BY Jenna Sutela in Opinion | 01 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 147


Non-linear reading

BY Jenna Sutela in Opinion | 01 MAY 12

A selection of books from the dOCUMENTA (13) '100 Notes - 100 Thoughts' series, 2011-12. Courtesy Leftloft, Milan

When so much information is available online at all times, it often seems impossible to put your finger on anything specific. Living in between texts we intend to read, saving bookmarks and accumulating more and more tabs, we try to make sense of the world through following likeminded people and sharing relevant pieces of information – that is, founding momentary communities on reading. However, in doing so, it is not unusual to drift into the uncritical mode of liking, liking, liking and never disliking, recognizing only what we already know, or confusing the opinions of others with fact. If reading is seeing, is seeing believing?

A recent publication compiled by designer Mieke Gerritzen and media theorist Geert Lovink with Minke Kampman, called I Read Where I Am: Exploring New Information Cultures (Valiz, 2011) presents observations, inspirations and notes about current and future modes of consuming and producing information. Its editors intend to draft guidelines for new forms of ‘image-text’ at a time when technology develops form and content simultaneously and considers them to be a whole. Produced in conjunction with two Dutch institutions – the Graphic Design Museum in Breda and the Institute of Network Cultures at the School of Interactive Media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam – the book exempli-fies the contemporary dialectic of form and content – or the non-linear, tactile experience of Internet reading. It catalogues its 82 essays, commissioned from artists, critics and designers, under three different indexes: an index of the first 140 characters of each essay, an index of every word used in each text, and an alphabetical index for ‘related subjects’, from ‘Augmented Reality’ to ‘Zoom’, drawn from Wikipedia. Every word in the book is colour-coded in a gradient from dark to light, according to its relative frequency or uniqueness.

With all its formal acrobatics, I Read Where I Am nevertheless enables one to easily scan, leaf or browse – in a word, to watch it. This experience is akin to reading websites and online forums: we process content instead of getting immersed in it; we receive an impression instead of absorbing it. Whether this makes the volume a dubious design construct, or one par excellence, is another question. Either way, it is a sign of the times. For artist Koert van Mensvoort, one of the book’s contributors, reading like this – by comparing and linking ambient visual stimuli – creates something of new significance. Before the media existed, Van Mensvoort writes in his essay ‘Reading Surroundings’, ‘we read the landscape, the skies, the tracks in the sand of the prey we were hunting […] In other words, we read our surroundings, in which symbols coincide with events and things.’ According to him, this new kind of reading has a future on the Internet where context, again, is content.

Mieke Gerritzen, Geert Lovink and Minke Kampman, I Read Where I Am, 2011. Courtesy Graphic Design Museum, Breda Valiz, Amsterdam

Undoubtedly, the infinite online references we encounter everyday create a vista similar to the surroundings Van Mensvoort paints. However, as new-media researcher Lev Manovich claims in his text, ‘From Reading to Pattern Recognition,’ rather than a personal affair, reading has become a communicative process: ‘The expanding universe of cultural texts and conversations’, as he calls the social space of the Internet, make the context. Or, as the founder of the open text archive, Sean Dockray, describes it: ‘I read where I am but sometimes I’d rather read where you are. I’d rather sit on your lap and have you read to me. I want to see what you underline and I want to know why [...] I want your reading to be my reading, I want to have your reading because the text is good, yes, but only as good as sheet music, while what you have is virtuosity.’

In his contribution to I Read Where I Am, titled ‘Minimal and Maximal Reading’, sociologist Rudi Laermans claims that contemporary readers rarely let themselves be interrupted. It is fair to ask, for example, when was the last time you re-read something? Did reading online ever change you? And while it is the ability to question what one reads, and how, that seems to be lacking today, ‘browsing’ – the current mode of reading – is mostly about asking questions. In his recent essay, ‘Google: Words beyond Grammar’ (published by Hatje Cantz, 2012), philosopher Boris Groys argues that even life itself, for the most part, is about defining legitimate questions to address to the world, or addressing the questions that the world asks us. When we engage in this fundamental dialogue, primarily via the Internet, search engines become philosophical systems that govern our existence by regulating the ways in which questions can be asked. Platforms like Google define the valid question as one that is primarily about the meaning of an individual word or combination of words instead of grammatically correct sentences. Here, language becomes meta-linguistic. (Ironically, this is a condition that does not apply to Groys’s essay itself, which, at present, is not available online.) As Groys argues, in being based on the equality of all words, search engines finally answer the Futurist call for the liberation of words from syntactic chains from almost a century back. At the same time, they confuse affirmative and critical contexts, making the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ increasingly irrelevant. More often than not, they also mix poetry and argument, thus laying all meaning at the mercy of reception and appropriation. In a Google search, the number of occurrences per word overrides any symbolic capital: content appears in non-dimensional heaps, growing in size as we cut and paste – faster and faster with our exponentially evolving tools, and next to algorithms that have now become authors, too. Seemingly, this will go on until all texts will soon relate to each other, deriving from one another to such an extent that it is impossible to say where something began and where it will end. Ultimately, there will not even be more words to invent.

Meanwhile, we keep analyzing and organizing information by taking notes, then publishing them – reading as we see things and writing as we think through them. And this is what ‘100 Notes – 100 Thoughts’, a series of 100 thin, colourful pamphlets launched in 2011 and published in preparation for documenta (13), does as well. Having published Groys’s ‘Google: Words beyond Grammar’ as the 46th notebook in the series, the format reflects the Internet mode of idea dissemination. It takes after clues, words or outlines, and shows thoughts in a prologue state, before they would traditionally appear in public. For example, Ingo Niermann’s ‘Choose Drill’ (number 34 in the series, and another one on my bookshelf) proclaims the self-determined ‘drill’ as a new societal doctrine and gives practical instructions to coerce oneself. Presenting the idiosyncratic voices of writers from different disciplines as well as readers as their alibis and allies, the documenta (13) ‘100 Notes – 100 Thoughts’ project attempts to perform a speculative act: capturing a tentative moment, while at the same time serving as a memory aid. A commonplace practice online, doing this in print introduces a new dimension to reading the contemporary landscape. By shutting the reader away from other textual sources or additional contextual information, and making time available for reading, more room for imagination appears and a new world can be created – something beyond virtual reality.

is based in Helsinki, Finland. She has self-published several titles, together with the OK Do collective, and has recently co-authored, with Martti Kalliala (ed.) and Tuomas Toivonen, Solution 239 – 246 Finland: The Welfare Game (Sternberg Press, 2011). She is currently preparing a publication programme on digital design sensibility at Aalto University, Finland.