Understanding the Influence of Digital Devices on Literacy Habits
In his provocatively titled 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr asserts that digital culture is chipping away at our ability to read, focus on, comprehend, and internalize long pieces of text. One of the consequences of this, Carr claims, is that we are inadvertently shortening our attention spans and passively participating in a literate culture that values information skimming instead of deep, immersive reading. Using himself as an example, Carr describes what he believes is the developing trend of society’s current reading habits. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski”1 . Carr goes so far as to declare that these changes are not just social, but neurological, stating that technology inevitably amends how the human brain operates on a synaptic level. Again, Carr uses himself as an example, noting his shifting memory:
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.”
While Carr primarily describes his mental capacities, he is additionally speaking about a remapping of his literacy habits. A shift in perspective regarding how literacy operates seems to always accompany technological or social advancements. Digital culture has been increasingly become a breeding ground for this kind of skeptical behavior—and the stories, like all stories of educational crisis, are nothing short of horrifying. In a recent a New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” Matt Richtel writes about youth who are finding it harder to read entire books. One student can’t make it through his assigned summer reading, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, noting he’d rather watch the condensed video summary on YouTube. Richtel asserts that while distractions from academic work are not a new phenomenon, the relentless stream of stimuli digital culture provides presents “a profound new challenge to focusing and learning”2 .
But instead of simplifying the problem to the tools used, attention should also be turned to academics finding new methodologies of learning threatening to their hardened ideologies. In the 19th century, when mass publishing became a reality in England, those already literate (mostly rich folks) prophesized a decline in the quality of literature and the writing society produces, stating that once the lower and the ever-growing middle classes learned to read and write, they would ultimately ruin the written word3 . When television inevitably developed into an educational issue, cynics shouted from mountaintops about how TV would rot the brains of children who watched, depleting their ability and desire to write, and turning them into mindless drones clicking through the channels4 .
I’m hard pressed to find a time in history where the finger pointing and name-calling has been warranted. The lower class didn’t ruin literacy. In fact, as print became cheap to produce and literature became more democratized, writers like Charles Dickens gained the ability to speak and write for the under represented middle and lower classes. Also in retrospect, television didn’t melt the minds of our youth and its usefulness is contingent upon the content that it provides viewers and the method such content is deployed. Our default method of evaluating a tool is to either hold it up as a trophy or demonize it without looking more carefully at how the tools is being implemented and understood. A simple, yet often overlooked rule is that few things in education are ever all good or all bad. However, it’s those intervals of grayness that are begging to be explored and evaluated—particularly when it comes to digital literacy.
In 2010, Carr expanded his article into a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In it, Carr meticulously maps out a history of inventions and social leaps that changed how the general public developed and maintained literacy despite a constantly shifting technological backdrop. One general theme: as new technologies surface and find their way into our literacy habits, these technologies modify the physical and mental processes of reading and writing. To offer a quick example, the shift from handwriting to typing has been said to alter the way we organize our thoughts into writing5 . Currently, we can see this happening right now with the emergence of digital reading devices. As more people read on digital devices and less from the printed page, how we interact with and evaluate text changes. Devices such as The iPad, The Kindle, The Nook, and a whole slew of mobile smartphones, bring about new ways to engage with the written word.
One obvious change is interactivity with the text itself; no longer are the words on the page static. On latest version of The Kindle, when a reader comes across a word they may not know or completely understand, they can click on that word to obtain a definition. Sounds useful, right? It is—until these minor diversions away from the original text become more involved and distracting. When a reader comes across a reference they may not be familiar with, for example, [wikipop]Aigars Prūsis[/wikipop], former leader of Latvia’s [wikipop]National Power Union[/wikipop], they can click on the name to learn about Prūsis. They view the Wikipedia page and can click on biographical information or other materials. If their curiosity is still not satisfied, readers can click on the National Power Union, learn about that, maybe somewhere else, read about that. The reader, ultimately, dives deeper into the rabbit hole of endless, even if valuable, information. This is a feature of the Internet that many of us have noticed at one point of another—we click around so much that we forget what we were originally reading. The deeper we go, the less likely we will return to the original text. Diversions seem to breed and multiply in the realm of digital reading devices. Clickability may incorporate more access to ideas, but it might also contribute to a declining ability to engage with a solitary written document.
This is seen prominently in the trends of digital publishing. Word counts in online magazine and newspaper articles have been consistently declining for years. One website describing the recipe for success for digital magazines states data from
“successful digital magazines show that readers don’t always like to read long articles in [a long] format. An average of 100-150 words per article is plenty of text, especially once you have accounted for headlines, intro and any video or pop-up content. Don’t overload the reader with a 1,000-word article as you would do in a print title; it’s just not as easy to read”6 .
The venue in which information is presented within will amend the way a reader receives that information. To quote Marshall McLuhan, who proclaimed the decline of typography along with the rise of television’s image-based rhetoric, “[wikipop]the medium is the message[/wikipop].” In this regard, the medium of digital devices is influencing the ability to traditionally engage with written ideas. The result, according to McLuhan, media theorist Neil Postman, and even Nicholas Carr, is a different way to receive and value information—though these theorist often only see a negative impact. To offer another view, these influences are seen in the practices of digital publishers today.
The Atavist, a small publishing house based in Brooklyn, New York, feels they have developed a way of reading texts on a digital device that may solve the issue of disengagement. According to their website, The Atavist publishes, “a digital form that lies in the space between long narrative magazine articles and traditional books and e-books. Publishing them digitally and offering them individually — a bit like music singles in iTunes — allows us to present stories longer and in more depth than typical magazines, less expensive and more dynamic than traditional books”7 . It’s rather tricky wording, but basically The Atavist is purposely publishing works that are longer than the average online article, but shorter than the majority of books. To supplement what they feel is a lack of engagement, The Atavist insert videos, related documents, and other goodies into their publications to both keep the readers’ attention and, hopefully, expand their knowledge.
The Atavist isn’t publishing shortened versions of longer works, but they are only publishing works they feel can be handled by readers receiving information via a digital device. In other words, the company has recognized and is now attempting to address the problem of immersion. Perhaps it is not the literature itself that should be scrutinized, but the venue in which the literature is being presented. In her article “Shorter E-Books for Smaller Devices,” Jenna Wortham got the opportunity to try out The Atavist, giving it a very positive review. She notes that, despite being an avid reader of printed books, she has never found the motivation to get past the first chapter of any e-book in her digital library8 . However, she was able to get through a 12,000 word article published by The Atavist. 12,000 words is approximately 40 pages of standard printed text—or roughly one or two book chapters. While Wortham doesn’t explain how she is able to get through a lengthy text in one digital venue and not in another (and the term “lengthy” is up for debate here), perhaps this is a sign that readership is not a lost cause if the right tools can assist and encourage the reader.
Let me take a final moment to recognize the irony of writing about such a topic on a blog filled with hyperlinks and videos. I don’t want to exude an attitude of disdain for digital culture or present/future literacy habits. I do, however, have a concern that immersion into long, solitary texts will be more difficult and internalizing knowledge less likely if we fail to realize the attributes of an ever-evolving digital landscape. As digital textbooks are starting to become a reality, these issues will directly affect students. Nonetheless, my hope is that e-readers will expand the way we understand and engage with written ideas. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s just different, new, and needs to be understood.
- Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. July 2008. [↩]
- Richtel, Matt. “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” New York Times. 21 Nov. 2010. [↩]
- Altick, Richard. English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998. [↩]
- Sheils, Merrill. “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” Newsweek. 8 Dec. 1975. [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hansen_Writing_Ball#Nietzsche.27s_Hansen_Writing_Ball [↩]
- Zmag. < http://www.zmags.com/blog/10-design-hints-when-creating-digital-magazines> [↩]
- The Atavist. http://www.theatavist.com [↩]
- Worthham, Jenna. “Shorter E-Books for Smaller Devices.” New York Times. 12 Feb 2011. [↩]
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