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Digital Reading

Like Carr, most digital skeptics freely acknowledge the benefits of screen-­based reading. It has made more text readily available than ever before in human history. It has made reading a far more mobile and portable activity. Instead of lugging around a handful of books, you can have thousands of e-books at your fingertips on a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone and can access them virtually anywhere. Thanks to social media, reading can now be much more of a shared, interactive process and potentially that much more interesting as a result. Finally, the digital reading environment has, in many cases, made tabular reading a much easier exercise than it was before. Features such as the “Find” command make it much simpler to find specific pieces of information in larger texts, while online search engines have obviated much of the need for print dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Again, most digital skeptics both accept these points and regard these phenomena as substantially positive. They are not opposed to digital texts in principle and are certainly not against tabular reading. Indeed, they regard both as indispensable. It is not even reading on digital devices that they necessarily oppose. The primary fear of those concerned about the spread of digital reading is the possibility that by transitioning to an almost exclusive reliance on reading from digital devices without thinking through the matter, we risk losing much if not all of our ability to read complex, linear texts at length. Through such means as neuroplasticity and the great potential for distraction built into many digital devices, the online digital environment could well be fostering tabular reading while eroding our ability to engage in deep linear reading. If this is the case, the way in which we read, write, and even think is changing enormously.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, those who reject the concerns offered by the digital skeptics fall into two main camps. The first school of thought rejects the notion that transitioning to reading primarily in digital format will have a major impact on how people read. The second school of thought actually agrees with the skeptics that digital text will dramatically transform reading, but they argue that this will prove to be a good thing.

Continuity of Digital with Print?

Many among the first school of digital defenders make the case, contra McLuhan, that format is essentially irrelevant: text is interchangeable whether it appears on a printed page, a computer screen, or a Kindle. In a September 2010 piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey R. Di Leo, a dean at the University of Houston at Victoria, argues that “academe must transform itself from a fundamentally print culture to one that is fundamentally digital” and openly looks forward to the day when “the myth of the book will be overcome.”[30] As Di Leo puts it, “There is nothing intrinsically inferior about spreading knowledge on a screen rather than on a printed page, and plagiarism is an ethical issue, not a material one. Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.”[31]

Writing in the same publication, publishing executive Diane Wachtell argues, “We do not need books.”[32] In her view, long-­form texts are what matter, and the precise container is unimportant: “We are mistaking the package for the thing itself. What is crucial at a time when habits of consumption are changing—­for reasons both economic and technological—­is to ensure the future of lofty ideas, whether they are set in Bodoni or pixels, hand-­sewn at the binding or backlit and scrolled.”[33]

Among the leading critics of the case against digital reading is New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton. In his 2010 book I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works, Bilton attributes much of the worry over the impact of screen-­based reading to a phenomenon he calls “technochondria”: “Fear of the new and fear of the unknown.”[34]

Bilton is unconvinced by concerns over the possible rewiring of our brains induced by digital reading. If anything, Bilton argues, neuroplasticity will work in our favor: “Just as well-­meaning scientists and consumers feared that trains and comic books and television would rot our brains and spoil our minds, I believe many of the skeptics and worrywarts today are missing the bigger picture, the greater value that access to new and faster information is bringing us. For the most part, our brains will adapt in a constructive way to this online world.”[35] Why does Bilton believe this? “Because we’ve learned how to do so many things already, including learning how to read.”[36]

Similarly, Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine argues that the belief that print reading fosters superior attentiveness compared to digital reading is primarily a result of deeply held cultural prejudices that create a self-­fulfilling prophecy. He explained his views in a 2015 piece discussing his ultimately successful attempt to read War and Peace on his smartphone: “But what happens if we treat digital screens with the same romance, the same intensity of focus? Studies suggest that the cognitive distinctions go away: We learn just as much, and retain just as much, as we do on paper. When we believe that reading on a phone is equally ‘serious’ as reading on paper, we internalize that reading just as deeply.”[37]

Other defenders of digital reading have echoed this argument. In a July 2015 review of Baron’s Words Onscreen, John Jones, a professor of writing at West Virginia University, makes the case that the perceived inferiorities of screen-based reading are due to a mix of the cultural predilections emphasized by Thompson along with the limitations of current digital reading devices. In his view, both aspects will sort themselves out as digital reading continues to develop: “Rather than arguing for a return to print for serious reading or demonstrating that ‘digital reading’ is inherently flawed, what anecdotes of our difficulties adjusting to the various forms of reading on our screens suggests is that we are still at an early stage in the development of digital reading tools. . . . More importantly, we are not yet cultured to digital reading as we are with reading print—­we are still training ourselves to manage the new distractions produced by our devices and becoming literate in the navigational affordances of digital texts.”[38]

One subset of the argument that digital reading is not inherently different from print reading relies on dedicated e-reading devices, such as the Kindle and the Nook. Unlike most digital devices, e-readers are designed to mimic the experience of print reading as closely as possible. In the opinion of some, dedicated e-readers offer the best of both worlds: a digital reading technology that preserves the key features of deep print reading. Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Baylor University, has written how he too—­like Carr—­found himself losing the ability to read lengthy linear narratives. However, Jacobs regained the ability to engage in deep linear reading once he purchased a Kindle. He soon found his “ability to concentrate . . . restored almost instantly.”[39] In Jacobs’s view, “E-readers are by any measure far less distracting than an iPad or a laptop. It’s at least possible for new technologies to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”[40]

If textual content is all that matters and one format is as good as another, then it only makes sense that reading should become a primarily digital affair for all the reasons of space, portability, and ease of access discussed above. If format is truly irrelevant, then print can safely be relegated to niche status or even abandoned altogether. It is not a question of if, but when. This belief, implicit in the arguments of many supporters of digital reading, has been made explicitly by some. Purdue University librarian George Stachokas, for example, has argued not only that mainly electronic libraries are inevitable but that “this transition could be completed in five to ten years in most academic libraries in North America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.”[41] Current print-­electronic hybrid library collections, in this view, are merely a short-­term product of circumstances that will soon be overcome. In a September 2015 analysis of recent sales trends in publishing, Matthew Ingram states that “digital sales are going to increase, and print is likely to become a niche market over time.”[42] In early 2016, digital publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin told the BBC that the death of print is “inevitable.”[43] In his words, “I think there will come a point where print just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”[44]

Technology author Marc Prensky has even called for college campuses to go completely “bookless,” in the “sense of allowing no physical books.”[45] In his vision, students caught in possession of print books would have them confiscated and replaced with access to an electronic version of the same title. As Christine Rosen noted back in 2008, “Digital literacy’s advocates increasingly speak of replacing, rather than supplementing, print literacy.”[46]

Digital Better than Print?

The second set of proponents of digital reading actually agrees with the likes of Carr, Baron, and Wolf that e-reading is substantially different from reading in print. Where they differ is that they see this as a generally positive development. For example, Clay Shirky, a communication scholar at NYU and champion of new media, has expressed the view that we have entered a new age of “information abundance,” in which the digital environment will enable more people to produce more content than ever before. In Shirky’s view, the print codex and the type of reading and thinking it fosters are merely byproducts of the technology of the printing press and will rightly be superseded by new cultural forms produced by digital media.[47] In a 2013 online exchange with Carr, Shirky predicted that “the experience of reading books will be displaced by other experiences” and pronounced himself “quite cheerful about the ongoing destruction of pre-­digital patterns of life, because I think something better will come from it.”[48]

Wired Magazine founder Kevin Kelly likewise believes that the digital information environment will create something superior to the stable, tangible print codex. In a 2010 essay on the differences between print and screen reading, Kelly essentially flipped the argument of digital skeptics on its head, embracing the changes brought about by digital text as a form of progress: “Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen ‘friends’ for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-­making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time.”[49]

More recently, Robert Stein, founder of the Institute for the Study of the Book, believes that the shared elements of the digital reading environment make it superior to the solitary nature of print reading: “Why would you want to read by yourself if you can have access to the ideas of others you know and trust, or to the insights of people from all over the world?”[50]

In the view of many such unabashed supporters of digital reading, the book as a discrete linear entity will likely disappear. Kelly, in a famous 2006 essay, noted that “once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page.”[51]

As you would expect, digital skeptics are much less sanguine at this prospect. Carr, for example, has emphasized the importance of the book as a discrete physical entity in contrast to the amorphous, indistinct nature of electronic information on the Internet. In his view, “An electronic book is therefore a contradiction in terms. To move the words of a book onto the screen of a networked computer is to engineer a collision between two contradictory technological, and aesthetic, forces.”[52] Academic librarian Jeff Staiger has echoed these concerns, warning that “it may be that by dematerializing the book and making its wholeness invisible and intangible, the e-book weakens the very boundaries and concept of the book, making it that much easier to think of the book as a mere fount of textual bits.”[53]