Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

how problematic is e-reading?

Naomi Baron thinks it’s really problematic in academic contexts: 

What’s the problem? Not all reading works well on digital screens.

For the past five years, I’ve been examining the pros and cons of reading on-screen versus in print. The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called "deep reading" is nearly always better done in print.

Readers themselves have a keen sense of what kind of reading is best suited for which medium. My survey research with university students in the United States, Germany, and Japan reveals that if cost were the same, about 90 percent (at least in my sample) prefer hard copy for schoolwork. If a text is long, 92 percent would choose hard copy. For shorter texts, it’s a toss-up.

Digital reading also encourages distraction and invites multitasking. Among American and Japanese subjects, 92 percent reported it was easiest to concentrate when reading in hard copy. (The figure for Germany was 98 percent.) In this country, 26 percent indicated they were likely to multitask while reading in print, compared with 85 percent when reading on-screen. Imagine wrestling with Finnegan’s Wake while simultaneously juggling Facebook and booking a vacation flight. You get the point.

And maybe she’s right, but she also seems to be eliding some important distinctions. For instance, when she says that “digital reading ... encourages distraction and invites multitasking,” what she’s really referring to is “reading on a capable internet-connected device” — probably an iPad. A Kindle or Nook or Kobo, with either very limited internet access or none at all, wouldn’t provide such distractions. 

To be sure, digital reading is increasingly dominated by tablets, as their share of the market grows and that of the dedicated e-readers shrinks, but it’s still wrong to blame “digital reading” for a problem that’s all about internet connectivity. 

Also: Baron’s research is with university students, which is to say, people who learned to read on paper and did all their serious reading on paper until quite recently. What we don’t know is how kids who learn to read on digital devices — a still-small category — will feel about these matters by the time they get to university. That is, what Baron is attributing to some intrinsic difference between digital reading and reading on paper might well be a matter of simple familiarity. I don’t think we’ve yet reached the point where we can make that decision. 

I say all this as a lover of books and a believer that reading on paper has many great advantages that our digital devices have yet to replicate, much less to exceed. But, to judge only from this excerpt of a larger project, I doubt that Baron has an adequate experimental design. 

6 comments:

  • re: it’s still wrong to blame “digital reading” for a problem that’s all about internet connectivity.

    I'm not sure it's "wrong," except in a very theoretical sense; internet connectivity is pretty much inherent to digital reading as it's actually practiced.

    But, perhaps more important, I would, in the spirit of your post, challenge you to provide the scientific backing for your assertion that the problem is "all about internet connectivity." I've seen studies - not conclusive, but compelling - that the very different haptic experience of reading a series of pages on paper is cognitively different from the experience of reading a single screen of continually refreshed text. That's a difference in reading experience that has nothing to do with internet connectivity and that, I'd posit, influences both reading for pleasure and reading for research.

  • Nick, I don’t have any “scientific backing” for you but I will appeal to the still higher authority of LOGIC: if, as Baron says (and it was this claim I was responding to), the problem is “wrestling with Finnegan’s [sic] Wake while simultaneously juggling Facebook and booking a vacation flight,” then that’s a problem that only arises when you have internet connectivity.

    I’ve seen some of the studies you refer to, but perhaps not all the important ones. As I’ve suggested numerous times on this blog, I have serious questions about research that’s based in a codex/screen dichotomy, because there is now a fairly long history of experimental evidence indicating that we don’t respond to all screens in the same way.

    People seem to be forgetting that. Even Eric McLuhan now talks about what happens when reading moves from book to screen without distinguishing among kinds of screens — and he’s the guy who helped design and oversee the first major experiment on how differently people respond, cognitively and emotionally, to movie screens (“light on”) and television screens (“light through”). I guess even the people who have the strongest reasons to avoid the codex/screen dichotomy still end up relying on it.

    So I’m still looking for studies that address the real complications. For me, as I have explained in my Pleasures of Reading, reading on an e-ink device is indeed different than reading a codex, but it’s more like reading a codex than it’s like reading on a tablet, in part because of the light-on rather than light-through, in part because of limited internet connectivity, in part for other reasons. Those are three strongly varying experiences — again for me. Maybe not for others — though I do think it’s significant that people who use dedicated e-readers read more books than people who use tablets. The causal arrows there probably run in both directions, i.e., people who are already serious readers may prefer dedicated e-readers to tablets; but still, it’s a noteworthy difference, and one that I wish more studies took seriously. Though maybe those better studies exist and I just don’t know about them.

  • I agree with Alan, you can't tell me my reading is less effective and then define reading in a way that is fundamentally different than what I do.

    Most studies I have seen look at ereading as a computer event. Some use tablets, but almost no one uses eink ereaders to do studies, even though that is what a significant number of ereader proponent are proposing.

    If there is a serious study that looks at eink ereader I am not aware of it and I have looked.

  • Alan,

    Sorry, I thought the problem you were referring to was the general problem Baron raises, which is, as she puts it in the passage you quote: "The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called 'deep reading' is nearly always better done in print." She identifies distraction and multitasking as one element of that problem. And even with distraction and multitasking I would be wary about attributing all the effects to internet connections, as the digital interface may influence attentiveness and reading comprehension in other, less obvious ways.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you and Adam that studies contrasting uni-tasking, e-ink ereaders with both paper and multitasking tablets would be extremely valuable and might even - excuse me while I don my rose-colored eyeware - influence the gadgetry decisions of school boards, university administrators, and parents. On the other hand, I'm also a realist, and the fact is that, as Alan points out, multitasking tablets and smart phones are rapidly rendering old-style e-ink Kindles obsolete (or at least relegating them to - how shall I put this? - the more mature end of the market). It's hard at this point to imagine students carting around a dedicated e-reader along with their smartphones, tablets, and laptops, and it's even harder imagining school boards handing out Paperwhites to tykes rather than iPads. I'm all for the quixotic advocacy of calm digital devices with lovely text rendering and restrained networking, but in the world as it is and as it will likely remain digital reading, particularly as done by students, is going to take place on net-connected, multitasking devices, and it is those devices that have to be compared with the codex alternative.

  • In the world as it is and as it will likely remain digital reading, particularly as done by students, is going to take place on net-connected, multitasking devices, and it is those devices that have to be compared with the codex alternative.

    Seems likely to me as well. But if we're going to look at the question in that light, then when you rightly say "It's hard at this point to imagine students carting around a dedicated e-reader along with their smartphones, tablets, and laptops," couldn't we replace "a dedicated e-reader" with "multiple codexes" and be just as accurate? The "all-in-one" character of the iPad is Apple's chief selling point to schools.

    In any case, we're dealing with two very different sets of questions here, the first involving how our minds respond to varying reading technologies, and the second being what kinds of decisions school boards are likely to make. I'm more interested in the first set of questions because the second set makes me want to cry.

  • Light-on is wonderful. I'll also note that while one doesn't logically imply the other, it's "no coincidence" that so much digital reading is internet connected.

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