Why Americans suck at reading

Reading while walkingAmericans are bad at reading. If this is controversial to you, it’s not because the facts are on your side. We stink at poking holes in arguments and we can’t explain metaphors very well.

A common culprit for our declining reading abilities is the web. It makes us more distracted and less able to focus on a single argument.

But what if this is missing a bigger, more obvious truth? It’s all summarized in this recent article in the NYT.

What’s interesting about this piece is the recommended solution. Before this, I would’ve figured the best way to get Americans to read better is to get them to read more, full stop. And while that’s not incorrect, it’s not exactly correct, either.

The true breakdown in reading comprehension (and thus enjoyment/effectiveness) starts with limited knowledge of facts:

Students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Read the article then let me know what you think.

Image courtesy vonderauvisuals; used under Creative Commons.

Lost potential

subway

The past ten years have been an exceptionally big waste of human potential. (And I’d probably extend my assertion back even further if I knew more about world history.)

But since the financial crisis of 2008, access to capital (for governments or private companies) has been incredibly cheap and plentiful. Yet we haven’t invested significantly in public infrastructure, despite more than a decade worth of promises and proclamations. Elon Musk is one of the few people in the public sphere willing to make spectacular bets. (Or perhaps he’s just better at PR than his fellow crazy billionaires.)

If you want a hint of what this lack of investment feels like, just go for a ride on the NYC subway. Most of the cars and stations are living monuments to a time when we thought it was OK to spend money on big, crazy projects—like digging a gazillion tunnels underground and figuring out how to wire them with enough electricity to move a few thousand pounds of steel and flesh 100 miles under a river, 24/7. Part of me thinks that it’s great that these cars are old! It shows that good ol’ fashioned steel (not plastic!) can stand the test of time.

But the system isn’t keeping up with demand. The cars are packed with commuters and delays are the norm. The personal inconveniences I face every morning aren’t what I’m concerned about here; I do OK. My $2.75 subway ride is usually 20-30 minutes and everyone in my workplace faces the same delays and frustrations.

But every morning, I wonder what the subway could be like, and how that would make life more pleasant for the hundreds of thousands of NY commuters. It might encourage more investment or sway a few people from leaving the city. It could also start restoring people’s faith in public institutions, demonstrate that organizations can respond to change, create dynamic plans based on measurable objectives, and deliver some degree of improvement.

I suppose this is why it’s more fashionable to point to dictators as a desirable way of running a government. “What has democracy done for me, lately,” one might wonder.

I don’t endorse this selfish view of a sprawling and complex system like our democracy, which was designed to deliver a slow pace of change. But is it unreasonable? To hope for a different way, when the current trajectory and recent examples don’t make it likely that our institutions will rise to the challenge and deliver the things people want?

I don’t want to pass too much of the blame to social media; it’s an easy out. But Facebook and Twitter are really good at clustering people into like-minded groups, then feeding them niche stories that are likely to foster “engagement” (i.e. make them mad). It’s not even that the content is hyper-partisan or even false. The harm is in the curation. We don’t get a balanced daily media diet when so much of our news comes from social media. And that means we’re all the more likely to see the stories that push our buttons and offend our beliefs, which pushes us further away from each other, and further away from imagining a different way.

There’s a lot I’m leaving out here. I don’t have a conclusion. I’m just trying to flesh out my thoughts. Perhaps I’ll return to this topic on another day.

[photo cred]

Friday Link List: Tech & Media Edition

1. The App I Used to Break into My Neighbor’s Home {wired}

When I broke into my neighbor’s home earlier this week, I didn’t use any cat burglar skills. I don’t know how to pick locks. I’m not even sure how to use a crowbar. It turns out all anyone needs to invade a friend’s apartment is an off switch for their conscience and an iPhone.

2. Behind Comcast’s Truthy Ad Campaign for Net Neutrality {washington post}

In an ongoing ad campaign, Comcast touts that it’s the only internet service provider (or ISP) legally bound by “full” net neutrality and that the company wants to expand that commitment to even more people. This sounds great for consumers; it’s the kind of thing that might convince skeptical regulators to give Comcast the benefit of the doubt. But the advertising claims come with some big, unstated caveats that could be confusing to consumers who already find the net neutrality debate a jumble of jargon and rhetoric.

3. Riding the Juggernaut That Left Print Behind {david carr/new york times}

I am a faithful reader of The Journal’s and The Times’s print edition. Both are built on a wonderful technology for discovering and consuming news, and a large part of their profits still reside in that daily artifact. But when big things happen, I stayed glued to the web, at The Times and other great news sites.

Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.

But once a sponge is at capacity, new information can only replace old information. Last month, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand published a study that found that comprehension, concentration and retention all went off a cliff when information was taken in online. (Then again, there are those who say that we see everything and remember nothing because we don’t have to, that the web now serves as our memory.)

4. Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy {new yorker}

Talking so freely about your life helps you to know the weight of those feelings which are too vague, or too spiritual, to express—left unspoken and unexplored, they throw your own private existence into relief. “Sharing” is, in fact, the opposite of what we do: like one of Woolf’s hostesses, we rehearse a limited openness so that we can feel the solidity of our own private selves.

The Paywall Revolution

Prolific blogger and gay Catholic conservative (not to blatantly reduce him to a narrow cultural stereotype or anything) Andrew Sullivan made a splash today when he announced that his popular blog will be once again striking out on its own, leaving its current home on Newsweek-owned Daily Beast website.

From the NPR story on the move:

Saying that [Sullivan] and his team want “to help build a new media environment that is not solely about advertising or profit above everything, but that is dedicated first to content and quality…”

He’ll be charging readers $20/year for full access to the site, although the paywall will be on the porous side—a la The New York Times’ recent paywall implementation. As Nieman Lab reported back in March 2011, when the Times’ paywall first launched:

Now, the Times paywall is, to a certain extent, defined by its leakiness. The various holes — external links from social media and search biggest among them — are no accident; they’re the result of some (correct, I say) thinking about hitting the right balance between fly-by and dedicated readers, between those who come in the front door and others who arrive from the side.

I think it’s more than just catering to certain audiences, although that’s certainly a practical concern. I think this is an extremely positive development, part of a larger movement back to the idea that readers should be an important part of journalism’s revenue model. It’s getting people in the mindset that good content is worth something, and is worth coughing up a little dough for every once in awhile.

So far, at least for Sullivan, it seems like it’s working.

And don’t worry, dear reader, this blog is just a hobby and I’ll never shut out my five readers with a paywall.