Scissors, Paper, Screen: The Future of Reading

The Future of ReadingBack in 2011, which in Internet time is eons ago, I  wrote a commentary about how reading on paper surfaces—books, newspapers, magazines—might be superior (in terms of brain chemistry) compared to what we do when we “read” on screens, be they iPads, Kindles or computers. The article elicited a variety of comments, ranging from ”you’re nuts” to “bravo.” Mostly, “you’re nuts” and “get with the program” and “get a life!”

So I tried get a life and emailed Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who has a keen interest in reading and literacy issues (and whose brother is a neuroscientist). I asked her how she felt about my ”’reading” versus ”screening” ideas, and she was kind enough to send me a short return email (which she also tweeted and sent out as a question to her 400,000 ”followers”) with a very good follow-up question to that piece: “Will poor countries where paper books still prevail produce children who are smarter than those in wealthy countries where all children read on screens?”

You know what? I didn’t have an answer to that one then—or now. Any guesses out there?

I asked Atwood about her views on the future of reading because Rosalind Porter had once asked her in an interview: ”Do you feel that what you do as a novelist is devalued by the medium of electronic text? That something of your craft might be lost without the experience of reading it on a pristine page?”

Atwood replied:

“Well, we don’t know that yet because we don’t know whether the reading experience from a neurological point of view is different for people who read only in e-form. And yes, there is the thrill of looking at a pristine paper page, but only because we’re used to it. The question is, will the thrill be the same as opening the cover of a pristine e-book that you’ve never seen before? I think the operative word is ‘pristine’ rather than ‘page’, and I would think that the ability to follow—to translate text (which is what reading is), to translate the black marks, mainly print, into words—is going to be much the same, whether you’re reading it from the piece of paper, from a scroll, or from an e-book.”

My own guess is that reading paper books and paper newspapers will not make people smarter, but perhaps more empathetic to others and more self-aware. Is that a good thing? Yes. But does this have much to do with poor countries or rich countries—or with what I call ”the battle of the reading surfaces (paper or screens)”? I don’t think so.

The Future of ReadingWhile I do believe that reading on paper is better for our civilization than doing all our reading on screens, who knows what the final MRI and PET scan research will show? I might be completely wrong. Even if I am semi-right, will it make any difference? I don’t think so. The die is cast; our fate is sealed.

The screening revolution has superseded the reading revolution, and our world will never the same, for better or worse. I fear things will be worse, but then again, who knows? These screens might be pointing in a brave new direction as well. I have no agenda, and I have no dog in this fight. I’m just worried.

“Screening” usually refers to screening a movie on the silver screen. We screen movies in movie theaters, in penthouse suites, in club rooms and at schools and universities. But “screening” has a new meaning today, and it’s all about what we do when we “read” on screens, as you are doing now. I call this “screening” in order to differentiate it from “reading,” which it clearly is not.

Reading on paper is reading, but reading on a computer screen or Kindle screen is—drum roll! cut the music!—“screening.” Get used to it. It’s where we are now.

You see, there’s a big issue that the tech biz and society has so far not faced up to, according to some neuroscientists who study the brain differences between reading on paper surfaces and reading off the screens of Nooks, Kindles and iPads.

What I say and what leading experts in the field such as Anne Mangen in Norway and Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University also suggest is that the fundamental differences between paper-reading and screen-reading might be so huge as to light up different regions of “the reading brain,” and that these differences need to be studied more, especially with (f)MRi and PET brain scan research. The research may not turn up anything at all, however. Reading on paper and off screens might be more or less exactly the same in terms of brain chemistry.

It’s my personal hunch as writer and a reader, based on a lifetime of reading on paper and just 20 years of reading off screens, that reading on paper surfaces is superior in three important ways: the brain’s processing of the text being read; the brain’s memory of the information; and critical analysis of the information. Most people disagree with me on this, and that’s OK; I have no agenda. I’m simply curious as to what the MRI and PET scan research will say, later on.

I’m not talking here about the fun of flipping pages or the smell of paper or even the distractions of the screen’s hot links and sexy pictures. No, I’m saying that I believe, and that science will one day prove, that reading on paper is superior, brain-wise, to reading in a pixelated or E Ink world.

Gary Small at UCLA, who I have been in touch with regarding this theory, knows what I’m talking about, too. In a Los Angeles Times interview a few years ago, Dr. Small was asked about this very issue, and if he felt that screen-reading might replace paper-reading in the future. The UCLA maverick said that more studies need to be done on all this, but added: “The technology train has already left the station and there is no coming back.”

I once asked book industry maven Mike Shatzkin about my views on all this, and he told me in an email:

“You may very well be right about the differences between paper-reading and screen-reading, in terms of brain chemistry, but just as nobody in the past heeded the calls that radiation and cancer might impact cellphone use, do you think makers of device readers will listen to you or even care if you are right?”

I think Shatzkin is right.

It’s 2013. The screens are winning adherents left and right. Print newspapers are turning into “snailpapers” that arrive at our doorsteps with news that is 12 hours late. Books are fast becoming e-books. But back to Atwood’s question: ””Will poor countries where paper books still prevail produce children who are smarter than those in wealthy countries where all children read on screens?”

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Taiwan.

7 Comments on Scissors, Paper, Screen: The Future of Reading

  1. You haven’t linked to your last article on that issue, so I am wondering:
    Why do you believe there is a difference? Do notice any differences in your own reading? Or in others?

    Because I notice no difference, at least when comparing paper to my e-reading device. For a lot of books I couldn’t even tell where I read them.

    And I remember a study that noticed an increase in reading speed and an improvement of facts memorized when comparing digital reading to paper.

    Study results can be found here: http://www.uni-mainz.de/eng/14685.php

  2. You pose an interesting question, but I fear that I will be dead before we have a definitive answer. Even then, the answer might be “maybe” or “sometimes” of “for some individuals.” The answer might also depend on the “generation” of the ereader device and the quality of the printed text.

    We have these ongoing debates as to whether one thing or another is “better”. For example, we can’t seem to decide if ‘phonics’ or ‘whole language’ is a better way to teach children to read. My belief is that phonics works best for some children, and the whole language approach works best for other children. What we need therefore, is to use both methods at every school, and we need some kind of simple test to decide whether each kid should go to room A and be taught to read using method #1 or to room B where a different teacher teaches reading using method #2.
    In the same way it might well be that some people will read better and understand and retain more information if they read something on paper, while others may be individually more suited to reading on a screen. Again the best approach would be to test people in some way and advise them as to which reading technology, paper or screen, would work best for them.

    The “generation” issue will also affect any results. I started reading eBooks on an HP Jornada with a 320 x 240 pixel LED screen, and a dot per inch value of about 80. Now I read eBooks on a 600 x 800 pixel eink screen with a dot per inch value of about 150. A neuroscientist studying brain response to ereading might get different answers for the two different screens. A definitive answer comparing screen to paper might have to wait until screen technology reaches a pixels per inch count that exceeds the ability of the human eye to resolve such fine detail, along with the ability to display really black text against a really white background. Of course the neuroscientist might also get different answers if the paper books were printed clearly on bright white paper as opposed to a smudgy text printed on newspaper.

    Overall, its an interesting question. I don’t expect a definitive answer any time soon.

  3. Eskapisitn: I’m not sure which 2011 article Dan is referring to in his post, but I’ll ask him to send the link my way, and I’ll include the link in the post when he does.

    In the meantime, here’s a Sept 2012 piece he wrote for The China Post that essentially covers the same subject: http://bit.ly/OdtnYl

    Here at TeleRead, we covered that particular article in a post of our own, which you can read here: http://bit.ly/QjuCIc

    And back in 2010, Dan wrote this op-ed for the Taipei Times, also on the same subject: http://bit.ly/a39Der

  4. Thanks Dan!

  5. @Eskapistin re “Why do you believe there is a difference? Do notice any differences in your own reading? Or in others?”

    All I can say is that yes, for me, I DO notice a difference in paper reading vs screening reading, not in comprehension but in details, in feelings, in empathy, in critical thinking, yes, and this HUNCH is what propels me to keep asking these questions until we get answers from MRI and PET scan studies in the future. I notice when I edit work online or on paper PAPER MUCH BETTER TO SEE TYPOS ETC and I notice when I read opeds online vs paper (MUCH DEEP SINKS IN when i read on paper). But that’s just me. Others say otherwise and that’s cool. I am just asking WHAT IF. But i love these little screens, too, sure!

  6. @Gary re ‘You pose an interesting question, but I fear that I will be dead before we have a definitive answer. ”

    Me, too, Gary, I am sure i will be dead before we get any real answers. Such MRI and PET scan studies are expensive and take time. at least 10 to 20 more years. Maybe longer.

  7. One way forward is to forget about the comparison (of paper and screen reading) and focus instead on the interplay between. Just look around the reader living in a rich ambience of text from messaging on a paper coffee cup to phone logs and from these to the publishing industry that is still dominated by composite format releases.

    The view of a one-way transition from paper to screen is distorted by rate-related change; screen displays move and change quickly while paper displays are more stable. Such rate-related contrast doesn’t necessarily confirm one-way displacement. Again a third thing or synergy is apparent.

    The embedded cognitive capacities of the bionic reader are an important determinant, but reading itself is a work-around of an installed base. We should research learning as a mapping process and cognitive map retention; a bionic GPS complete with narrative voice. Here strategies of database extraction will again repeat adaptations to the invention of writing.

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