Death of the Library

Three Ideas on the Future of Reading from Eric McLuhan

Share This
Future of Reading
“The Future of Books?” | Mike Alex | flickr

In a recent episode of The Kindle Chronicles, Len Edgerly interviewed author and media expert Eric McLuhan. McLuhan is an internationally renowned scholar and speaker who covers the future of media and other bookish topics. He is also the son of famed philosopher and communication theorist Marshal McLuhan.

Marshal McLuhan was one of the first media theorists to acknowledge and recognize changes happening in new media. His book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, is considered one of the most important books on the future of media. McLuhan was one of the first academics to recognize that the focus shouldn’t be on the content within new forms of media (at the time, television) but rather the media itself; as he claimed, “the media is the message.” Understanding Media, and McLuhan’s other works, predicted the rise in social media,  digital reading, and the internet itself (see, for example, his book The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century).

Eric McLuhan, future of readingEric McLuhan continues his father’s message about the future of media. He has edited and maintained his father’s works, and he co-authored books with his father, like Laws of Media and Media and Formal Cause. Both father and son bring insight and direction for the rest of us who speculate on the future of digital media.

In Len Edgerly’s interview, Eric McLuhan covers a lot about the future of reading. He makes several interesting points, but here are three that stood out the most:

1. Writing styles have changed in the age of reading on screens.

McLuhan says that as writers began to create content on screens and as readers began reading on screens, writing styles changed. Beginning in the mid 1980s, paragraphs in longform reading (books, magazine features, etc.) were shortened. This is, in part, to accommodate shorter reading spans. Reading in a web browser or on a computer screen meant a change in the experience of reading. Thus, we now read in bite-sized chunks: shorter articles, sentences, and “a preponderance of the one-sentence paragraph.” The age of blogging has exacerbated this shift, no doubt. While this seems ominous, McLuhan says the advantage is we “come in closer contact” with the ideas presented in the text.

2. “Involvement in the process of reading and writing” is here to stay.

Even though the content itself has become more compact, reading and writing are no longer seen as “objective.” Instead, according to McLuhan, reading is about the “involvement in the process.” Reading is now a participatory act. In the digital age, we can respond to the text quicker than ever before. Through social media and comment systems on blogs and other websites, we can jump into a conversation about what we have read. Reading is no longer an isolated experience.

In fact, this participatory spirit is alive and well in digital spaces, and it mimics the storytelling ages pre-Gutenberg and the age of social reading in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

3. The alphabet will change as reading habits and patterns change.

This is a process that will take some time, maybe 100+ years, but McLuhan predicts the alphabet will change in a profound way. Here’s what he says:

I see the alphabet as disappearing. It’s designed for something else and we won’t have a need for the kinds of sensibilities it provides … I see the alphabet becoming less and less a feature.

He sees our Western alphabet system morphing into a syllabary system. And, he adds:

We are already on the road toward this change with our emoticons and icons and so on … but these are like syllabary characters, like ideograms. They don’t have a specific meaning like the word fly or the word book, but a symbol is like an idea.

He goes on to explain the syllabary system he sees replacing our alphabet system. He predicts that this system will be more meaningful in an age where reading will change dramatically.

It’s an interesting concept, and it’s one I admit I’d never thought of before.

You can listen to the rest of the interview at The Kindle Chronicles. Here’s a link to the show notes on Len Edgerly’s site.

******

As these changes in reading happen, what do you imagine the future will hold? I’d love to hear what you have to think in the comments.

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

One Pingback/Trackback

  • chris

    interesting. my fear is that because the reading experience will be taylored to fit the audience of the social media age, it may not be as profound as before. example..I hope there will still be American writers like McCarthy in the future.

    • http://www.kevinthomaseagan.com Kevin Eagan

      Good point, Chris. Are you referring to writers who dazzle us with their prose? I wonder if this will still exist, but in a different form. English has taken many forms over the centuries, and yet writers still find new ways to play with language. Could writers still do this, just in a different form?

  • http://debelit.com Peter Licari

    I’m trying to imagine a system of communication that abandons the letters we have now. Of course, our current letter system is the result of thousands of years of tweaks and changes, but trying to imagine emoti-cons as a stand in due to their weight as an idea… that’s something novel right there.

    • http://www.kevinthomaseagan.com Kevin Eagan

      I wonder it it’s as hard to imagine as old english speakers would have had trouble imagining a world of speaking english after the great vowel shift: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift

      I suspect if this happens it will take 1/2 a millenium or so. I guess we won’t be around to see it happen, eh?

      • TheTaskmaster

        1/2 a millennium ago it would’ve taken 1/2 a millennium. with electric media, we’re connected to all corners of the planet. ideas are carried to every country the same day, and are digested and evolve just as quickly. i’m not sure if text-typing will have an effect in 50 years but it’s had a giant effect just in the last 15 years of my life, and internet-speak is almost a language and it’s not region-based

  • Pingback: The Kindle Chronicles - TKC 261 James McQuivey()