One more look at the people of the screen
Why English profs shouldn't lose sleep over the Kindle
To recap the previous post, Christine Rosen from The New Atlantis is deeply concerned about technologies like the Kindle that encourage people to read online. She fears that "the paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information." I think her intentions are good but her fears are exaggerated.

Rosen's conclusions sit on a pile of different complaints, some anecdotal and some drawn from science: Ipods and idle chatter in the British Reading Room, the failure of e-readers for young children, the "outer-directedness" of screen-readers, librarians getting jobs entitled "media and information specialist". But Rosen's most interesting worries are that screen-readers (unlike novel readers) are not submissive but controlling, and that the internet is constantly distracting. Neither of these worries is as great as Rosen makes out, I think. The first is a bit bizarre and the second is easily fixed.

Master and student

James Paul Gee, a loud advocate of video games in education, thinks they help learning because they encourage user participation. The user makes choices, acts on them, and experiences the consequences; hence they learn strategic thinking and accountability. Rosen takes this to be a "profound misunderstanding" of books and the learning process, and outlines probably the most insistent and specific (and odd) of her concerns.
[When reading a novel] you enter the author’s world on his terms, and in so doing get away from yourself. Yes, you are powerless to change the narrative or the characters, but you become more open to the experiences of others and, importantly, open to the notion that you are not always in control. In the process, you might even become more attuned to the complexities of family life, the vicissitudes of social institutions, and the lasting truths of human nature. The screen, by contrast, tends in the opposite direction. Instead of a reader, you become a user; instead of submitting to an author, you become the master.

Historian David A. Bell draws the same link between submission and learning: “Surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns."

This idea doesn't bear the weight that Rosen puts on it. For one thing, it is at odds with a standard argument against watching videos, which is that the user is a passive absorber of data rather than an active participant. Many defenses of literature emphasise the amount of "engagement" a book gives us, the imaginative reconstruction and moral contemplation etc. that goes on in the mind of a reader. The argument goes back at least to Plato, who preferred the spoken to the written word (and dialogues to monologues) because the former is more likely teach the audience in the best way possible: by doing. More recently, David Novitz is one philosopher of art who has emphasised the value of literature in helping people imagine new scenarios and walk through them in our heads. It's hard to see why users of video gamers are less likely to develop these skills just because they get to decide which alley to go down and where to build your next city. Since when was spectatorship a better teacher than participation?

Insofar as Rosen's objection holds weight, it is thanks to the content and verisimilitude of video-games rather than user participation. Most video games test strategy rather than empathy. You could imagine games that test the latter, but I expect they would need a great deal more detail and sophistication than they currently do -- they'ld need novelists and psychologists, not graphic artists.

David Bell puts a different slant on the notion of audience submission. What books encourage, he says, and what the internet dissipates, is the discipline of sustained reading. At best, the people of the screen are distracted readers; at worst, they make ad-hoc jumps from one bit of data to another, without trying to link them together. A standard response to this criticism is to say that our minds are in fact stimulated by the challenge of linking together disparate bits of data -- we do more "cognitive work" with The Sopranos than with I Love Lucy.

The key here is to distinguish between fragmentation and reorganisation. It's the difference between a brainstorm and an essay. The first is a set of ideas randomly gathered and displayed. The second is no less a collection of bits of data, it's just that they are deliberately selected bits of data, thoughtfully arranged.

So far so obvious (at least since Johnson made it obvious). But the bibliophile can just respond that there is still something much different in the novel. All this ideas-networking is one thing, but the quiet, sustained contemplation of a novel is altogether different. But this response is weaker than it looks. Productive book-reading is not, by and large, a simple matter of moving linearly through a long series of ordered sentences. There's lots of zig-zag and cross-reference.
*The example is taken from Boris Johnson's book Why Everything Bad is Good For You, which introduced this idea of the stimulating confusion of popular culture.

A lot depends on the genre, of course. Consider the historian or philosopher who reads a book like the internet, checking one passage against a separate one, looking for occurences of the main idea or statements of the main claim, looking up unfamiliar terms or arguments, checking the references behind claims, going back to the primary documents, considering a passage from the book alongside a critic's comment on it. This sort of cross-referencing is not the same as a random walk through Wikipedia -- it's reorganisation versus fragmentation again. But the internet makes both of those tasks easier, not just the latter.

But perhaps Rosen is worried mainly about the novel reading. This is where she gets her examples from (Dostoevsky, Little Dorrit, Middlemarch). It also seems to be a point of difference between Rosen and Johnson, the latter using computer programming and political knowledge as examples of digitally-enhanced fields. Yet most of the real understanding I get from a book -- even a novel -- is not from the first reading but from the later analysis: the search for common themes, recurring symbols, for key passages that illuminate a character. The typical University English tutorial resembles more the zig-zag of an internet search than the marathon of novel-reading. The English zig-zag is not just random flitting, guided by taste. It takes concentration and memory to search for six appearances of stained-glass windows in David Copperfield, and find their common meaning.

An electronic search can do the same. Except the internet does all the mechanical searching for you -- the student is left to do the really worthwhile bit, the close contextual reading and study of common themes of the various "hits." One might argue that the internet search is too efficient. It gives exact hits without allowing the user to go down any creative sidetracks. If you electronically search David Copperfield for "stained-glass window", you won't accidently bring up a page that has no stained-glass windows but does have a "rose window" or a scene with a sunset seen through a window. But, as Rosen frequently reminds us, the internet has no shortage of creative side-tracks....


Here is Rosen's round-up of the problems with the Kindle:
"...the tactile pleasures of the printed page versus the screen; the new risks of distraction posed by a device with a wireless Internet connection; the difference between reading a book in two-page spreads and reading a story on one flashing screen-display after another."

Of these concerns, the first and third seem to be mainly aesthetic, and I don't understand the third one at all (what difference does it make to read with two pages visible and not just one?). The second one makes more sense. Clearly it's easier to (say) click on your Youtube bookmark, while on the computer, than it is to go and read the mag in the kitchen, while sitting reading in your favorite chair. A caricature, perhaps. But it's what we would expect, the computer and the internet being designed for easy access and convenience. The internet age is also the age of handy time-wasters.

But this is not a problem if it's easily fixed. So why not have a "anti-distraction" device on the Kindle? Activate it and you lose the internet for an hour or two, either completely or in strategic chunks -- lose Wikipedia, lose facebook or other top time-wasters, lose email. There would be an emergency bail-out, as there always is for a real book. But the bail-out option would be as inconvenient as getting out of a comforting chair to get to the phone. Perhaps a password kept in the shed or loo or letterbox, or a number you have to dial on the real phone. Or, to keep it digital, some laptop chore that the user has specified in advance, like sending an awkward email or organising your Documents folder. More simply, there could be no built-in bail-out, and your last resort is a connected computer in another room.

There are drawbacks to this anti-distraction idea. No anti-distraction plan is proof against a sufficiently determined ditherer. And for the reader to activate such a plan they would have to have a firm commitment to sustained reading in the first place. But both of these drawbacks apply just about as well to ordinary book-reading. That is, anyone who would otherwise be a good book-reader would have the skill and dedication to overcome them.


The internet does certain things very well. It searches for things, links things together, and makes it easy to follow the links. It's also pretty good at just displaying raw language. Hard-copy books are only really good at the latter. If we have a choice between the two, we should take the one that does more useful things. So why worry that the internet is replacing hard-copy books?

The answers that Rosen gives us are a) the new function of the internet (all that linking) is bad for us and b) the internet is not very good at the old role (displaying raw language as a book does). To a) I say: all that linking is a valuable thing that we do anyway (only slower) when reading a book. And to b) I say: the problems with the screen as a book could be solved, with a bit of thought and technology, by anyone who has the skill and discipline to read an ordinary book.

There remain concerns about the aesthetics of books (the roughed edges, the smell of the binding). But somone who doesn't share a bibliophile's taste can still be a perfectly good reader of Dickens -- at least, I don't see any good reason to otherwise in Rosen's article. Personally, I'ld prefer to read books in hard-cover. But I think that other people can read them just as well on the screen.
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