Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Is the Medium the Message?

To twist poor Marshall McLuhan's quote a bit, the medium is the message -- just not quite the way he was intending. The medium transforms and subtly shapes our reading of the message. For quite a while I really agreed with people who said that eventually, the format would be quite transparent and users would be unaware of the medium that transmitted the information or thoughts to them. Whether they were reading or hearing, whether print or digital, I really thought it would be irrelevant and the only difference would be what features would be "born" or possible to the medium.

So, when Westlaw and Lexis added indexes and tables of contents and browsing pages, that should have put paid to my concerns about whether the online statutes and treatises were equal to the print versions, right? Wrong. I still think you read an electronic item differently than a print, and I think a person who is very used to using electronic items read everything in that same way. They scan, they skip, they dip and scoop, looking for good bits and picking out citations. They do not read paragraphs and pages. They do not stop and mull and then go back and read again. It is like the difference between the way swallows swoop and fly and the way a cow grazes and then ruminates.

I just finished grading two papers by students who are inveterate swallow swoopers. I am somebody who tends toward swooping myself and have to slow myself down to graze and ruminate. But perhaps that makes me appreciate the value of those virtues more. Even when they went to the books at my insistence, they skipped around and cherry-picked for citations and high points. They used the treatises the same way they skip around in an electronic journal article. They don't actually seem to read the content at all, which should be disturbing to anybody who is thinking about this. They just use it to find the cases. And then, they use the cases to do the analysis for them.

I find this profoundly disturbing, and this is what I think is causing a sea change in the practice of law. I am very aware that I am not at an Ivy school, and not seeing elite students. But I will bet that the librarians at the elite schools have the same darned experience to relate. It's the medium that is shaping the user, and we need to realize it before it's too late entirely.

Am I a Jeremiah crying in the wilderness? Is anybody out there?

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