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To a certain extent, the debate over the future of reading is simply a continuation of previous arguments concerning the impact of new technologies on society. As far back as 1934, scholar Lewis Mumford expressed worries about the spread of technology in his Technics and Civilization. In the 1960s, Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously observed that “the medium is the message.” More specifically, he predicted in his 1962 work The Gutenberg Galaxy that the growth of visual media such as films and television would greatly affect our ability to absorb and communicate via the written word. In the 1970s and 1980s, New York University (NYU) communication professor Neil Postman wrote widely on the negative impact of screen-based technologies, primarily television, which he believed were reducing people’s attention spans and ability to think.
The first major work to express concern about how digital text would alter the nature of reading was Sven Birkerts’s 1994 The Gutenberg Elegies. Published at the dawn of the World Wide Web and influenced by previous technology critics such as McLuhan, Birkerts warned of the dramatic impact that hypertext might have on the reading experience: “Words read from a screen or written onto a screen—words which appear and disappear, even if they can be retrieved and fixed into place with a keystroke—have a different status and affect us differently from words held immobile on the accessible space of a page. But McLuhan’s analysis of the print-to-electronics transformation centered upon television and the displacement of the printed word by transmissions of image and voice. But what about the difference between print on a page and print on a screen? Are we dealing with a change of degree, or a change of kind?”
Birkerts’s question—Does digital text differ merely in degree from print reading, or does it represent a far more transformative change?—lies at the heart of the current controversy over the future of reading. As the web exploded in popularity in the late 1990s and as “Web 2.0” emerged in the early twenty-first century, the general assumption was that the impact of digital text was mostly, if not entirely, positive. Despite the occasional effort to raise the alarm, concerns about the effect that the spread of screen-based reading was having on us, both individually and as a society, were fairly muted. In 2008, however, an attention-grabbing article would succeed in bringing these concerns front and center, and the debate over the future of reading would be joined in earnest.
Nicholas Carr, a technology writer and anything but a Luddite, published an article in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The piece served as the digital age’s metaphorical equivalent of the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Not only did Carr’s essay inaugurate in earnest the twenty-first-century reading debate; it is in many ways the urtext of digital reading skepticism, laying out the essential arguments that most critics of online reading have since employed. As such, the essay is worth quoting at length.
Carr begins his piece by describing how, following the advent of digital reading, he has much greater difficulty in reading at length and in depth:
I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
In looking for an explanation, Carr noted, “For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.” While acknowledging that the web had been of immense benefit to him as a writer, he expressed the fear that the advantages of online text have come with a price tag. As he put it, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Carr’s explanation for these cognitive changes, both in himself and in others he had spoken to who had experienced the same phenomenon, was neuroplasticity (though the word itself does not appear in the article): “The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental mesh-work, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case.”
Carr would go on to expand on this argument in his 2010 book The Shallows, noting that there is a growing body of research-based and anecdotal evidence that reading from a printed page is different than reading from an electronic screen. In this view, print books and e-books facilitate two very different types of reading. Whereas deep print reading tends to foster sustained attention and in-depth reflection, e-reading fosters impatience and a need for immediate gratification. E-reading is also much more likely to be prone to distraction, as it is often done on devices that also offer e-mail, apps, or access to the Internet, which in Carr’s words, “seizes our attention only to scatter it.” Thus screen-based reading is often much less conducive to memorization than print reading.
Carr’s argument is supported by numerous studies—ranging from scientific eye-tracking research to usage analysis to surveys of readers—showing that people reading in digital format are far more likely to engage in a form of superficial power browsing or skimming than they are to read in depth. For example, in 2009, a team of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that Internet searching activated many more areas of the brain than did reading text from a page. While at first this sounds like a point in favor of e-reading, this is not necessarily the case. Instead, this increased brain activity likely reflects the stimulative, distraction-laden nature of screen reading that actually impairs the ability to memorize, reflect, and absorb in the way that print texts, conducive to intensive linear reading, allow. Web usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen has likewise found that users do not read web pages in a linear manner but rather scan them using what he has called an “F-shaped pattern,” making shorter and less intensive scans of text the farther the user goes down the page. A 2008 British Library analysis found that “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
The more we read from screens in tabular fashion, the more our brains rewire themselves to facilitate this activity and the harder it becomes to engage in deep print reading.
For digital skeptics, the key to understanding this transformation in how people are reading lies in the concept of neuroplasticity. The more we read from screens in tabular fashion, the more our brains rewire themselves to facilitate this activity and the harder it becomes to engage in deep print reading. Format does matter. Text is not interchangeable. While e-reading certainly has its advantages, it is not the same as reading from the printed page. It fosters a different set of cognitive skills and a qualitatively different way of thinking. Digital skeptics argue, in short, that the rise of e-reading has fostered tabular reading at the expense of linear reading, and thus it has greatly increased our ability to access information at the expense of our ability to convert it into conceptual knowledge.
While Carr is the most widely known skeptic of digital reading, many other authors, both popular and scholarly, have expressed similar concerns about the impact of screen-based reading. Wolf and Barzillai have argued that “the digital culture’s reinforcement of rapid attentional shifts and multiple sources of distraction can short-circuit the development of the slower, more cognitively demanding comprehension processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking. If such a truncated development occurs, we may be spawning a culture so inured to sound bites and thought bites that it fosters neither critical analysis nor contemplative processes in its members.”
Hayles has reported encountering many of the same concerns, not just in her research, but in her broader work in academia:
Anecdotal evidence hooked me on this topic five years ago. Everywhere I went, I heard teachers reporting similar stories: “I can’t get my students to read long novels anymore, so I’ve taken to assigning short stories”; “My students won’t read long books, so now I assign chapters and excerpts.” I hypothesized then that a shift in cognitive modes is taking place, from the deep attention characteristic of humanistic inquiry to the hyper-attention characteristic of someone scanning Web pages. Since then, the trend has become even more apparent, and the flood of surveys, books, and articles on the topic of distraction is now so pervasive as to be, well, distracting.
Similarly, Ferris Jabr, writing in 2013 for Scientific American, offered this sympathetic summary of the digital skeptic’s case against screen-based reading: “Even so, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.”
More recently, Naomi Baron, a scholar of linguistics at American University, has expressed many of these same concerns regarding the impact of screen-based reading. In her 2015 book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, Baron has argued that “one of the major effects of digital screens is to shift the balance from continuous reading to reading on the prowl.” As part of the research for her book, in 2013 Baron surveyed a select sample of undergraduates in the United States, Germany, and Japan regarding their reading habits and preferences. When she asked them about multitasking, 85 percent of the American students reported multitasking while reading on a screen versus 26 percent who multitasked while reading in hard copy. Results among the German students were comparable.
Concerns about the impact of digital text on our ability to read in depth have gained such resonance that the topic has been picked up by major media outlets. An April 2014 Washington Post piece, for example, worried that “humans seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.” Among the experts quoted in the article is Wolf, who told the Post that “I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.”
Digital reading skeptics are especially worried not just about the present state of reading but about what might happen to linear reading in the future. British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, in her 2015 book Mind Change, expressed her concern that “these powerful interactive screen technologies are not just exciting experiences but critical tools that have reshaped our cognitive processes and will continue to do so, creating both benefits and problems. The difference between silicon and paper, the distractions of multitasking and hypertext, and the tendency to browse rather than to think deeply all suggest fundamental shifts in how our brains are now being asked to work.”
The ultimate worry is about what will happen if today’s children are only exposed to screen-based reading. Given what we know about neuroplasticity, this change could result in their failure to develop the ability to engage in immersive linear reading. Wolf summarized this concern in a 2010 article: “The reading circuit’s very plasticity is also its Achilles’ heel. It can be fully fashioned over time and fully implemented when we read, or it can be short-circuited—either early on in its formation period or later, after its formation, in the execution of only part of its potentially available cognitive resources.”