Sunday, July 20, 2014

Does reading online or via Kindle-type device change the way we read? Is it something to worry about?


Reading via an electronic device, even one that's designed to mimic reading from paper, may be as different from print reading as reading online is. Anne Mangen, a researcher in Norway, tells Maryanne Wolf: "Anecdotally, I've heard some say it's like they haven't read anything properly if they've read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience."

by Ken

One of the things I've meant to write about this week is a really interesting piece by contributing editor Maria Konnikova, who specializes in psychology and science, called "." Which is a little misleading, because the big job the piece undertakes to do is to show us, with guidance from a range of researchers in the field, how differently we seem to read online (or via electronic reading devices) vs. reading on paper.

"We don’t read the same way online as we do on paper," Maria writes, and she cites Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, who --
points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.”
Maria continues:
The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate.
The vast assortment of layouts and formats, plus the need to screen out hyperlinks and other diversions, may also make the online reading experience more draining. I know this squares with my behavior as an online reader. Reading online, I feel enormous pressure just to get through the damned thing, so I can make selections among the hundred or two other things I want to get some sort of quick impression of. Maria also cites research suggesting that, just on the simple level of basic comprehension of a text that has been read, print readers do noticeably better than electronic-device readers.

Which raises the question of the kind of reading we do online or with an electronic device. Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, "a history of the science and the development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century," raises concern about the possibility of "a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading."

Among the many people Wolf heard from after Proust and the Squid was polished, there were "architects who wrote to her about students who relied so heavily on ready digital information that they were unprepared to address basic problems onsite" and "neurosurgeons who worried about the 'cut-and-paste chart mentality' that their students exhibited, missing crucial details because they failed to delve deeply enough into any one case." These come up as Wolf talks about what she means by "deep reading," which --
isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something. It’s the “sophisticated comprehension processes,” as Wolf calls it, that those young architects and doctors were missing. “Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”
Then again it's possible, Maria suggests, that "the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention. For example, Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith suggest from their research, that "the digital deficit," as Maria puts it, "isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book."

Maryanne Wolf herself "is optimistic that we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print -- if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness." However,
To finish her book, she has ensconced herself in a small village in France with shaky mobile reception and shakier Internet. Faced with the endless distraction of the digital world, she has chosen to tune out just a bit of it. She’s not going backward; she’s merely adapting.
It's a thoughtful, informed piece, well worth the attention of anyone who, well, anyone who reads.



At 10:03 AM, Anonymous mediabob said...

Good points. I fault punctuation, the loss of two spaces following a period blurs the writer's intention of having you switch gears. As long as we're down this road, proofreading went extinct long ago on the internet.


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