[Paleopsych] CS Mon: How the Web changes your reading habits
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Wed Jun 29 20:43:01 UTC 2005
How the Web changes your reading habits
By Gregory M. Lamb | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
PALO ALTO, CALIF. - When Ed Chi wants to read, he turns to two of the
six computer screens that surround his desk. One is devoted
exclusively to e-mail; the other, to the rest of his reading material.
The senior researcher is testing a theory: What if your "virtual desk"
was as just big as your real desk? How would that change your
behavior? Dr. Chi, of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in
California, has found out one thing already. Almost all his reading -
text messages, e-mails, journal articles, even books - is done
Computers and the Internet are changing the way people read. Thus far,
search engines and hyperlinks, those underlined words or phrases that
when clicked take you to a new Web page, have turned the online
literary voyage into a kind of U-pick island-hop. Far more is in
Take "Hamlet." A decade ago, a student of the Shakespeare play would
read the play, probably all the way through, and then search out
separate commentaries and analyses.
When completed, the site will help visitors comb through several
editions of the play, along with 300 years of commentaries by a slew
of scholars. Readers can click to commentaries linked to each line of
text in the nearly 3,500-line play. The idea is that some day, anyone
wanting to study "Hamlet" will find nearly all the known scholarship
brought together in a cohesive way that printed books cannot.
Even that effort only scratches the surface of what's possible, some
researchers say. Since people are still largely reading the way they
always have, they ask, why not use technology to make reading itself
The reading experience online "should be better than on paper," Chi
says. He's part of a group at PARC developing what it calls
ScentHighlights, which uses artificial intelligence to go beyond
highlighting your search words in a text. It also highlights whole
sections of text it determines you should pay special attention to, as
well as other words or phrases that it predicts you'll be interested
in. "Techniques like ScentHighlights are offering the kind of reading
that's above and beyond what paper can offer," Chi says.
While readers might not feel a need to use ScentHighlights with the
next Harry Potter novel, the software could help students, academics,
and business people quickly extract specific information from other
ScentHighlights gets its name from a theory that proposes that people
forage for information much in the same way that animals forage in the
wild. "Certain plants emit a scent in order to attract birds and bees
to come to them," Chi says. ScentHighlights uncovers the "scent" that
bits of information give off and attract readers to it.
If the reader types in "Wimbledon tennis," for example,
ScentHighlights would highlight each word in its own color in the
text, as search programs do. But ScentHighlights adds additional
keywords in gray that the system has inferred that the reader would be
interested in (perhaps "US Open" or "Andy Roddick"). It would also
highlight in yellow entire sentences that it deems likely to be
To do this, ScentHighlights combines two approaches, noticing how
often words are near each other in text and using a technique called
"spreading activation." Chi says: "It basically mimics how humans
retrieve information." ScentHighlights actually knows nothing about
tennis, he says. "It's a purely statistically based technique."
Not far away, in a tiny office in a red-tile-roofed building on the
edge of the Stanford University campus, another research group is
taking a different approach in hopes of making reading on mobile
phones faster and easier.
Analysts expect mobile phones to evolve into a multipurpose "third
screen," along with televisions and computers displaying both pictures
and text. But the small screen size has made reading cumbersome, as
users scroll through tiny screen after screen.
To solve that, BuddyBuzz, a project of a small group within the
Stanford Persuasive Technology Laboratory, flashes text to the viewer
a word at a time.
BuddyBuzz is based on a reading technique called RSVP (Rapid Serial
Visual Presentation) that's been around since the 1970s, says Matt
Markovich, editor in chief of BuddyBuzz (www.BuddyBuzz.org). Using
it, people can learn to read with good comprehension up to 1,000 words
per minute, Mr. Markovich says.
"Initially, it seems kind of awkward, but people warm up to it rather
quickly," he says. "It does tend to take all of your attention. But
I've found my reading speed has increased dramatically."
Users who sign up can download news from Reuters and CNET, a
technology news website, and postings from several popular Internet
bloggers. More content is on the way, Markovich says. Users can also
feed their own texts into the website and have them sent to their
mobile phone, or offer their content to other BuddyBuzz users.
His team, which includes two volunteer programmers and a handful of
Stanford undergrads, continues to add more features. Users can set
BuddyBuzz to present the text at whatever speed is comfortable for
them. The system knows to pause at commas or the end of sentences,
just as most readers do. If readers miss something, they can skip back
to the beginning of the sentence.
Eventually, the group would like to refine the program so that it can
recognize when readers are having trouble with a text and
automatically slow down, perhaps when they hit a less-familiar word
The system does have shortcomings, says B.J. Fogg, the head of the
Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, who had known about RSVP and
encouraged the group to apply it to mobile phones. It doesn't work
well with numbers, such as sports scores and stock quotes, though it's
great for news, or other general reading, he says. "BuddyBuzz is a new
type of reading," he adds. "It doesn't destroy any of the previous
forms of reading."
Neither ScentHighlights nor BuddyBuzz is commercially available,
though a free test version of the latter is available at the BuddyBuzz
Literacy score card
Compared with a generation ago, the world is better able to read. The
top 35 nations have 99 percent or better literacy. But others lag far
behind, especially in Africa. Among the less literate:
o Niger 16.5 percent
o Burkina Faso 24.8
o Vanuatu 34.0
o Bangladesh 40.6
o Nepal 42.9
o Pakistan 44.0
o Yemen 47.7
o Morocco 49.8
o Haiti 50.8
Source: United Nations Development Program
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