I’m Smart, I Don’t Read or Write Anymore

From Karen's Whimsy public domain images

David McCandless’ TED Talk has me pondering data visualization and its easy intuitiveness.

Think about this: in a decade, will reading have become a difficult skill?

There’s some logic here. Not that long ago, I used to write all the time. In high school and college, I took written notes. I wrote letters, I wrote checks and kept a hand-written ledger, I took written notes in work meetings.

Now, I sign my name, and when called on to write more than a sentence, my hand starts to cramp. For me, the written word has become almost exclusively, the type-written word. Writing actual words on a page has become a difficult skill for me.

Many of you will share this behavior. As our lives have moved to computers, the act of writing has become less frequent.

Referring back to David’s point about data visualization. One reason we all love data pr0n is that it creates an easy way to understand a point, see a pattern, whatever.

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

So, as data visualizations become easier to create and large, meaningful data sets are opened to public consumption, and people take the easy route to control massive information glut, maybe reading will go the same way that writing has.

Let’s be honest, it already has started sliding that way.

Think about your consumption of information in written form. Do you read each and every email, post, tweet, news item, etc. that interests you? Like every single word, applying deep thought? Yeah, I know it’s ironic.

No, you skim. So do I. Everyone does. Why? Not (always) because we don’t care, but because we’re forced to consume so much that priorities need to intervene.

Imagine if your information came in pretty picture form with limited words. That would make it easier to consume.

Need another example? Think about effective presentations. They mix images with few words to make points; this is a shift from bullet point and text heavy slides that require the audience to read and listen at the same time.

Combining images with minimal text and speech seems to be a more effective way to make a point.

Back to my original question, is reading going the way of writing?

Not that we’ll forget how to read, but will it become a difficult skill because our minds are accustomed to information delivered visually?

A larger question: is this good?

Although it sounds like a bad thing to deemphasize writing and reading, you could view these advancements as evolution of communication. We’re moving much faster now, but how much different is this than the invention of the printing press?

Find the comments.




  1. In response to your question “is this good?” –

    I’ve recently inherited part of a family member’s library. Nine boxes full with (mostly) german philosophy. The scent (quite literally) of 100 years of western thought is incredible and made me happy to not own a Kindle.

    There’s no way one can skim read through Nietzsche.

    Interestingly enough, philosophy isn’t a topic that the Khan Academy http://www.khanacademy.org/ seems to have looked into yet.

    I really hope that reading as we know / knew it won’t become a lost art in the 21st Century.


  2. I know what you mean, but I think it’s an inevitable certainty that reading actual books will go the same way that handwriting has. Old-timers like us may long for the past, but we may find the new ways are better.

    Better is a value judgement, natch, so here’s to hoping we can actually quantify a difference. Otherwise, we’ll just look like cranky old dudes.

  3. I realize that this comment is coming two years too late, but I just felt it necessary to make a quick point. I think you’re mixing activities here. Handwriting, yes, has pretty much gone the way of the dodo. It’s slow, cumbersome, tedious, and can lead to significant misinterpretations (e.g. a doctor’s or accountant’s “chicken scratch”). But when we look at reading as a skill, you’re mixing two worlds here.

    First, you have what I would call business reading. Here, yes, you want to skim over the fluff and only obtain the key points. To that end, written (or typed) communication needs to be clear, concise and convey said key points with minimal effort to maintain efficiency. But then we have technical and leisurely reading. People will always read to either learn or simply for the enjoyment of it. For technical reading specifically, you can’t skim. Try assembling a computer and overclocking it’s CPU, GPU, and memory and see how far you get if you “skim” the details necessary to properly calculate voltages and timings. Then have fun buying all new parts. And as for leisurely reading, no one skims a book they want to read out of sheer interest. When I read the Chronicles of Narnia series of books to my two young sons, I don’t skip parts of a chapter because they are “slower” or less exciting than other parts. And my wife (who happens to be one of the fastest readers I’ve ever known) doesn’t skip parts of her Wheel of Time series simply because some parts get a little wordy. To do so would ruin the story as a whole. And this would remove the enjoyment of the activity.

    So no, clearly you can’t skim read through Nietzsche, but why would you? As for the federal code I have to read through every day in my current job, I’ll skim read through that as much as I please to get to what I need thank you. Unless you really want me wasting thousands of tax payer funded man hours on useless reading not related to my task at hand.

  4. Ironically, I skimmed the post to remind myself of my point 🙂 You make a good point. Reading for enjoyment is very different than reading to satisfy a requirement.

    However, the mixing of activities is germane to the overall point. Guessing here, but you and I seem to belong to a generation that had books and reading high on the list of fun activities for kids. That list was shorter than it is now and had fewer easy activities on it than the current one.

    We learned the joy of reading for fun, but poll our generation. You’ll find lots of people who took the easier route of TV, video games and movies and never put in the work to enjoy books.

    Reading isn’t as easy as consuming tweets, FB updates, texts or any number of activities that didn’t exist for us then. So, it competes with them and loses.

    So yeah, I’m mixing activities, but you can’t argue that concentrated thought is becoming a thing of the past. For us, it’s by necessity. For the generations behind us, it’s by choice. Sure, people can successfully combine the hard and easy activities, but it’s more difficult now.

    As long as our brains crave quick bursts of entertainment, we’ll always face a discipline problem. Keep reading or check tweets. This is one reason why I hate a tablet for reading. There’s always the lure of distraction.

  5. That was interesting, sounds like my high-schooler is more like a college kid. I’m not worried at all about him, he’s a maker (participated in building two awesome haunted houses this past week, and physics lab tennis ball gun) and both pleasure and purpose reader. If all the other kids in his gen overconsume timesinks, that just sucks him into the overclass vacuum.

  6. I’d like to know more about the data; sample size is a bit small. Definitely a surprise, but every generation deals w this. It’s analyzed by the one that raised it, and then does the same to the next, combining broad generalizations into stereotypes. Rite of passage.

  7. I put together a lot of Ikea furniture, no reading required. I am always fascinated by the techniques to communicate with pictures alone. My 5 year old ‘read’ some Ikea instructions out to my wife – “This means if there are any parts missing you have to call Ikea so they send you them”. This also means we have no translation problems.

  8. That’s a good point and one I’ve noticed too. Ikea probably saves millions without writing (and translating) directions, and the communication mechanism is very similar to comic books, paging Ultan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.