Is Digital Technology Destroying Reading?

By Mary Hendrie — April 18, 2014 3 min read
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Has the Internet destroyed book-reading, or have, to misquote a famous misquote, the reports of books’ deaths been greatly exaggerated?

A recent Washington Post article resurrected the persistent concern that the Internet erodes our ability to engage in serious reading. The leading newspaper of the country’s most literate city reports that many people find themselves unable to return to novels after growing acclimated to Internet reading that consists of skimming through large swaths of digital information. Emblematic of this “skimming and scanning” approach to Internet reading is the finding that only 31 percent of readers even finished the whole article about “skimming and scanning,” according to a follow-up Washington Post blog post.

As the increasing popularity of e-books blurs the line between Internet reading and book reading, the concern about the quality of screen-facilitated reading becomes more relevant. The New York Times Motherlode blog recently reported on two recent studies on the drawbacks of e-book reading. The first study of middle school students found lower reading comprehension on e-books compared to conventional books. Beginning readers can also suffer from e-book use, research found, with many young readers distracted from the text by interactive e-book features.

Some technologies are even moving beyond the passive effects of electronic reading to actively rewrite the way we read. Spritz, an American speed-reading app announced this March, has already been decried by some as an assault on the spirit of reading for the sake of speed.

In a recent Education Week Commentary, high school teacher history Christopher L. Doyle diagnoses this dismantling of book fluency at the hands of new technologies as “post-literacy,” bemoaning his students’ increasing unfamiliarity with books. This post-literacy is especially apparent, Doyle notes, in his students’ subpar research methods, which largely consist of quickly clicking and sifting through dozens of websites.

The concern that the Internet not only distracts us from reading books, but actually harms our ability to do so is not a new one. In “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” a 2008 long-form article in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr writes:

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

In fairness to the much-maligned technologies of today, Carr does concede that emerging technologies have often been heralded as a threat to serious culture. This, he notes, dates back to Plato’s portrayal of Socrates’ worry that the advent of writing would spread knowledge at the expense of wisdom.

The Washington Post piece also pulls back from prematurely reporting the death of serious reading, offering a parting reflection by neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf on the potential for a bi-literacy, or fluency in both Internet and book reading. Wolf, who is currently studying the effects of the digital world on our brains, concludes that,

We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age.

What do you think, readers: Has the rise of the Internet doomed us to a “post-literate” age, or is there hope yet for a “bi-literate” renaissance? Feel free to weigh in below, or join the Education Week Teacher featured forum discussion “E-Books vs. Book Books.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The author of the article is Nicholas Carr.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.