Posted by: MandyS | January 23, 2013

Are we too pressed for time to read?

Block 1, Activity 3: Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read

Naughton (2008) tells us that the First Law of Technology is that we “overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies while underestimating their longer-term effects.” Using the invention of printing as an example, what he seems to be arguing is that its impact of making books available to a wider audience was largely predicatable. What was not predicatable was the way in which that audience would use the material to ultimately ‘transform society’.

He suggests the same is true of the Web. Its impact has been huge (predicatable) but what is more significant is the ‘profound impact’ it has had ‘on how we conceptualise, seek, evaluate and use information’ (not predicatable). Using the study at the British Library as an example, he argues that the Web’s most significant impact has been on the way we read. We want information quickly and are not bothered about the detail. We like to skim and dip in and out rather than sit and read from ‘cover to cover’.

What strikes you as interesting?

Well I would certainly agree that the Web has transformed our lives in that information is much more readily available from the comfort of ones own home but I am not entirely convinced its longer term effect has been to transform our ‘information seeking behaviour’ or, in particular, the way we read. We have always had a desire for knowledge and before the Web we had enyclopedias (Britanica if you were really lucky and very rich) to fuel that knowledge. I don’t ever remember sitting with one of those and reading it from cover to cover; I still wanted information quickly and largely dipped in and out and skim read until I found the relevant bit. To me, the only difference now is that we have so much more at our disposal, you have to ‘read’ in this way just to get through the vast quantity of information. Ultimately, the way we read depends on its purpose.

How clear do you find the argument about the First Law of Technology

I very much doubt that anyone introducing new technology has any real idea of what its long term effect will be. When the car was introduced I doubt its long term effect on the atmosphere was ever invisaged, likewise cigarettes on health. On that basis, underestimating the long term effects is a reasonable argument.

But ‘overestimating the short term impact.’ This I am not sure about. Surely the purpose of new technology is to have an impact on society. Some have made a huge impact but only to the extent that they make our lives easier e.g. washing machines, cars. I suppose whether the impact is overestimated depends on what was envisaged by the new technology. Difficult one this so I will be interested in other points of view here.

Which examples support the Law and which contradict?

I have tried to think of new technologies which have impacted on our lives e.g. mobile phone, computers, cars, televisions etc. All these have definitely had a longer term effect on society than was probably ever envisaged. I presume what we are looking for to contradict the theory is something which wasn’t envisaged as having a huge impact but has, although it has not had the long term effect which was predicted. Mmmm…..

Second Law?

Gosh this was all a bit too technical for me and not sure exactly what I was searching for. I am not sure that there is really a second law as such. What I found was suggestions based on existing law which I found really difficult to comprehend. Byler (2008) suggests it is that: ‘consumers will favour products that result in the lowest profit margin for their producers, e.g. microprocessor hardware’ but I think someone will have to explain this to me. Does it mean they go for the cheapest technology?

Was printing really invented in the 15th Century?

A quick Google reveals that block printing was a Chinese invention around the 4th and  7th century AD.


Byler, J. (2008) JB’s Circuit, Second Law of Technology, online (accessed 23/01/2013)

Naughton, J. (2008) ‘Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read’, The Observer, 27 January; also available online at openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/ fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=11E7B3EDD7DE4678&svc_dat=InfoWeb:aggregated5&req_dat=D77DAA714D5D439CB66B27643275D140 (last accessed 12 October 2011).


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