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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