TAKEAWAY: It is a conversation that should never be missing from media conferences, seminars, and college communication classes: how does reading on screens differ from reading on paper? A Scientific American article summarizes the issue and supports it with splendid research on this new topic. Read about it here as I touch upon the main themes of the piece. Part One: Does the new technology change the way we read?
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I grabbed one of my grandchildren’s school backpack recently and it was heavy.
I opened it to discover, to my surprise, that it was full of textbooks, as in printed books, the kind I also used in school when I was a child decades ago when reading on a screen would have been considered science fiction.
Gee, how nice. They are still reading textbooks, ink on paper, in the elementary schools of today, I said to myself.
But, how long will that be the case? Or, as I suspect, will it be a combination of reading on paper and on screens in the foreseeable future? My daughter tells me that, although textbooks are very much a daily part of the students’ lives in her kids’ classes, there are also desktop computers and even tablet devices for each child in the class.
All of this thinking provokes the question: will my grandchildren’s generation (ages 3 to 14 today) be at ease reading in both paper and screen? Will they prefer one over the other? I would like to think that, because print is eternal, there will always be a special type of content that they will prefer on paper, while there may be many others for which the potential benefits of the screen make it the choice.
I have outlined six main themes in the Scientific American article dealing with how reading on text and/or screen may result in significant levels of differences in our behavior towards the platform and the content of what we read. These are the six main topics, which I plan to discuss in the blog during the next three days, two topics per day.
The article has explained this content superbly well, so my blog posts will be interpretations of the thoughts presented, with an emphasis on how we as storytellers and designers can learn from the study as we apply it to our work.
1. How exactly does the technology we use to read change the way we read? How reading on screens differs from reading on paper
2. As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly?
3. Does screen reading drain our resources more than reading on paper?
4. Are we less reflective when reading on screen than on paper?
5. The physicality of text; the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape
6.Text is not the only way to read
One of the statements from the article that first impressed me as important was this:
As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper? Should we be worried about dividing our attention between pixels and ink or is the validity of such concerns paper-thin?
More and more screens we use are touch-enabled—notably, with the new Windows 8, many desktop and laptop screens are able to be controlled by the mouse or hand alike. Readers of this blog and those who attend my workshops know that, in my view, while we primarily design for the brain and the eye in print, we designers creating for the screen must also concern ourselves with the finger—and all things tactile.
The finger must be happy, I always say. This study seems to support the notion that, indeed, the expectations for those reading text on a screen go beyond the turning of the pages.
However, I also stopped when reading the question posed by the author:
Are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly?
Furthermore, there is another reason for contemplation: some of the studies cited in the Scientific American piece tend to support that there is a parallel line of research which focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media and states that many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.
So, my question: is reading a long narrative about a serious topic, but one in which the editor/designer have populated the piece for tablet consumption with several pop up moments, appealing to the senses, such as audio, animated graphics, videos, going to subtract importance to the piece?
Will such a piece appear to be more authoritative and serious if rendered as text on a printed page, without the more exciting tactile experience that pop ups bring to the reading experience?
Or, is our level of digital and technological sophistication such that we don’t rest seriousness to a piece because it engages us at the tactile level?
I don’t think anyone has the answer to this, but, based on my own experience, I believe that we come to even the most serious of publications today expecting this level of engagement. I, for one, am happy to see that The New York Times’ tablet edition is getting better at going beyond headlines, photos and text to amplify the offer, as in such recent examples of an animated graphic of The New York City mayoral candidates, which was informative and fun. In addition, for a piece about the return of Bette Midler to Broadway, not just an in-depth interview with the star, but also a very spontaneous video version of the interview,as well as video coverage of the Venezuelan election and for a review of the new musical, Kinky Shoes.
In each case, those stories were enhanced tremendously, and we, the digital audience, were quite satisfied with the results, which we would have not enjoyed if we only read the printed edition.
Tomorrow: The physicality of text versus screen. Plus: Let’s reinforce the point about “text is not the only way to tell the story”.
The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens