Reading online is ruining my life….

Well not quite but not entirely untrue either.  A couple of weeks ago I took a call from a rather persistent journalist at the Washington Post, who wanted to talk to me about the changes that might be occurring in people’s reading behavior as a result of the web. After what I thought was a thorough exchange for more than 20 minutes, I proceeded to forget about this until Monday, when the Post ran a story entitled “Serious reading takes a hit, researchers say.”  In it, my comments were reduced to a grammatically questionable single sentence that seemed to suggest support for the idea that the world had changed. OK, any press is good press and if people want to know about this topic, I am happy. My request to have the sentence slightly edited (oh, what one extra ‘s’ can do to the clarity of one’s expression) was not successful but clearly the article was. Within two hours I was being interviewed on CBS Radio News and thirty minutes later, my words broadcast to the world. Curiouser and curiouser, that evening I am contacted by Al Jazeera America and before I know it, I am sitting in a studio in Austin being live broadcast to their network on Consider This. It’s not stopped since and today I am talking to NPR affiliate station KPCC in LA (where you can still listen to the show) then Education Week, and who knows who else later.

(EDIT — Video removed — Al Jazeera apparently only allow video to stay up for 1 week, after which it’s gone….)

The stimulus for all this seems to be the belief (or is it fear?) that human reading has altered radically with the introduction of the web and that the ability to read serious and extended prose is fading. Even adults who learned to read before the onslaught of web publications seem to complain that shifting from the daily routine of email/browsing/scanning of digital documents to the slower pace of book reading is becoming difficult. Couple this with emerging data from brain imagine studies which purport to show different patterns of excitation in the brain depending on your activities and the concern is being expressed that we might be changing our brains in unforeseen ways.

OK, pause and take a deep breath. What is really happening here?  Let’s make a few points clear:

1) Reading is an acquired skill. It is one that most cultures place in high regard and in which they invest significant resources to ensure young members of their society acquire this skill. Like all skills, the brain does need to actively adjust to the task.

2) The act of reading is involves all levels of human activity: physical, perceptual, cognitive and social. We tend to think of it only as a perceptual and cognitive act but materials must be located and handled, and the forms of information we share reflect cultural and behavioral norms of groups which manifest as genres and types. Any significant act of reading moves seamlessly among these levels of engagement.

3) In reading, we do judge books by their covers, we do scan headings and layout, we do make multiple decisions on how to engage and we do most of this before we sit down to read an extended text (but please note, most of our routine reading is not really of extended text).

4) The type of publication formats we have known have been relatively stable: incunabula and Penguin paperbacks really don’t differ that much in terms of their affordances and ways of being handled. As a result, the skills learned early on in life for reading were, up until recently, very transferable across most forms of publication.

So what has changed?   Well, we have witnessed a significant shift from paper to digital media but the shift itself is not really the issue. We know that text read on screens might be slightly slower to read than on paper and that comprehension might be impacted. Most people are willing to tolerate that for the convenience of carrying multiple documents on a single device. What’s really different however is the ongoing morphing of digital tools to the point that a simple comparison between paper or screen is not so relevant. With digital carriers and interfaces becoming smaller, cheaper, mobile, and capable of multiple functions, the type of information structures we can present digitally have changed and we are seeing different forms emerge that have no simple paper equivalent. As the technology moves, the content providers adjust and, since screen real estate and human attention are at a premium, shorter texts, increased use of animation and color, and a concern with getting the message across quickly all come to the fore.  This is the new norm and you probably won’t be seeing too many people reading Proust on their iPhone anytime soon.

Now, what has changed for humans? There are a couple of important things to note. Our basic make-up, meaning our physical form and cognitive architecture, are not changing quickly. We still have finite attention, limited capacity working memory, a tendency to be distracted by movement, a perceptual span that limits the number of words we can read at a time, a desire for structure etc. In any full reading process involving extended text. we run through the range of responses to a document from short-term decisions to full, immersive engagement over time. With most of the material we read during the working day and online, we often aren’t willing to commit to the full range and stop after scanning. Content providers know this and produce accordingly. Add to this the delivery of digital material on a platform that is constantly refreshing, updating and allows users to multi-task across applications, and the results are a series of short acts involving the perusal and reaction to messages and short form texts that break up the normal progression through deep reading tasks.

Is this bad? Not if your goal is to keep on top of changing contexts and identify facts. Yes if you want to read a novel or really study a technical report. It’s not that we must use paper for the latter but we must create some time and isolation from distraction to do so comprehensively. That is a fact of our own psychological make-up; it is not really a limitation of the technology (ignoring some form factors for now). The problem that worries people now is if spending too much time with digital devices might somehow diminish your ability to read deeply, even if you make the switch to appropriate medium (e.g., a book) for deeper study.

We can add to this concerns with the adoption of new mobile tools in schools, and if this then distorts the education of readers by emphasizing one form of reading over another. The fear is that young minds never learn to appreciate the benefits of longer form documents and certainly are not required to develop the skills needed to exploit these benefits appropriately. There  is talk a new bi-literacy, or bi-literate gap emerging and of course, older (if not wiser) heads worry that human civilization will crumble as the full reading of  Shakespeare is replaced by students who can only tweet the odd phrase of a soliloquy. Or the related fear that nobody will remember anything anymore as they will convince themselves that it’s all in the cloud somewhere, and they only need to Google it for an answer.

Well, technology is always going to ruin us, so why should the web be any different?  I remember only snatches of Hamlet’s speech now and I also recall students who felt that photocopying an article for their personal use was as good as reading it. Plus ca change. There is certainly a set of questions related to human reading that warrant our attention right now but the imminent collapse of culture as a result of digital scanning is not the one I would spend most of my time on.  I do think however that we should try to be a little more self-conscious of our reading habits and remember that sometimes, to really get to the heart of the document, we need to give the reading process a chance to fully occur.