Friday, January 3, 2014

Is There Such a Thing as E-reading?

In the latest Sunday issue of the New York Times you can find a piece dealing with the question of how the reading experience is changed by e-books. There is much I can agree with in this short essay, but there is also a fundamental claim I can only disagree with. The author sets up a rather simple-minded contrast between technology and solitude. Technology is, he suggests opposed to solitude simply because it involves what he calls "connectivity." He offers no argument, nor even evidence.

One might as well argue that the kind of technology he is talking about leads to more solitude than connection. I am thinking about the young couple that observed only yesterday in a restaurant. They may have been on their first day, but they were not talking to each other, but each was busy with the cell phone, looking down on the device, rather than at each other. They seemed to be completely isolated from each other most of the time. To be sure, they may also have been "connecting" with other cell phone users who were equally isolated. Is it that technology is "intrusive,' or is it rather that people are thoughtless?

I am not trying to argue that technology "isolates." That would be just as unwarranted as the claim that it "connects" us to the outside world.

In light of considerations like this, I can only be skeptical about the claim that "in a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity." The experience between reading a physical book or a book on Kindle is different, but reading on a Kindle or on the computer is no more distracting than reading print on paper. Nor does the printed book per se offer more serenity.

If we are distracted, we are distracted, not the medium. And it's not so long ago that reading novels was blamed for distraction. Now it is "e-reading."

I am not sure that the phenomenological differences between reading words printed on paper or reading pixels justify us in postulating of a radically new form of reading, called "e-reading." But I am sure that any distraction we experience is our own. To reject electronic devices for this reason is foolish. That is also why distraction-free writing applications cannot be all they are cracked up to be.


Unknown said...

Thesis disputandi: reading on a screen involves a slightly different set of habits than reading on paper in order to focus.

People often report that they feel more distracted when they switch to reading electronically, but I suspect that this is because they have built up years and years of practice at reading print, while screen-reading is novel. I have spent a few years now reading for several hours a day on a screen—disciplined reading of philosophy texts—and I now focus better with this medium than print. So my sense is that there is little inherent to each medium that alters focus, but rather the built-up skill set of the reader.

JC said...

An article from a few years ago, itself not bad, with a suggestive recreation of Mrs. Duffee reading....