, hidden puppet strings that control us? More like Wikipedia and less like Facebook?

One final thought/question blob about contemporary reading habits and environments: Michael, you ask: "What do we imagine we are doing when we are reading? How have our digital tools—the ubiquity of the search function, for example—changed the way we relate to the written word? Is there a relationship between our digital databases and the experience of the world as a hot mess? How has the digital environment transformed not only how we encounter the word, but our experience of the world itself?" I'm not kidding when I tell you, these are the questions that keep me up at night! It's nice to know I'm not the only person thinking about them :).

Recently I've been studying how algorithms and other AI that "read" and "write" (like chatbots and GPT-3) impact how humans read and write on social media, and I've asked myself a similar line of questions. This is the first time in human history that we are reading and writing alongside non-humans (some of which are invisible to us and some of which we believe to be human). Ong and others argued you can't have literacy without orality in the same way you can't run before you can walk. How does AI scramble this dynamic? Has AI like GPT-3 "decoupled" speech from writing (to borrow a term from Luciano Floridi)? What is "reading" or "writing" if a bot can do it? What does it mean for human readers (in both practical and philosophical terms) when we are reading and writing to and with nonhumans? What does that mean for our sense of selfhood? 

Separate but related, what's the future of reading as a practice and a culture? I see a hazy connection between the rise of screen-based reading practices like skim reading and F-reading and the "hot mess" info bucket of the internet but I'm not sure I can illuminate the thread yet. Anyone else see it too? Maybe something to do with bopping around information/text instead of journeying through it? Also, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the rising popularity of social reading and writing (and their commercial counterparts, apps like Fable and Wattpad) and how they might relate to the idea of the internet as a collective consciousness. Is reading moving away from the individualism and interiority of the print era into a new kind of shared, external experience (like orality but coated with the residue of literacy, radio and TV)?

Anyway, this is too long already and the carpool line calls so I must go!  I apologize if I'm treading familiar ground with any of this...that's a side effect of thinking out loud on the internet, an information environment that includes every idea ever! Thanks again for the rich garden of ideas you've planted here...and for letting us drop some seeds :).

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Oct 7, 2021Liked by L. M. Sacasas

I usually try to write letters, but I just signed up as a subscriber, so, as an inveterate seeker of how things work, I thought I would leave a comment. I enjoyed the essay, and, as usual, I'll have to reread it a few times before I can gather all my thoughts about it. I've never managed the "hot mess" style of organization, but I think about it. After having worked here in the Dean's Office at St. John's College for ten years, the mere number of my Outlook folders have become its own hot mess, and at any given time, I have 100-400 email messages in my inbox. But the folders just are how I organize. As the Accreditation Liaison Officer, I have to pull up any number of documents related to accreditation, (both in email and on the hard drive). "How would I find those things by search term?" I wonder. My workstudy student, however, seems to have her own troubles. Yesterday she told me that she - and many of her friends - were not receiving any emails from the Dean's Office or any other college emails. "Are they going into your junk folder?" I asked her. "I think they're all going into 'other.'" "I'm not sure what you mean?" I responded. So she pulled out her phone, and she has the Outlook app on it, and she is only looking at the "focused" inbox. I simply didn't know how to respond. Why would she only look at what Outlook thinks is most important? I believe I disabled that feature as soon as it appears.

I feel like I'm lucky, and maybe I'm a little bit cut off from the mainstream, in working for, (and being an alumnus of), a Great Books school, organized around the reading and discussion of books. We still ban the use of Kindles in the classroom, because it is important for the discussion's flow for everyone to easily, and literally, be on the same page. Augustine and Aquinas are part of the required curriculum, so I do know, more or less what you are talking about when you refer to something Augustine says. (It's not just a Bob Dylan song to me, at the very least.) And we still file a great deal of things in file cabinets and send any important communications to the faculty or students through campus mail rather than email, on the supposition that physical mail is taken more seriously, (and we hear endless complaints about the state of email inboxes). I get the impression from some of your writing that we are moving further from the cultural norm in sticking to our traditional practices.

As I said in a letter I sent to you, I've been pursuing my own interest in Illich for years, and I find your newsletter invaluable to my own reading. I've been wondering quite a bit lately, to what degree Illich would have found the entire digital realm the worst of radical monopolies, but, as my high school computer teacher wrote me recently, you can't put the genie back in the bottle, though I try to every extent possible, in my personal life.

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Oct 30, 2021Liked by L. M. Sacasas

I meant to write this comment much earlier but here it is now.

I've been thinking it's so interesting that as the 'text' has replaced the 'book' and the 'image' has replaced the 'photo', an inversion of this pattern has also occurred: the 'recording' replacing the 'song'. I have no idea what a song is anymore. When Train sings "play that song" is he performing actually performing the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Heart and Soul"? We usually say no but I mean, it's the exact same melody. On the other hand when someone does a nontraditional cover track we say it's the same song as the original even though the only thing that's the same is the words and not the melody or types of instruments used or whatever. Despite all this, I feel like if you were to ask someone what makes one song one song and another song another song, they wouldn't be content to say, "Oh, it's just the lyrics."

Because we've lost the folk tradition and have professionalized music, instead of music being an act of performance, it's an act consuming content. Now we think that the fundamental packet or unit of music is the record and the concept of the song is strange.

Happy Halloween and Reformation Day, friends!

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