Sunday, January 18, 2009

Viewing is the New Reading

In the classic science-fiction novels comprising the Foundation Series, I remember one of Asimov's created worlds where people very rarely interacted in person. Robots took care of the manual labor, and people socialized from their remote estates via electronic means. In local parlance, they "viewed" one another on screens. Very rarely did they "see" one another in the flesh--the distinction being between virtual and physical contact. Something like this is happening with books and reading. The situation is complicated by at least two trends.

The availability of entertainment choices naturally puts pressure on books to compete for eyeball time. The (live) google trends chart for books (lower line) and movies (upper) below shows this vividly.

Note the apparent inverse relationship between the two--the sign of competition for time and money between the two media. Following Asimov, I think of this as a tug of war between reading, in the traditional sense, and viewing a screen for one of several (maybe simultaneous) reasons, including reading, watching, listening, and communicating.

Even without competition for time, digital media are replacing print media because of the convenience and cost of access. The word "newspaper" will make about as much sense to the next generation as "dialing a phone." You can look at the trends for "darkroom" and "photoshop" to get an idea of digital replacing wet photography. [Take these graphs with a grain of salt, however. Obviously this is not authoritative data.] Accelerating this obsolescence is the convergence of technologies. Think of all the kinds of things your computer can do. You can play music, talk to your friends on Skype, shop, watch a movie, read the news, get the weather, create your own content in a mind-boggling number of ways, play a game, look at the family photo album, record the baby's first words, and on an on. A book in physical form can only do one thing really well.

I wrote recently about wanting to experiment with ebooks as texts for students, to allay the substantial cost of what can only be called the publishing racket. The Chronicle has a recent article with a case study from Northwest Missouri State University. They tried using Sony's ebook reader to deliver textbooks. It wasn't a smashing success. Students like to highlight passages and make notes, which was not possible. I think perhaps Amazon's Kindle is more capable, but in either case there is a fundamental problem: the convergence mentioned earlier. Eventually a book reader will want to become an Internet browser (the Kindle already is to some extent), and all the rest. In other words a small fully functional computer. We might generically call this "the screen." (At some point it will probably be plugged directly into our visual cortex, and our descendants will wonder what a 'screen' is). Apparently, NMSU has come to the same conclusion, evidenced by the following quote from the article.

This semester the university will continue to experiment with electronic textbooks, but it will deliver them primarily through laptops, rather than dedicated e-book devices. (The institutions requires students to have laptops.) About 500 students will try out electronic textbooks, and an additional 3,000 students will have access to them.

Laptops provide more interactivity than the Sony Readers, Mr. Hubbard said, because they let students participate in interactive quizzes and allow professors to add material to textbooks as needed.

Interestingly, the university also has a cost-effective textbook rental program for paper texts. Their progress will be interesting to track because it seems like a true competition between electronic and traditional print delivery based mostly on convenience and features rather than cost.

"Sophisticated forms of collaborative 'information foraging' will replace solitary deep reading; the connected screen will replace the disconnected book."--according to Christine Rosen in "People of the Screen" in the Fall 2008 New Atlantis. She goes on to ask:
We are increasingly distractible, impatient, and convenience-obsessed—and the paper book just can’t keep up. Shouldn’t we simply acknowledge that we are becoming people of the screen, not people of the book?
The article cites statistics that document how seldom young people read books for pleasure, and add that such reading is correlated with academic success. The salient point for us in higher education may be this:
Despite the attention once paid to the so-called digital divide, the real gap isn’t between households with computers and households without them; it is the one developing between, on the one hand, households where parents teach their children the old-fashioned skill of reading and instill in them a love of books, and, on the other hand, households where parents don’t.
Viewing, in Asimov's sense, is a different thing from reading at the neurological level. The article quotes Jakob Nielsen, who has done some research on the topic.
Rather than reading deliberately, when we scan the screen in search of content our eyes follow an F-shaped pattern, quickly darting across text in search of the central nugget of information we seek. “‛Reading’ is not even the right word” to describe this activity, Nielsen pointedly says.
Given this, is it a lost cause to expect textbooks in their traditional form to make the transition to the electronic realm? I think it is too much to ask. Imagine a best case, where you are curled up with a computer with a big beautifully optimized screen for reading. You open up A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and begin reading where you left off. Then an icon at the bottom of the screen flickers--you have a new facebook message. Or your calendar pops up with a reminder that tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Or (more likely) Windows wants to reboot itself because it just downloaded a patch. If your mind wanders at all, you may want to google a strange word, or look up Alexander Solzhenitsyn's biography. Now imagine trying to do the same with an organic chemistry textbook instead, where more discipline is required to stay on task.

The printed book forces a kind of digital silence on us. It doesn't have buzzers and bells and blinking lights to distract us, and you can't stream Pandora in the background from it while you read. Perhaps what is needed on digital devices is a "reading mode" where all the blinkenlights go away. You'd probably have to design the operating system from the ground up to accomodate such a thing. Convergence will almost certainly ensure that this doesn't become marketable.

If viewing replaces reading, education will change. I think it already has, actually. Some disciplines will be able to adapt to targeted bite-sized learning chunks, stitched together to make a curriculum. For these classes, textbooks will be the wrong way to deliver information. Technical disciplines like math and engineering will probably see traditional textbooks replaced by electronic widgets that can engage in a limited dialogue with a student, as a coach. In fact, some of these already exist. The point of an algebra class is that students learn how to make certain kinds of symbolic manipulations and be able to visualize this process. It's not naturally given to the narrative form to begin with; books were probably never the best way to deliver that information.

Courses that required reading long passages, like history and literature, will attract students who still know how to read. This audience won't vanish, but will dwindle along with the market for traditional books. At that point we will have the basis for a very interesting sociological natural experiment. What happens to those students after graduation? Which population--the viewers or the readers--is best able to navigate a complex world and succeed? Stay tuned...


  1. Thanks for this interesting look at how reading is changing in our digital age.

    If you or your readers are interested in other perspectives on the type of "deep reading" you mention, I suggest you check out Changing Lives Through Literature's blog, Changing Lives, Changing Minds.

    Two professors have recently written about deep reading:

    Dr. Robert Waxler's "Getting in Deep with Reading"

    Dr. Maureen Hall's "The Benefits of Deep Reading: Neuroplasticity in Action"

  2. Thanks for the links, Jenni. I'm mulling over a project to give reading more visibility on campus through the library. It's common to have an emphasis on "information literacy", which is important, but I wonder how much good we can do by paying more attention to reading per se.