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Learning to read in the time of ‘self-publishing’

German academic Hans Robert Jauss proposes a reception theory that he calls ‘Horizon of Expectations’. He says: “A literary work is not an object which stands by itself and which offers the same face to each reader in each period.” Here he is making an attempt to account for the diverse base of readers who may perceive the same work in numerous ways. And the degree of diversity even varies as time passes.

The case of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Kannada classic Samskara substantiates this theory effectively. When the novel came out, the fraternity of critics saw it as a piece of Realism and supported or opposed the novel based on that understanding. A year later, one critic argued that it was an Existentialist novel, and this argument was so effective in its narrative that the basis of the whole Navya movement (to which Samskara belonged) was revamped as Existentialism. Further, a feminist argument came up that female roles in Samskara were just supporting roles and tagged it Androcentric. The Dalit movement accused it of turning a blind eye to the existence of Dalits. Modern criticism saw a technique of shadow-pattern in the roles of Samskara.

This is the beauty of the diverse thinking lines of readers that Jauss tried to explain. Across the ages, readers have tried to bring different perspectives to content and exploited the very nature of subjectivity in reading.

As the digital revolution advanced and Google took the initiative to make the leading libraries’ literature available online, the process of reading became easier. It even enhanced the amount of content with flexibility of choice. And this was followed by the advent of social networking sites where everyone had some space to express themselves. The articulation ranged from 140 characters on Twitter to mega bytes in blogs. And if there is one term to summarise this whole phenomenon, that would be ‘abundance of information’.

Then Google came up with a path-breaking idea: Customisation and Personalisation of content. It developed an algorithm that would personalise search results based on the browsing history of the user. Even social networking platforms such as Facebook followed the same concept, and notifications that would appear on one’s wall would be based on frequent interactions (Likes, Shares). Applying this concept to Samskara, one can argue that the proponents of Realism would hardly have got a chance to read the narrative of Existentialism and other critical comments.

There is a two-fold complexity in reading today. The first is ‘abundance of information’ and the other is ‘personalisation’ of content. Imagine a situation where a judge is listening to only one side of the argument for a whole day. At the end of the day, naturally the judgment would be one-sided.

Philosopher Douglas Ehninger’s Theory of Argument says any argument has three components: Evidence, Warrant and Claim. To arrive at a Claim based on Evidence, Warrant is the key. And this is where perspectives peep in. But being exposed to only one side of the argument constantly, one can hardly think of a new perspective. The unintended consequence of personalising the evidence is the standardisation of Warrant. Any content published would be seen from a standard perspective and judged accordingly.

Basically the personalised abundant content is restricting the vision of readers today as they continue to live in a bubble. The degree of diversity in readers’ perspective has been minimised and all the differences are being appropriated to binaries. This is pretty evident in debates: either you can be a ‘Zero’ or a ‘One’, nothing in between. The writings are more focussed on appealing to the prejudices of readers than on helping them create a balanced view. Personalised content has convinced readers that their perspective is ‘the right one’, and the effect is such that any attempt to bring in a different perspective would attract charges of ‘Bias’. There are even claims that a next world war would be fought on the Web.

It’s high time we took a pause and revisited the content we are reading, and consider reading the other side of the story too…

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 12:28:42 AM |

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