“technology,” expectations, pseudoreading

by James Somers, February 16, 2011


On the one hand the way the word “technology” is used is overly narrow. It refers essentially to electronic gizmos when it could refer to any kind of artcraft, including bookshelves, water bottles, RAID arrays, Markdown, magazines, keyboards, LEDs, pizza boxes, windowing systems, driveways, Bayes’ rule, door handles, languages, Occam’s razor, software, pens, lists, and so on.

On the other hand, even in its current guise—as a gloss for “computer shit”—the word is overly broad. To say that we should “bring technology into the classroom” is to make a million different proposals all at once. To “cover tech” is to write about anything new and nerdy.

What role, then, is the word “technology” playing in the language game?

Low expectations

Disappointments abound: first anythings with a girl, your own fiction, new people. Everything’s better when you set a lower bar. Example: read negative reviews before seeing a movie—set yourself up just like your friend did when he said he’d arrive late, but came early. Make less rare the rare pleasure of a pleasant surprise.

The question is whether you can hold your expectations down against their will. Can you intend tonight to take the poison tomorrow, knowing what you know about the pain, the reward, and, most importantly, the way out?


Normally while reading my eyes and mind work in concert, or at least seem to: as my foveae jump and jounce around the page, the rest of my readerly machinery—everything from my ocular nerve and visual cortex through to the “workspace” of my consciousness and the seat of my “I”—seems to tag along.

Sometimes the whole apparatus goes off task at once, as when I put a book down to make myself a sandwich. But that’s not very interesting. The interesting case is when the various layers of the system unhinge.

That seems to be what’s happening when I daydream in the middle of a sentence. My eyes follow through, happily tracking the rest of the line, even as my mind wanders onto something entirely unrelated. It’s as if all those lower layers continue their sophisticated unconscious work of turning globs of ink into a mental representation of words, only to have the whole lot discarded just before it becomes a conscious thought.

The trick is that when the daydream ends, my focus returns as if it never left. It’s easy not to catch the difference, and so just to read, read, read, to read without reading, without making sure that my mind is along for the ride.