The End of Reading?

Ideas and Issues Tech

May 12, 2022

            Pearl River     Certainly the signs have been everywhere around us:  people don’t like to read anymore.  People don’t have time for it, many argue, including the content overlords.  Supposedly, we want short bursts of news like crawlers at the bottom of a TV screen or the small bites of USA Today or, god save us, tweets that we can digest easily and be off on our way to wherever or nowhere.  More pictures, less words.  More conclusions, fewer explanations.  Succinct opinions coupled with questionable factoids.  Bam, bam, and away we go at least until we hit the wall.

Now Google wants to be helpful.  One of the new products they have reportedly added to the ubiquitous Google Docs is a snazzy little feature powered by artificial intelligence that will take that long document, endless memo, short story or whatever and condense it into one paragraph for you.  AI will now cut out all of the graphs, charts, and nettlesome arguments and conclusions, and present the new world of EXECUTIVE SUMMARIES to you on a platter.

Is this really helpful?  Is this a good thing?  Or, is this another rut on the road to the end of reading?  Or, worse, the end of thinking?

I feel fuddy-duddy even making this argument.  Admittedly, I’m still stuck in Microsoft Word while much of the world, at least the younger cohorts, have galloped into Google Docs, sharing, and collaborating like crazy.  I’m still downloading the darned things into Word, so I can file, save, and do what needs to be done.

Still, I already complain and moan out of the side of my mouth about too many of my colleagues being so sotted with texting and the mini-form of those messages, depending on the strengths of your fingers and a big dollop of patience, that they seem unable to read and digest the whole of an email.  Remember, an email is not exactly a long-form New Yorker story!  Attachments are already a strain.  A link to a Google Doc is also an additional step into the abyss.  Once bridged, how many already bereft of attention, will actually read the whole document, if they can just read the “Cliff Notes” version in a quick paragraph rather than the whole, blipping thing?

Google wants to be helpful and make artificial intelligence our friend, but I still worry about the intelligence part every time AI fights me on a text for their way not mine.  Artificial intelligence is, by definition, not real intelligence.  If this signals yet another signpost to the end of reading and any comprehension of language, I’m queasy about the whole project.  How could this end well for any or all of us?