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Future Reading: Paper Documents vs. Electronic Text


zaretskaya/iStock/Thinkstock
zaretskaya/iStock/Thinkstock

I just read a really interesting article over at Wired by Brandon Keim about the future of reading media. Will screens and e-readers ever completely replace paper? Will our great-grandchildren think of paper books as nothing more than strange antiques? And which medium is actually a better experience for the reading public? Keim reports on the somewhat inconclusive data we've gathered about the measurable effects of the different reading media:

It's a field that goes back several decades, but yields no easy conclusions. [...] The technology, particularly e-paper, has improved dramatically, to the point where speed and accuracy aren't now problems, but deeper issues of memory and comprehension are not yet well-characterized. Complicating the scientific story further, there are many types of reading. Most experiments involve short passages read by students in an academic setting, and for this sort of reading, some studies have found no obvious differences between screens and paper. Those don't necessarily capture the dynamics of deep reading, though, and nobody's yet run the sort of experiment, involving thousands of readers in real-world conditions who are tracked for years on a battery of cognitive and psychological measures, that might fully illuminate the matter. [source: Keim]

Keim also points out several ways that paper books and documents may differ fundamentally from their electronic counterparts. One of them is that paper documents give a tactile suggestion of structure. When you're toward the beginning of a paper book, you feel the slim accumulation of pages in your left hand as you make progress, and toward the end, you feel the bulk of what you have already consumed. Is it plausible that this kind of touch-based interaction actually helps readers better organize the information they've received, and better comprehend the underlying structure of the story or argument within? I don't know, but it's a very interesting idea. An educational method called "multimodal learning" strives to incorporate different types of media (text, audio, video) into a lesson to activate students across a broader range of senses and enhance educational outcomes. But I wonder, based on Keim's article, if the physical media on which text is read could be considered something like a form of meta-multimodality. While you're internalizing the contents of the book through the text with your eyes, you're learning about the book as a deliberately structured document with your hands.

There are many more questions like this. Do reading comprehension and retention suffer when a document is filled with links and embedded videos and sidebar ads telling you about one weird trick to stay skinny forever? Or do the effects of reading media really just come down to a matter of personal preference?

While I am personally biased toward paper books when it comes to things like novels and poetry, I would like to speak up about one possible benefit of electronic media. Many of the questions in this debate are focused on students. I have an unproven hunch that electronic documents might offer students a very important benefit that paper documents inherently do not: the invitation to chime in.

Imagine you're a student coming into a class to discuss a text, whether it's a short story, a scientific paper, an opinion article, etc. There are some very different ways you could approach the document. You could look at it in a passive way, just absorbing the contents of the text as true at face value. Or you could look at it like an archaeologist looks at an artifact, making descriptive observations about the text and drawing broader conclusions based on those observations. Or you could regard a text the way you regard a story or argument coming from one of your peers, which (hopefully) means you interact with it in good faith, but you treat it skeptically, critically, feeling the confidence to disagree, criticize and ask questions. And I think that more people tend to feel confident treating a text in the latter way when that text is presented through electronic and specifically Web-based media.

If this (as far as I know, untested) hypothesis is true, it might have something to do with the age of social media and the way we consume texts online. The first explanation is that internal hyperlinking of text, while it may in fact lead to a more distracted reading experience, does help place texts in conversation with each other. Hyperlinking suggests to students that the document they're reading is not a discrete monolith of information and idea. Even if you don't click on the links, they are little color-coded indicators that the document you're reading builds upon and is a response to the work of others. Another explanation may be that we are used to associating text presented through electronic media with the ability to leave a comment. Normally, I understand the impulse to hate on comment threads. Yes, we've all been to YouTube, and yes, lots of comments are just the textual equivalent of throwing trash out the window of your car. But sometimes, comments can be very interesting, and regardless of the merits of the comments themselves, the fact that so many electronic texts allow them helps cement the idea that a text is something that can be responded to with questions, criticisms and additions. Another reason might be that the documents we read on screens seem to have more aesthetic similarities with the kinds of texts that students can themselves produce. Very few students have ever written something and seen it published in print, unless you count things that come out of somebody's personal inkjet. But lots of students have had a website or a blog or a Tumblr from which they can post their thoughts to the Web. In this way, a text presented in electronic form might seem more like it's down here on the ground with everybody else, ready and waiting to be interacted with.

In any case, I'd love to read a controlled study comparing how willing students are to interact with and respond to the same set of documents when presented in both print and electronic media. Do you agree that electronic texts are more encouraging of conversation, critical reading and interaction? And what do you think will happen to paper-based texts in the next couple of decades?