A Response to Katherine Hayles “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine”.

     Katherine Hayles 2010 paper “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine” is insightful, humorous and an enjoyable read. Reflecting on my own style I noticed that when initially reading  her piece I ‘hyper-read’  in order to identify the areas of most interest. However, once I had created more time for myself I thoroughly enjoyed the sit down away from the screen to re read using a close reading style (which I personally find much more relaxing on body and mind). Unbeknownst to myself I was practising exactly what Hayles was writing about. For starters I would not call myself a ‘digital native’, although born in the late 1970’s I still remember black and white TV and the first basic computers and so I did grow up amidst the evolving technology of the digital realm. This in itself allows me perspective on how I understand and acknowledge Hayles detailed work which we shall explore here.

Before moving into Hayles main argument I wish to define and clarify each reading term she uses. Firstly, Hayles defines close reading to be associated not only with literary study (and specifically literary identity) but also through one primary text, (novel/poem/prose) which is in the medium of print and which is read in its entirety. Hayles questions in her paper how long close reading, as a skill will last in the current digital age and what the implications for losing it for future generations are. Using Google as an  example of how we access and practice hyper reading she associates it with multiple digital texts and uses  James Sasnoski’s (1999) definition as “Reader directed, screen based, computer assisted reading” (Hayles, K. 2010: 66). For Hayles, hyper reading is human guided but assisted by computers. Machine reading can be thought of as an opposite, characterised as guided by computers and assisted by humans in order to analyse vast amounts of data. Machine reading looks for patterns yet is devoid of interpretation or meaning, which can lead to errors. Hayles main concern throughout the paper is that the increase in digital reading has seen the decrease in literary reading and that of close reading skills. She opens the paper posing two critical questions:

1.         How, in contemporary society can we convert the increased digital reading into increased reading ability?

2.         How can we build bridges between digital reading and the literacy traditionally associated with print?

At present Hayles identifies a ‘blip’ between what is being taught in schools and the home environment; with close reading at school and web reading at home the two environments are poles apart. For this reason Hayles argues for a disciplinary shift to a broader sense of reading strategies and interrelation with each other.  Taking myself as an example (a relative novice with social media) who is beginning to ‘tweet’ and ‘blog’, I see the majority of those around me with fingers semi-permanently attached to a mobile device of some sort. We text or tweet an article of interest (that may or may not have been properly read) and are becoming experts in the quick and fast nature of a consumerist digital society. I know for myself when spending  ten minutes or so on Twitter seeking news of interest I very rarely read the entire article before ‘re tweeting’  them, primarily as a means of linking to others or creating a timeline of information which I can draw from at a later stage. Hayles argues that consumerism of digital media is itself knowledge based (knowing how to access information quickly); frightening to those lovers of books and of course exciting for those born into the digital world. My intention here is to walk us through Hayles main arguments using her examples and research papers as we go. This is a proposition of Katherine Hayles paper.

     Hayles takes us through a process of enquiry into scientific research on reading style, physiological changes to the brain of learning to read and subsequently what happens when we hyper read and machine read. Her first question asks; does learning to read change the brain? Hayles answers this question by quoting research from 2009, by French Neurophysiologist Stanislas Dehaene who looked at pairs of sisters whom grew up in a poor environment in 1940s/50s Portugal. One of each of the pairs of sisters was literate and the other was illiterate (who had stayed at home to look after the younger children). There were 6 pairs of sisters in the study. The researchers read prose to the girls and monitored their phonemic ability as well as scanning their brains (FMRI scans). They found that the literate girls were able to distinguish the phonemic structure of language where the illiterate girls were not.  Hayles mentions that before reading has been learnt and we listen to language it sounds like a continuous stream of sound but when we read we learn to pick out the different sounds. This concurs with the findings (the illiterate sister had a much harder time remembering pseudo phonemes). The researchers also found that there were physiological differences in the brain scans. The differences were predominantly in the anterior insular (the brains ‘letterbox’ which is responsible for letter and phonemic recognition) in which the literate sister was much more developed. This indicates that learning to read increased ‘traffic’ between the two hemispheres, increasing cognition and neural development. The research also mentioned that writing develops according to our environment, letters of the alphabet reflecting our surroundings and thus languages differ according to our individual external/ internal architecture. When we read the information goes into short term memory however to learn the short term memory needs to be processed into long term memory and subsequently, into schemas. If we transpose this to the digital world we can see how hyperlinks take up cognitive space (scrolling down etc). Neurologists know that in order to rewire the brain the person must repeat small tasks again and again. Through the internet we are effectively being rewired, especially the student population. Hayles quotes Nicholas Carr who concludes on reflection of this and many other studies that;

“(k)nowing what we know today, if you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.”      (Hayles, K. 2010, 70)

Hayles is sceptical about this conclusion, agreeing however that the evidence points towards hyper reading making changes to brain function which makes sustained concentration difficult. This constant state of distraction in checking emails, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to mentions a few is, according to Hayles exacerbated by hyper reading, asserting that close reading teaches discipline and focus. (Hayles, K. 2010, 67) This holds implications for a potential change not only in reading style but also our writing style (because of the neuro- programming of the web technology). As writing evolved to fit our cortex which relates to our environment and if our environment is changing (digital technology) then the shift from longhand writing to shorthand texting, tweeting and blogging using a more computer-style language is not only inevitable but a sign of the evolution of the species adapting to the environment.  This shift in cognitive mode according to Hayles is creating hyper attention; low tolerance for boredom and high preference for multiple information at one time. For example, 8-18year olds have shifted the majority of their time spent from the living room to the bedroom which allows for multiple media (Ibid). So yes, looking at these findings, Hayles asserts that reading does indeed change both brain function and brain physiology; step one learning to read print and then adapting to reading on a screen. However as children are being ‘rewired’ from infancy in contemporary society Hayles concern is that literary reading, that is close reading from print will become entirely obsolete.

     The second research which Hayles refers to is by John Guillory in How Scholars Read from 2008 (Hayles, K. 2010, 66) which looks at how scholars work with archival research. Guillory identifies scanning and skimming as techniques employed in order to move through vast amounts of material to find the most relevant. He also mentions the book wheel of the renaissance where a similar physical apparatus was used to look at many texts at the same time (a ‘Ferris wheel’ image which was spun to observe the different texts).  The implication being that we have been hyper reading for longer than we think.

Hayles asks her second question; what happens when we learn to web read? Referring to the Nielson Norman Group who asked a group of participants to web read while providing a monologue as they did, the researchers tracked the individual’s eye movement. (Hayles, K. 2010, 66) The results showed a typical reading style of an ‘F- shaped’ pattern with an average length of time spent on a ‘page’ at three minutes. Google, as an example makes use of this information, one glance at the Google page sees no wording on the bottom right hand corners of ‘pages’, accommodating the F shape style.

Moving from this point with logical inquiry Hayles asks what happens to our brains when we are web reading in this way. (Hayles, K. 2010, 70).  Referring next to Gary Small of UCLA’s Medical institute’s paper of 2008 some very interesting discoveries were made. Small took MRI scans of a group of individuals who do web reading regularly and those who have never done web reading in their lives (aged 50 +). What Small found was that in those who had never web read before and when scanned doing so for the first time, less areas of the brain were activated than print reading. However after a week of doing Google searches for an hour each day brain scans of the same individuals showed considerable differences. The brains activation had reversed, now showing much more activity when reading web than print. This paper of high relevance shows that a small amount of web reading has a dramatic impact on brain function and is directly linked to surveys conducted on the reading skills of 8th grade children through to graduate school which show a sharp decline in one decade, attributed to an increase in web reading. In answer to Hayles inquiry, people are reading less print and less well when they do attributed directly to use of the Internet.

Machine analysis and surveys also show that “people read less print, and they read less well.” (Hayles, K. 2010, 62) However useful machine reading is, as seen in the following example, it nevertheless decreases close reading ability. Hayles provides the analysis of Time magazine front covers from 1929-2003 and the analysis of the Japanese magazine, Manga conducted by Manovich at UCLA as part of the ‘Cultural Analytics’ projects (Hayles, K. 2010, 76). The computer system at UCLA allowed the researchers to analyse these vast amounts of material very quickly (much quicker than a human could possibly do) from which they could then focus on areas of interest determined by patterns which were identified by the computers, showing how effectively humans and machines can work together. Moving on from examining the research which proves that each reading style does indeed change reading patterns as well as brain physiology Hayles asks how we can combine the three modes to enhance all skills. To clearly define the three once more in their essence; hyper reading identifies the passage, close reading provides the understanding and machine reading identifies the patterns. All three, according to Hayles need to be taught interdependently for the evolution of learning to be in conjunction with contemporary society; “If the distance is too great between what one wants someone else to learn and where instruction begins, the teaching will not be effective.”(Hayles, K. 2010, 65)

Hayles provides examples of this combined style, presented by three professors; Liu, Manovich and Hayles. (Ibid, 76) Alan Liu uses a forward thinking approach and teaches students to first close read (e.g. Romeo and Juliet) and then in the second half of the teaching semester he asks them to recreate the story online via Facebook. Through doing this students identified which were the main points within the dense text and created the dialogue between characters online. Through the use of ‘liking’ items they displayed the characters personalities and through ‘events’ they arranged the ‘meet ups’ of the two Capulet’s and Montague’s. In effect the project re-created Shakespeare’s world of Romeo and Juliet on Facebook, gaining a deep insight into both dimensions of the dense text and the multiple layered web network.

The second example given is a technique used by Hayles in which she asked students to take Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (A Hypertext fiction written in Storyspace software).  Hayles asked them to go through Patchwork Girl with the same scrutiny as they do close reading Frankenstein, examining all the digital hyperlinks as they did. She then asked them to draw links with all of the hyperlinks and return with a presentation. The results were fascinating;

“Juxtaposing this text with Frankenstein encouraged discussions about narrative framing, transitions, strategies, and

characterization. By the end, students, who already admired Frankenstein and were enthralled by Mary Shelly’s narrative,

were able to see that electronic literature might be comparably complex and would also repay close attention to its

strategies, structure, form, rhetoric and themes.”

(Hayles, K. 2010, 77.)

What is interesting here is how print literature was enlisted to promote and extend digital literacy and the two areas effectively combined to create a new medium. Hayles also argues that this could in fact lead to the digital medium being a portal to close reading for those born ‘digitally native’. Hayles also states that through this way of working both students and teachers are learning, the pedagogy changes from the traditional one way discourse to a two way interdependent learning style which empowers students in their own autonomy as well as drawing on the vast knowledge of the Professors who learn new skills of interactive teaching methods.

The third example is that of Manovich et al (already discussed) who took a more sociological approach which examined large amounts of data both visual and literary content over a large time span using advanced computer systems and programmes which, as discussed focused on identifying patterns. There are not many computer systems which can accommodate such studies, however the process showed what is possible and paved the way for more accessible programmes to be developed, now seen within different institutions and indeed, arguably through the medium of social media sites as a potential tool for literary and cultural analysis.

     Methodically moving through Hayles detailed paper has enabled a close understanding of both research and her solution to the future. We looked at Hayles focus on the neurobiology in relation to the internet. As a means of exploration we have seen that her claims that machine reading can open the door to new discoveries and to the delight of close reading is aptly asserted. (Ibid, 78) Using Liu, Manovich and herself as examples of how literary circles can evolve she is vouching for a significant shift in how scholars perceive the digital realm as well as providing tools for doing so. It has been clearly presented that hypertext links tend to decrease the readers understanding of a text and that the deeper understanding is only gained with close reading. This close reading style of a single print text compared with one containing hypertext provides more satisfaction, deeper relaxation of the mind and a more focused attitude. Hayles suggests that through combining all three reading styles a fundamental change in disciplinary identity and technique for literary studies is possible. She vouches for this shift;

“literary studies teaches literacies across a range of media forms, including print and digital, and focuses on interpretation and analysis of patterns, meaning and context through close, hyper and machine reading practices.”               (Hayles, K. 2010, 78)

As stated at the start of this essay, infants and children are being ‘rewired’ to digital technology from birth, if not from before, from their time within the womb as they ‘absorb’ the stimulus of the mothers emotions, cognitive and neurological experiences. Babies are born with the most amounts of synapses that they will ever have and through the process of synapsagenesis they are pruned in relation to the environment. (Hayles, K. 2010, 63)  Synapsogenesis is a remarkable evolutionary development and with the babies of today being exposed to the digital realm as part and parcel, we could assert that they are in fact, already configuring the future environment. Reading, writing and even speech could be profoundly affected as children are rewired very differently from our current digital generation.  Is this cause for concern or a call for the acceptance of our evolutionary path as human beings? The reality is that our social society is digitalised and is indeed a strong current to swim against at that. By combining close, hyper and machine reading techniques and young and old working together Hayles provides a solution which could ease the transition we are in to prove to be flowing rather than resisting. Her scientific manifesto and approach to the evolution of literary learning within the digital age is a detailed and fascinating read and one which will be very interesting to watch unravel, probably faster than we could envisage.


Hayles, K. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” Association of Departments of English Bulletin 150 (2010): 62-79. Print.

“Katherine Hayles interviewed by Stacey Cochran for Raleigh Television Network program The Artist’s Craft.” YouTube, March 28th 2009. Web.1st April 2013.


“Katherine Hayles – “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine” Vimeo, 2011. Web. 1st April 2013.



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