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Digital publishing and the loss of intimacy

The cognitive overhead involved in reading a book has increased tremendously

Reading used to be an intimate experience. Even Amazon, the pioneer in digital publishing, branded its Kindle with a child reading alone under a tree. Books were specially designed to disappear into the background as much as possible, helped by a laundry list of conventions as to language, punctuation, format, and structure, thus allowing readers to direct all their attention and cognitive powers to the text at hand.

The first digital platforms made a decent job of emulating the traditional experience. Certainly, the overhead of managing an Amazon account is something readers could do without, but allowances had to be made. Black text on a white screen was still the reference, and great pains were taken to ease users into this new experience: options were few, and the physicality of the book was heavily reflected in the shape and size of the device.

Since then, the cognitive overhead involved in reading a book has increased tremendously. Our e-readers have become tablets and smartphones, that require regular updates, and demand constant attention. Once one keeps track of chargers, docks, synchronisation cables, Wi-Fi passwords, software updates and lock-screen vulnerabilities, one has little patience left for the subtle prose of E.M. Forster.

Short-term sales have been boosted by the addition of social features: the more our friends tweet about their reading habits, like a publisher on Facebook, and highlight key passages in popular business books, the more compelled we feel to imitate them. The unofficial term for the underlying marketing tactic is “gamification”: encourage progress along a linear path, distribute token rewards liberally, foster friendly competition, and you shall put your user’s base instincts to work in the service of a good cause.

In the long term, nobody likes peer pressure. Opting out of something is easier on our egos than sucking at it. When we fail to read as much, highlight as much, and comment as much as our friends, we are faced with an alternative: either stop reading books entirely, and make it sound like an intellectually superior choice, or focus on speed to give the illusion of extensive reading, something which digital platforms actually encourage by providing extended summaries and “X-Rays” of current publications.

Reading is, by definition, an intimate activity. Reading anything but a halfpenny novelette requires a quiet mind and a certain amount of focus. It is not a compelling activity: nothing is easier than to snap out of a book. Yet, we as digital publishers are encouraging our readers to do just that. We encourage reading on platforms built for distractions (e.g., iPhones, iPads, Kindle Fire, etc.), and we infuse the reading experience itself with an element of competition that encourages skimming and binging.

We could offer our customers the conveniences of digital reading in a distraction-free environment. We could build dedicated e-readers with retina screens that do not check up on Twitter feeds. We could provide a central off-switch for all sharing features. We could even allow our customers to purchase books anonymously to encourage them to step out of their comfort zone without fear of unusual prior purchases hounding them forever.

Why don’t we?

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  • jwikert

    A few months ago I ditched my dedicated e-reader for a Nexus tablet. Now all my reading takes place on the tablet. That also means I now have infinitely more distractions while I’m reading. New email messages appear in the status bar as do tweets, baseball scores, hockey news, etc. There should be a switch in every reading app that disables all these notifications.

    Your point about how we’re now encourage to skim and binge while reading is also noteworthy.I thought this new Chrome extension called Cruxlight (http://www.cruxlight.com/) would help me scan web pages I don’t have the time to read right away but it’s been hit and miss. The more I use that extension the more I seem to push myself to rush and skim through longer forms of content.

    • http://fj.je/ François Joseph de Kermadec

      I had not heard of that extension! Thanks for sharing… In a way, it reminds me of Apple’s experiments with spoken language technologies a few years ago. Shortening and abbreviating was all the rage, then, and Mac OS X even shipped with a built-in summarising application — which did a very decent job, considering the state of the technology.

      Your suggestion for a distraction-free mode is excellent. It reminds me of Apple’s « Do Not Disturb » feature, which could be a useful seed from which to build a reading-specific experience, selectively disabling notifications that are of no interest to the reader (like Twitter), but keeping those that would effectively put an end to the reading session (such as calendar alarms).

  • http://twitter.com/seahound Bob Pemberton

    We have embarked on a great experiment in shifting reading from print to digital. That experiment is by no means complete and the results may not be in for a very long time. One thing is clear though. Early reactions to these changes almost always dwell upon what we are losing and not on what we are gaining. The earliest example I know of is from Phaedrus by Plato where he has Aristotle talking – here one can see what we lost by adopting writing:

    SOCRATES: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

    • http://fj.je/ François Joseph de Kermadec

      The things we gain and those we lose do not necessarily cancel each other out…

      You are quite right to point out that a lot of commentary, including the post above, focuses on what we lose. However, if we want to decide whether digital reading is something we want to embrace absolutely, it is important to examine both the gains and the losses — not only quantitatively but also qualitatively.

      Digital publishing is a very elastic concept, and it is up to us to decide what we are ready and willing to gain or lose. Authors, publishers, distributors, and readers have a lot of common interests, but also a few conflicting ones. Technology offers tremendous opportunities, in which I firmly believe, but we should not confuse the technology with the way in which it is implemented.

      You mention the word « experiment », which implies controlled conditions in a laboratory setting. I wish we were running an experiment, the results of which we could ponder and dissect. I feel we have already moved beyond that stage, though: big wheels are in motion, with little opportunity for feedback, and their movement is very much felt by all those involved in the industry. If we wait too long for more data to come in, we run the risk of letting the industry settle into an unfair model, designed by a few behind closed doors, which we won’t be able to change until the next technical revolution rolls around.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.evers.18 David Evers

    Remember that you don’t have to load all of those ‘distracting’ applications! If you have a tablet for reading, load reading applications…and as little else as possible. In other words, exercise some self-discipline.

    • http://fj.je/ François Joseph de Kermadec

      Definitely! Up to a certain point, we choose the distractions we live with, and a little self-control goes a very long way. There is no doubt that a great many of the distractions we live with today are self-imposed.

      Yet, as tablets increasingly become the centre of our computing lives, maintaining a second tablet just for reading seems like a luxury that many users will not want to pursue. We are pressured by our peers and by the industry into using our tablets as inboxes for an increasingly wide and deep range of notifications. Opting out of that may require more self-control or self-discipline than the majority of users are willing to exercise. Since we have created a problem with technology (and a little dash of business pressure), I feel technology ought to solve it as well. And even without any applications, the cognitive cost of maintaining a modern tablet goes well beyond the cost of « maintaining » a paperback!

      Still, as you point out, when in doubt, turn off the notifications. This is a great principle that cannot be repeated too often or too loudly. Thanks for reminding us!

  • AnnaCC

    ‘ Reading is not a compelling activity: nothing is easy to snap out of than a book’ – Um, doesn’t that depend on how interested you are in what you are reading and why? If you are reading competitively as described above, and your main purpose is one-up-man-ship, then yes then demonstrating that you’ve read becomes exhausting and just another pressure. We probably all do this to a certain extent, but however there are still many people who love the traditional intimate and creative active of reading for its own sake. As has been pointed out elsewhere, such people want to read books, not ‘game’ or interact with them. The advantages of e-books over print are, from the reader’s point of view, speed and ease of access and storage, maybe cost; from the publisher’s point of view, reduced production costs and no worries about logistics and distribution. However e-books aren’t any more exciting than other types of book, in fact less so because they’re a two-dimensional ‘virtual’ experience only. Other types of e-product that combine on-screen text with interactive experiences of various types are emerging, but I don’t imagine that these will replace the classic black text on a white background reading experience. Devices that do all the other stuff, the internet connection, the breaking news, social media updates, etc. are one thing, reading devices should, for true bibliophiles be another. If I really want to read a book (and I do all the time), I’m not going to load it onto a device that is going to distract me from it. (If you find Twitter updates and sports scores more compelling than your book aren’t you reading the wrong book?) The deluge of real time information and contact that internet allows us is all very well in its way but we’ve got to learn to channel and manage it better. That’s what our devices should be doing, not creating more ways to overwhelm us with data.

    • http://fj.je/ François Joseph de Kermadec

      You raise a very valid point about the « two-dimensional » nature of ebooks as opposed to traditional volumes. The transition to digital reading certainly entails the loss of sensory feedback which, in turn, affects how we immerse ourselves into the story.

      My comment about reading not being a compelling activity is by no means derogatory: I am an avid reader, and I believe in the power of texts.

      I do, however, feel that reading will never be as necessarily compelling as watching a movie, which offers a complete sensory experience and, by its very nature, actually blocks a lot of the outside world. A book has no volume knob to turn up to drown noises from outside, for example. This does not mean, of course, that the right book cannot transport our mind far from everyday realities, or cannot be engrossing.

  • Sabrina Edoward