Blog Post

Readability

Tags: 
Adorno, David Pogue

David Pogue, who miraculously manages to remain both an enthusiast for all things technological while, at the same time, starting a small insurrection against cell phone companies, has now convinced me not to worry about which edition of Shakespeare my students use.

Pogue recently tweeted (a word I still have a lot of trouble saying; it sounds alternately adolescent and pornographic, and not in a good combination sort of way) about this new thing (program? website?) called Readability. Readability takes the web page you are looking at and strips all the junk—ads, pictures, graphics—out of it that makes your computer crash and makes web pages load as slowly as spring arrives in Toronto. What you are left with is something that looks, more or less, like a document in a word processor—just text, in the “style” (newspaper, novel, ebook, terminal), font size, and margins you choose (I chose large fonts in a newspaper format, having recently departed from the demographic with good eyesight). I have found it especially useful for reading Sports Illustrated, a website that seems to enjoy spending the weekend making my browser fall on its sword.

Now it is true that if you spend as much time watching football as I do, Readability will inevitably remind you of the beer ads about “drinkability.” Not being a marketing expert, as far as I can tell the point of the claim of “drinkability” is to insist that Bud Light is different from other beers in that those who drink it can recognize the inanity of the claim of drinkability. Knowing how stupid the very idea of drinkability is creates a smug superiority over Miller drinkers who are, apparently, duped by the promise of “great taste.” Bud Lite drinkers have no such illusions.

The connection between Readability and a beer ad will take a moment to sort out. What Pogue said about Readability in his Tweet was “This thing is AMAZING: One click gets rid of ALL crap on a Web page (ads, links, banners) so you can READ! And FREE!” The irony lurking in Pogue’s plug is that it manages to sound a lot like an ad for a dice-o-matic ("you can CHOP! and SLICE! And it’s FREE!”) that hints at a broader problem: all the crap on a web page (and “crap” here is, I suppose, a technical term referring to the primary source of Google’s revenue, more commonly called “advertising”) is not so easy to escape. Cutting crap out of your webpage does not necessarily cut it out of your HEAD! Even when it’s FREE!

So what does that lingering advertising sentiment settled in your brain mean for the crucial phrase in Pogue’s post, and in the claim of “readability” in general? What is the logic of “so” in Pogue’s getting “rid of ALL crap” and “so you can READ”? Why exactly would crap prevent you from reading? A crashing browser is one answer: I recently had to switch from Safari to Firefox simply because my (very ancient five year old) computer couldn’t process fast enough to deal (Mac users: do you find yourself singing lollipop lollipop oh lolly lolly pop everytime that stupid thing appears?). I couldn’t read in a very literal sense, because there was neither text nor crap to read. Or rather, I couldn’t read what I wanted to read: a blank page with a lollipop in the middle of it does present some interesting interpretative opportunities, particularly possibilities about Apple’s evil plot to make me buy a new computer (which I am bravely resisting). But I usually can’t read when my browser has frozen because I’m sobbing, or screaming, or something like that. Readability, or un-readability, refers to my reaction: irritability, desirability, curiousability, boredability, desperate-not-to-write-my-lecturability. And anyway, Readabilty, the thing that Pogue was tweeting about, doesn’t help this problem, because a web page has to have loaded in your browser before Readability can perform its textual strip mining operation.

But the same thing holds true on those happy occasions when Firefox is firing away, when Don Banks’ NFL Power Rankings have loaded and I can find out what he thinks is wrong with the Eagles (no Brian Westbrook: it is very clear). Readability at that moment also refers to my own head: though I like his writing quite a lot, surely Don Banks’ prose might be described as “crap” by other people. The readability of a thing lies in my disposition to read, and not so much in the presentation of the thing that I want to read.

And so Readability as an invention (whatever it is, in the world of computer programming) seems to me in one respect to be the exact opposite of reading. Readability betrays an obsession with transparency, with a fantasy of reading as the clear communication of information (readability as, for instance, a sign of good, clear prose) and with a longing for freedom from all social conditions: advertising, pop-up boxes, the web, and life in general. It is, in this sense, an exact analogue to the Bud Lite ad: creating consumers who believe they are superior, not duped, not as dumb as those Miller Lite drinking Capulets. That longing for unfettered individuality, for a reader free to read, for a drinker free to drink, is the opposite of freedom: Pogue’s phrase “so you can READ” is also an uncanny passivity: I cannot read until I am allowed to.

And yet I can’t help but feel that this reading of Readability is itself uncannily passive, the lingering hangover of one strain of Frankfurt School determinism. Readability becomes the sign of The Internet Industry’s (of which Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture Industry is now merely a marginally profitable subsidiary) ability to provoke a desire to read (or the beer industry’s ability to provoke a desire to drink with undupability) that exists as a manufactured place of freedom, which is to say, a place of commodification. And this commodification is apparent in Readability’s similarity to Drinkability, the beer advertising campaign. Both try to manufacture people who want to do a particular thing. The disposition for clarity in reading and writing (and, for that matter, for drinkability) is a sign of commodification, not truth.

But David Pogue does not have this particular strain of Frankfurt School about him at all. His charmingly dopey posts and little show tunes instead tend to lean on another strain also straight out of the Frankfurt School: the utopian, hopeful bits of analysis that always lurk in Adorno (though they can be hard to find). I also find, at least on sunny mornings, Readability a cause for optimism (Bud Lite gives me a headache no matter what). Not optimism because, in and of itself, Readability “lets” “you” “read”; but rather that the existence of Readability might also be a sign of a disposition that calls not for the transparent movement of information but the coming-to-grips with a situation. This disposition is not the result of an unfettered reader casting a knowing glance over a passive text. Any disposition is part of the world. There is no person who gets to read free of the clutter of the webpage, because that clutter is always in your head: it IS your disposition. But out of all that CRAP, sometimes, out of all that advertisingability, merges readability with a lower-case r. In other words, out of Readability emerges, well, reading. And that is one reason I like David Pogue so much: he is neither merely a technological enthusiast and industry apologist nor a naive idealist trying to bring down cell phone companies. His posts ARE readability.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare editions? Stayed tuned after these important messages

Christopher Warley's picture
Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.