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Reading, Paper, and e-readers

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

I’m frustrated by the current state of research that claims that we read better and retain more from paper than from an ereader, and that this is because of the form, that somehow we need the permanency of paper in order to form memories of the plot of a novel. This makes zero sense to me, but I’ve heard this argument enough times at this point. Fortunately Spark did an episode that investigated this, and came to a better conclusion.

If you gave someone a short story and told them to read it in an empty library, you’d probably get a better result than taking someone to an empty carnival and telling them to read a short story there. Not because the empty library is quieter than the empty carnival, or because libraries are just naturally better places for reading. It would be because the person walking into a carnival isn’t prepared and primed for reading while the person walking into the library is. We already know this is true; this is why they tell you not to bring your computer to bed with you to finish up some work, because if you do work in bed on a regular basis, when you go to bed your head will be primed for work rather than sleep.

So I have doubts that these experiments with ereaders and books are telling anyone which form is better for the reading experience per se. It’s only telling us that people are currently primed to think of computers/tablets/screens as things to watch movies on, or play games on, or browse the internet on. Most people are not primed to consider a screen a reading surface.

But some people are. Some people read on screens all the time, for academic work or for fun. For books that don’t and won’t exist in paper, there are audiences who have already made the switch. They must have other cues that prime them for reading from the same screen they use for other tasks. Of course, readers of online books are always sitting in the bookstore as they read. If they don’t like the turn a story takes, I suspect they will back-button out quicker than a paper-book reader will give up on a book they’ve borrowed or purchased. With online novels, there is always a universe of other stories waiting if the current one doesn’t suit.

I would be interested to see studies like this done with more context. How do those who read fiction on a screen all the time fare against people who don’t? As ereaders get into the hands of more and more people and reading ebooks becomes just as common as reading any other kind of book, do the results change? If a person starts reading an ebook and has poorer comprehension results, do those results improve after a month of reading ebooks? A year?

I remember in the late nineties there was some discussion about how to talk about interaction with the internet. Browse won, but I remember someone on the news talking about “looking at the internet,” or “watching the internet.” As someone who was already far beyond “watching” or merely “looking” at digital material, I cringed. You can watch things online, that presenter wasn’t wrong. You do look at stuff on the internet. That guy saw a screen that looked a lot like a tv, and transferred the language and the modes of thinking to it. He was a passive viewer of internet content, and that’s how he framed his experience.

Ipads are not about being looked at, they’re about being interacted with. An ipad in particular is the first device to fit into that strange niche between smartphone and computer, a device driven entirely without a proxy roller ball or mouse or stylus or keyboard. You touch the content and it reacts. It’s an engagement device, not a device to be looked at or watched (though you can look at and watch things on ipads, too). It doesn’t really surprise me that giving a bunch of people ipads or ereaders doesn’t yet prime people to sink into deep contemplative thought. People are still primed to look at how their physical touch is interacting with digital activity.

Likewise, I wonder if anyone’s done any experiments on audiobooks. Read a page, hear a page: is one better than the other? I suspect it’s what you’re used to.

For many years I’ve been painfully aware of the anti-ebook league who are extremely keen to point out how inferior ebooks are. I know there was a similar group who objected to the written word in the first place (“if you don’t need to memorize it, everyone will become a gibbering idiot!”), and then to the printing press (“Bad! Cheap! Sloppy!”). While I still have a too-steady stream of paper books coming into my house, I’m glad books are going digital. To me, the story, the information, the content is the most important thing. Digital text isn’t limited by its font size. It can be read aloud by a screenreader. It can be translated by a braille display. I can twist it, add more notes to it than it contains in the first place. Like Dickens did it, it can be delivered serially. Digital text might mean more text, and to me that’s a plus.

Real World Virtuality

Real World Virtuality

I started reading Spook Country last night before bed, the first chapter of which ends with a virtual world/real-world mashup that has the main character standing in front of the Viper Room in LA looking down at a dead River Phoenix on the sidewalk in front of her. Leaving aside a whole other post I could write about the significance of that particular moment to people born around when I was, it made me think about gaming and ubiquitous computing.

I suspect most of what I’m about to say is so passe to most people who think about gaming and the internet, but it was a fun revelation for me, at least.

When I first started talking outloud about ubiquitous computing in the library after the Copenhagen keynote about sentient cities, our chief librarian wilted a little. “We just built this place!” she said. But I think ubiquitous computing is not going to come from the walls at all; I think it’s just going to use the walls to interface with mobile computing.

Okay imagine it: you have VR goggles. You put on your goggles and you see the world around you, but also the game space. You have already entered in the usernames of your friends, who are also playing this game with you. You are synced up to GPS, so your goggles know where you are in relation to your environment. You have chosen a genre or theme, but the game is constructed on the fly by the system based on the environment you’ve chosen, the number of civilians in your view, weather information, and variables drawn from the user profiles of you and your friends.

So say you pick a large field by a river for your game space. Maybe you do a walkthrough it first with your goggles on so that the system can add more detail to the GPS and map data; that data would go into a central repository for geographical information. The system can then generate characters that wander past, hide behind bushes, sit in trees, etc. You and your friends can all see the generated characters because of the goggles, so you can all interact with them simulaneously. The characters might be generated by the game designers, or they might be created by users, like the Spore creature creator, with backstories and voices all supplied by fans, vetted by the designers. You and your friends can be costumed by the system; when you look down at your own (bare) hands, they might be wearing chain mail gloves and be carrying a sword.

Or say you pick a city block as your game space; the system connects to google map data, and then also takes in information about all the people around you, and uses them as part of the game. It could turn the city in a futuristic place, with flying cars and impossibly tall buildings. Running around the city, chasing aliens, avoiding civilians, being a big ole’ gaming geek in full view of the public. Awesome.

So now: the virtual library could come with a pair of goggles and a good series of fast databases.

That would be pretty cool. Just sayin’.