Computers & Society/Setting the scene/Learning how to read stuff

Stuff is a great word. Maybe you thought we were going to look at learning how to read books? After all, you need to be able to read, before you can read books, and before you can read this stuff here in the Wikibook?

Well, we are going to look at the problem of reading. It turns out that reading is very difficult in many cases, just as asking questions can be very difficult. You don't believe it?

I remember the shock of picking up a book called "How to read a painting". It is a very famous book. You can look at its cover now if you want to. I used to think that one looked at paintings. I never imagined that one could also read paintings. It was a really big surprise for me.

Learning to read paintings helps one a lot when trying to read books. For example, when you read "I remember the shock of picking up a book called..." you are thinking "Aha! The author of this Wikibook remembers the shock of picking up a book called...". Aren't you? Well, it is true that I am an author writing this. But a Wikibook may have many authors. And you may not be able to say which author, if any, was the one who picked up a book called...

So! Reading a Wikibook requires careful thought. That is exactly why we began this book with learning how to ask questions. And the "we" here is ambiguously fruitful in the sense that "we" might be "I the author" and "you the reader", or it might be "we the authors", or it might be ...

How to read a proverb?Edit

Let us begin with a well-known proverb.

"You can take a horse to water,
but you can't make him drink."

It is called a proverb because it is an "old saying". It must be an old saying because there is a horse in it! If there is a horse in it, then it probably occurs in many different cultures where horses were/are important. It is also important because of the water. Water is essential to life. Do you think the horse knows this?

Notice the horse and the "him". If it were a mare then the "him" would be a "her". Do you think that mares were brought to water? Notice the horse is brought to water, not the water is brought to the horse. That is important. It shows just how old the saying is! You are probably wondering why the him-horse of the proverb is not called a stallion? There is a very good reason. It has to do with the usual way we use (any) natural language. Stallion and mare are too specific. Animal is too general. Horse is just right. Just in case one does not know what a horse looks like, here is a foto.

horse grazing beside river

In the foto we can see that there is water beside the horse. It is a river. It is often the case that the horse is brought to a river to drink water. So! Is that all there is to this proverb? Has everything been read or said?

How to read a painting?Edit

Let us look at the painting Bacchus and Ariadne which is used as the cover for that book "How to read a painting". We have chosen the Wikipedia article as our resource.

The first thing we want to focus on is the asking of questions. We will ignore obvious questions like "Who is Bacchus?" and "Who is Adriadne?" We will also ignore questions like "Why are most of them half naked? It must be very hot there?"

We look carefully, just like reading. Then we spot something really strange. 8 stars in the blue sky! What's this you ask?

Reading is just like decodingEdit

There is a subtitle to the book "How to read a painting". It is "Decoding, Understanding and Enjoying the Old Masters". Reading and decoding are basically the same process. You are probably asking yourself the question: "Then is writing basically the same as encoding?"

How to read a digiFoto?Edit

The first thing to notice is that the image Bacchus and Ariadne is not the painting. The image is a digital photograph, which we abbreviate to digiFoto. The painting exists uniquely in the National Gallery, London, UK. Someone has photographed it. The original photograph was probably on film. It was not a digital photograph. Perhaps it has been photographed recently, this time using a digital camera?

But, by definition, if we find an image on the Internet we shall always think of it as a digital image. The word we will use for such a digital image is "digiFoto". Why? Because it looks nice and modern and strange and memorable. Isn't it fun to be creative in this way?

Still Life

Now let us look at the digiFoto "Still Life" shown above. How are we to read this?


«A new study overturns the common assumption that the ‘Google Generation' – youngsters born or brought up in the Internet age – is the most web-literate. The first ever virtual longitudinal study carried out by the CIBER research team at University College London claims that, although young people demonstrate an apparent ease and familiarity with computers, they rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the web.»[1]

The report referred to above is entitled “Information behaviour of the researcher of the future”[2] and in our opinion it may be read in a more positive light, one that supports Marshall McLuhan's argument that there is a new generation coming which will not be bound by the old Renaissance culture of the printed book.

John Naughton's article in The Observer, “Thanks, Gutenberg - but we're too pressed for time to read”, gives a very precise summary:

«The findings describe 'a new form of information-seeking behaviour' characterised as being 'horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile.' 'Horizontal' information-seeking means 'a form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site then "bounce" out, perhaps never to return.' The average times users spend on e-book and e-journal sites are very short: typically four and eight minutes respectively.»[3]

It is in this passage that the word “skimming” occurs.


Browsing is a word just like skimming in the sense that... Well! Browsing is a kind of reading. One might browse through a book. One might might browse in a library. Today, in the Age of Internet, one browses the Web. In order to browse one needs a browser. The story of the Browser is another way of talking about the story of the Internet or the story of the World Wide Web. Later we will look at each browser in turn. For now, here is a short list[4] (in alphabetical order):

  • Chrome
  • Explorer
  • Firefox
  • Opera
  • Safari


  1. British Library press release 16 January 2008
  2. The report Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, Peter Williams and Ian Rowlands, is available in pdf format.
  3. John Naughton, "“Thanks, Gutenberg - but we're too pressed for time to read”, January 27, 2008.
  4. Not only is it a short list but also we try to use just one word. So! The Internet Explorer (IE) becomes simply Explorer and Mozilla Firefox become just Firefox.


  1. Naughton, John (Sunday January 27, 2008). "Thanks, Gutenberg - but we're too pressed for time to read". The Observer (The Guardian). Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  2. From Wikipedia: Skimming