E-book Readers: More Than Meets The Eye (Part II)

In Part 1, we looked at three negative implications for e-book readers as a medium. Here in part 2, we will look at what five authorities on language, informatics, and neuroscience have had to say about the medium.

A New York Times Blog opinion piece called Does The Brain Like E-Books? explores the question and offers insights. It asks, “Is there a difference in the way the brain ... absorbs information when it is presented electronically versus on paper? Does the reading experience change ... depending on the medium?” 

Alan Liu, chairman and professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says: “Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention.” Much of the issue of paper versus e-books revolves around so-called “peripheral attention” — which comes into play when, for example, a new e-mail notification appears. We typically think of these as distractions (unless we have a talent for multitasking!) — but these are essentially a different flavour of attention. Liu says social networking is “the future of peripheral attention,” along with the need to “harness such attention ... well.”

Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” says: “After many years of research, (my conclusion is) we humans were never born to read.” She talks about “reading circuits” — how the brain associates words with letters — and concludes, “No-one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain.” In contrast, Wolf says, we know about formation of brain that reads in the traditional way. 

David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, talks about the “brilliance of the traditional book — sheets bound on end,” which, he says, is “the most brilliant design of the last several thousand years.” Further, he suggests that it is we who need to “insist that onscreen reading enhance, not replace, traditional book reading.”

If we were not “born to read,” there has to be — as Wolf says — a difference between the way our brains perceive a paper book and an electronic book. Could the difference work in favour of e-readers? That is (still) a matter of debate, with the active point being that we can know the effect of words on paper, but we will not — until some years or decades from now — know the effect of words on something that is not an object (see Part I).

Peripheral attention — the side-effect of which is distraction — can indeed be harnessed. A simple example is the habit of switching tasks or projects at pre-determined intervals, to allow for short attention spans. With e-readers in their current form, however, peripheral attention does not go beyond distraction. At 11:30 PM, will you continue reading, or will you press a button and look up the word “Amazon”?