E-Reading (and Just Plain Reading)

tablet-maniaHumans didn’t evolve to read, so the process repurposes various circuits in the brain. Eyes hunt and gather. The mind interprets shapes and situations the way it would find prey hiding in shadow or edible plants suited to certain settings. The cortex registers meaning in patterns and trends, determining what grander lessons lie in individual observations.

Readers looking to recover detail often say, “I think that’s on a right hand page at the top” the same way a gatherer might say, “In the shadows of a rock beside the eastern branch of that stream is a bed of plump mushrooms.”

A recent Scientific American article suggests the brain undergoes a different sort of repurposing for electronic media, rendering finding information more troublesome.

Knowing has at least two dimensions—what it is and where it is—and, correspondingly, each dimension is subject to two types of memory. Some details humans remember exclusively in context, like knowing where to turn next when traveling to a location visited infrequently or singing the next line of song without being able to quote that line at other times. Babies are masters at this type of memory. When a parent sits them in a high chair, they know what’s next.

The other type of memory is deliberate and arises from a conscious effort to recall. Babies haven’t memorized their daily schedule or created a to-do list to assure they will eat, nap, and cuddle in appropriate sequence. They may not like the next activity when a parent proposes it. They know what’s coming only when it begins.

Another way to think about this distinction is to consider two questions from English class: “What does Holden say when the nuns ask him where he goes to school?” and “Which characters ask Holden about school and what’s consistent in his responses?” The former relies on knowing what’s next, the latter on locating, gathering, and retaining useful detail.

The research on electronic reading is preliminary and not entirely clear, but it appears that, when contextual memory doesn’t imprint strongly enough, conscious memory weakens accordingly. Reading comprehension quizzes demonstrate that electronic and physical readers do just as well immediately, but, when tested later, physical readers retain more detail and retain it longer. Some researchers say the results are transitional. Students still take paper more seriously, and those trained on physical texts are adjusting to a world where electronic ink predominates. Future generations will adapt to scrolled rather than paginated texts and results will even out.

Other researchers, however, believe these findings suggest electronic reading is inherently ephemeral. They theorize virtual location makes less of an impression on the brain than actual location. They place a great deal of importance on readers’ being able to hold the text and handle it physically, to regard the text as an object rather than as content in one of many undifferentiated receptacles. This “haptic” element of a tangible, sensory object, they say, is crucial to the hunter-gatherer in humans. Thus application writers are smart to adhere to page layouts that nod not only to familiarity but also to the way the brain works.

To complicate matters, however, some thinkers claim the sort of reading a person does electronically and physically are not the same. They make a distinction between focused reading and connected reading (which, elsewhere on this blog, go by “immersive” and “extractive.”) Focused reading requires a close examination of a single text, whereas connected reading assumes a nexus of meaning. Connected readers look for what’s relevant or interesting or important, rifling through containers to complete a larger task.

Connected readers also show an amazing ability to link disparate ideas and information, but their aims demand moving on. They may have lower expectations—one or two nuggets among all the ore—and less patience. They may skim more and be less likely to remember where they found a particular piece of information. When a reader gathers detail without context, to fulfill an overall conception, the information isn’t always discerning or accurate.

Some researchers even believe light fired into the face of the reader and flashing screens (though not perceived consciously) may prod readers to move on. Physical books exude permanence. While people skim them too, they aren’t as well-built for rapid ingestion and don’t accommodate extractive reading as easily. Nor do readers regard conventional books as readily searchable.

Overall, this early experimentation brings to mind Thoreau’s injunction against inventions that are “improved means to unimproved ends.” The most successful reading devices are those with low light, standard pagination, and signals like double screens or graphic book edges to indicate location and progress. In other words, they are costly and complex books. While these devices store more and save students everywhere backaches—an advantage not to be taken lightly—many of their touted improvements remain unverified.

More troublesome are findings indicating electronic ink improves neither means nor ends. If it’s true few landmarks mark a reader’s way through the undifferentiated topography of electric media, many readers could be lost… without really knowing it.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Memory, Modern Life, Persuasion, Reading, Recollection, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

7 responses to “E-Reading (and Just Plain Reading)

  1. I like that you tagged this both as Doubt and Memory. In my experience, those inherently go together. In this case, the current doubt might just be the start of an echo to future doubt of one’s memory, most certainly a Worry.

    From my own experience, physical interaction with an object is key to retaining knowledge. On many previous tests, I can recall where a piece of information sat on a page, how many pages deep it was into the book, and that it was physically sitting after a different page that I knew well. It’s like a muscle memory that you are reenacting in your mind… and I would say it most likely goes further in that it functions _exactly_ as muscle memory, forming deeper connections in the brain due to more neurons required to make and integrate the action and following knowledge.

    However, lately I have realized we are ushering in our own obsolescence. We are training ourselves to have no attention span, we are inundating ourselves with meaningless data and noise, and we consume shallow information (e-news, blogs) as entertainment and social experience rather than deep learning. Furthermore, we are being sold that doing two things effectively at once is not only possible (thanks AT&T ads!), but desirable and you are not competitive if you do not multi-task. It’s been conclusively proven that not only does multi-tasking make you less effective, the people who think they do it better than others actually do it worst. And we are sold devices which reduce our need to remember, because they do it for us – god forbid we remember how to drive to a location or someone’s nine digit phone number.

    Hello machine learning. Please take over our lives because we can no longer assimilate the amount of data (which we do not need) that we pour into our daily existence. Robot overlords, take over please, and let us spend our time consuming!

    PS: I recently learned some British slang from ‘Potted Potter’, a comedy show in which the seven books of Harry Potter are acted out in 70 minutes by two comedians… “Potted” means shallow, having no roots. Quite appropriate that I stumbled across this recently. 🙂

    • dmarshall58

      Hi Chris, I’m so happy to hear you say we’re “ushering in our own obsolescence,” as that’s sometimes what it looks like from this angle too. What really gets me are the uses of technology that have little to do with education but, because the technology CAN be educational, we permit in the school setting. I see groups of students watching movies during free periods when they might be studying for a quiz in later in the day, and, between classes, the stairwells are often clogged with “phone zombies” focused on the screens of their phones instead of the steps before them. Sometimes I think of technology as parasitic, but maybe it will become the other way around. I confess it took me three tries to read that Scientific American article because it was so long and the links to other articles in the margin so enticing. My own attention span has suffered, and I’m a little potted myself. Thanks for commenting. –D

      • All water flows to a point lower than its start. My fear is that what is easy with technology can become habit. There’s a fairly gray area about what is educational and what is entertainment – and the tools really are easy conduits to both. I’m not sure it’s a spigot that can be turned off for one and not the other.

        There are no boundaries on consuming entertainment; it is everywhere (all devices), on-demand, and never expiring. Prefer something other than your kid’s graduation ceremony? Commercials instruct us to just watch the baseball game and live-tweet about it to your friends instead. Rudeness is encouraged; we are told to turn to our devices rather than in-person interaction. (And btw, it sure doesn’t seem unacceptable to have the government listen in on anyone’s phone or emails any more.)

        I’m personally considering that a lot of surface-level ‘facts’ are mental candy and mostly useful as social party tricks. These links that creep into your email, website and mental margins are really trails into Hansel-and-Gretel territory. Don’t click, don’t expand the blurb – everyone has monetary incentives to lure you into their own kitchen and make your their main course. Links + Advertising => the greatest n-dimensional pyramid scheme ever invented.

        The lure of technology is that “it will make life easier”; I am certain my life is more complex as a result of it. The abundance of choice and distraction seemingly makes you less happy; marketing tells you there are better choices, but you do not have the time to make the best selection and what again is “the best” anyway? What part of our life doesn’t have more complexity? Residence, job, finances, insurance, utilities, any selection of a service – they are all more sophisticated and specialized.

        TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) is motto of today. Know a little of everything which tends to amount to a whole lot of nothing. The other choice? Know one niche topic as a guru, ignore the rest. The renaissance man is dead, and turning over in his grave with each Facebook alert beep.

        Epilogue: They were all found sipping virtual martinis in Second Life for the rest of the month. Someone poked the avatar next to him which didn’t respond. Eight hours later, they all realized that this person had died in “real life” and maybe someone should collect the body.

        And all this has been already said, probably by many people, sprinkled lightly over the web, maybe even collected together in several spots. I work in technology, so sometimes it feels heretical to speak about tech turning society to mush. It’s additionally hypocritical that I am writing about such feelings in a response to a blog. What I wonder is whether any middle ground exists any more – can you escape the gravity of the ‘web’? Just wait until the “Internet of Things” reaches peak velocity and EVERY device is wired up to talk with each other. Will the virtual world completely supplement ‘meat space’ (real-life)?

        The one thing I do know? The “WEB” is definitely an apt name for getting caught up in this mess. 🙂

      • dmarshall58

        I love this comment… not just the content, but the writing. Have you read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash? It’s a silly sci-fi novel, but as a statement on post-modernity (it was published in 1992), it’s prophetic.

        While I don’t have to participate in technological education, I’m “strongly encouraged.” It takes some creativity to find the best way, but I’m up for the challenge. The biggest issue, as you say, is edutainment, which posits that you can learn and have fun at the same time. That happens to be true, but perhaps not in the way people think. Education and entertainment have to flow toward each other. You have to find what’s educational in entertainment, sure, but you also need to understand that learning (even hard learning) is fun. If I were to say I had fun studying Latin, most of my students would scoff, but I few would still understand that statement, which is heartening.

        Thanks for your comment. –D

  2. Well, I’m glad that Chris Butler commented before me, because that’s exactly what I was going to say, but electronic media has made me lazy and shortened my attention span.

    Okay, that was kind of a bad joke.

    I do agree with him, and your opinions also, David. This is a sad, scary subject, and you, and Mr. Butler above, point out the same things I’ve suspected as well.

    Sometimes I try to fight it, and sometimes I just *sigh* ……. (Why yes, the *sigh* with asterisks denoting the physical action of the word surrounded by said asterisks WAS meant to be ironic.)

    • dmarshall58

      Maybe that’s another blog post–irony. I love it as an English teacher but tire of it as a human. We so rarely approach anything square-on, and technology is a part of that… so much effort dissipated. I’d be more distressed if I weren’t distracted myself. –D

  3. I have not read _Snow Crash_, but I’ve been making an effort to read some sci-fi classics like _Neuromancer_ recently. I appreciate the kind words on the style of my comment.

    At current time, I’m not sure what to make of technology – all that I know is that it is leaking into our day-to-day in buckets. There’s a place for it in education, but not enough folks understand it well enough to avoid gratuitous and slippery usage. It’s not enough to embrace the new and hope for osmosis; you need to direct technology in a way that encourages mental growth. Instead, the isolation of many individual interactions are so granular that they are considered ‘micro-interactions’, and I’m fearful these individual drops of water amount to simply drizzle on the plain of learning.

    Hopefully more teachers will be up for the challenge – I cringe when I hear a lot of videos are being shown in classrooms.

    PS: I loved my Latin classes too.

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