Sunday, 8 March 2009

What future for reading?

Flying back from Kiev at the end of half-term, as I juggled my copy of the Times and my book, the Ukrainian boy next to me [who was returning to his English boarding school] got out his digital reading device. He was engrossed for the whole of the flight. He said that had some hundred or so novels on it and may well have had several magazines and newspapers for all I could tell [My Ukrainian it not what it was!]. He preferred a digital reader for two reasons, first, he never lost his page and, second, he could download books in Ukrainian from his school, rather than relying on his parents to send them to him by post. Devices, such as the Amazon Kindle are changing not only how we buy books, but also how we read them.

But there is more to this question than the move from printed to electronic media. There is increasing evidence to suggest that the processes by which we read are changing too. Studies [See Palfrey and Gasser Born Digital pp. 240-44] have shown that skilled digital natives go through a three stage process which in many ways is very similar to the way in which many non digital natives read a newspaper. We scan the headlines to get an overview of the issues; read in detail any article which catches our eye or in which we are interested; and, if we feel strongly about what is being discussed, we may send a letter to the editor. What is different is that digital natives do it all the time, not only when catching up on what is going on in the world, but also when reading, studying and researching. Researchers have termed the stages of this process, “Grazing”, taking a “Deep Dive” and a feedback loop.

This week Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt expressed his concern that the Net is having a detrimental influence on deep reading and thinking:
“I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.
 And I worry that we’re losing that and I think that with an educator audience that we we start with reading. If you look at all of the IQ testing and all of the tracking testing, it's early reading with young parents - literally with small children that really makes the difference.”
Interview with Charlie Ross - go to minute 41:50
In many ways this echoes the concerns put forward by Nicholas Carr in his influential Atlantic article, "Is Google making us stupid?". I am not sure that we can generalise here. I think that there are distinct differences between the way in which skilled and unskilled digital natives go about research-type reading - the former employ highly developed research techniques, the latter resort to Google too quickly. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Internet use has any impact on the amount of time that we spend on reading. The results of the 2007 Oxford Internet Survey show that Internet use has very little difference in the amount that we read each week - although it does affect the amount that we watch television, which is arguably a very positive thing [how do people watch 18 hours TV a week?].

Click on the table to enlargeThe sales of printed books and magazines show no sign of diminishing - there is something comforting about a book and it is good to get away from a screen occasionally. However, this may change. In a world where Google has eventually digitised every book and the environmental costs of print media are counted more rigorously, I can foresee a time when the lion-share of reading will be done through digital devices- and books may, once again, become a luxury product read only by the rich and the nostalgic.


  1. I was going to blog about this but you've beaten me to it! One issue that you haven't discussed, but does interest me, is whether or not you see Kindle type devices, maybe with digital ink input facilities, replacing traditional textbooks?

    Certainly, it would cut down on paper usage, allow more interactivity and moving image content, and enable teachers to obtain updates to books at minimum cost.

    Is this something you see happening? Would it be a good idea?



  2. I suspect that the move to digital text books [if that is the right term for it] and digital work books is inevitable. It is really a question of the time scale.

    As with so many technological advances it is that we will live with a dual "platform" approach for a long time with digital devices supporting printed media in the first instance.

    A key factor in the adoption of digital text books is likely to be the generational devide between those who have grown up with paper teaching those who have grown up with digital media.

    Another factor, which I alluded to above, is where environmental factors will play in determining the timescale of the transition.

    Whether or not it is a good idea - the jury is out. I think that the interactivity will be a positive thing, but it is likely to lead to skim reading etc.

  3. I must admit that I was very unsure about digital reading devices. Working with computers all day the last thing I wanted was to look at another screen whilst I am travelling.

    However, having borrow a friend's Amazon Kindle when I went to St Lucia on holiday, I had to eat my words, it was very good and I really enjoyed the dictionary function that comes with most digital readers. A lot of people who I met at various hotels asked if they could try it and most agreed that it was very easy to read from because of no backlight.