Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Media Via Media, or Between Screen & Print

In Screen vs. Print Media (Parts I, II, & III), we mentioned at least three key differences (Light, Haptics, and Distractions) between screen media and print media.  To recap:

Light: Computer screens emit direct light at the retina, which can tire the eyes over time.  Printed paper reflects light off the page, which does not shine direct light into the eyes and tire them.  This difference in lighting makes screens better for scanning and multitasking and books better for focusing attention.

Haptics: Reading is an experience that uses not just the eyes but also the hands.  It's a bodily experience that involves hand-eye coordination (e.g., feeling the weight of the book, turning its pages, discerning how long or short it is, etc.)—in short, reading a book is a haptic experience, and desktop and laptop screens do not fully replicate this experience.  Moreover, these haptic experiences help our brains learn and form memories (the mind does not work apart from the body, which is why cognitive scientists like to say that the mind is embodied).  

Distractions: Many digital devices have built-in distractions (e.g., e-mail, games, etc.), which books do not necessarily have.  (However, some print media do have such distractions—think of advertisements in magazines and newspapers.)

These are important physical and physiological differences between screen media and print media, which affect how our minds can process information.  These differences make screens better for scanning tidbits of information and multitasking, while they make print media better for focusing and reflective thinking.

E-reader, from Wikipedia


Today's technology, however, has advanced beyond the screen vs. print dichotomy, so now we should address some interesting in-between cases, where certain types of screen technology can at least partially imitate print technology.  As a case in point, let’s look at how e-readers imitate books.  

E-readers are pretty nifty. They are portable, light in weight, and efficient at storing a LOT of data.  Instead carrying many books around in your backpack, you can bring around just one e-reader and look up any book.  But in terms of their physical and physiological differences (light, haptics, and distractions), how do e-readers affect the ways our minds process information, especially compared to books?

I would say that e-readers like the Kindle are a very interesting middle ground—media via media (to pun the Latin expression).  So let’s see how light, haptics, and distractions work with these kinds of media.

Light:  Unlike computer screens, e-readers like the Kindle do not shine direct light at your eyes.  Instead, e-readers reflect light, just like printed pages in books.  How do they do this?  

Devices like the Kindle use a technological innovation known as e-ink, which works pretty much like regular ink on paper.  E-ink does not emit direct light.  Instead, e-ink reflects light, which reduces eye strain and allows you to focus on the screen for a long period of time.  So how does e-ink work?  

E-ink looks very similar to regular ink on the surface, but e-ink has both black and white particles enclosed in tiny microcapsules that are electrically charged.  When a positive or negative charge hits the microcapsules, the ink particles either rise (displaying white) or fall (displaying black).  Here’s a nice video explaining how e-ink works:


Nevertheless, many e-readers now have an option to light up the screen, which would shine direct light into the eyes and lead to digital eye strain over time.  (Of course, I would recommend against this option if you plan to read for a long period of time, because it goes against the very point of inventing e-ink in the first place, which was to create reflected light that eliminates eye strain.)

Haptics:  Due to their small size and mobility, e-readers are easy to move around and facilitate hand-eye coordination, just like regular books.  As we mentioned, this haptic experience (e.g., using hand-eye coordination, feeling the weight and thickness of the book, gripping and turning its pages, etc.) helps our brain learn and form memories.  (And remember, our minds always work together with our bodies, so what our bodies are doing affects how our minds process information).

However, there are at least a couple minor haptic differences between e-readers and books.

First, with e-readers, the experience of flipping through pages is replaced by clicking through pages, so the grip and turn motion of the fingers is replaced by a touch and press motion, which is a slightly smaller haptic experience.

Second, e-readers lack the weight of the codex and the ability to sense the thickness of the book.  Instead, there is typically a progress bar of some sort.  This can give visual feedback on how far into a book you read, but the overall haptic experience of weight and thickness is missing.

Thus, we may say that e-readers give almost (but not quite) the kind of haptic experience that books provide.  So e-readers make a slightly less perfect haptic technology compared to regular books.  And haptic experiences often matter because they give the brain important sensory feedback that affects learning, a significant insight that traces back to the work of great educators like John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky.

Distractions:  Unlike books, many e-readers like the Kindle can connect to WiFi and allow for Internet apps like e-mail and sometimes web games.  The temptation for digital distraction may be there, which can interfere with the reading experience.  (Hence, I always recommend turning those apps off, if the intention is to read.)

In sum, e-readers can mimic the book extremely well when it comes to light.  They mimic the book almost as well when it comes to haptics.  Unlike books, they may allow for digital distractions, unless you turn these distractions off.

I'd say the most significant difference here is haptics.  Haptic experiences assist learning and memory.  Thus, the more learning and memory are needed to read, the more these haptic experiences will help your mind learn and remember what you are reading.  So how might this affect your decision to use either an e-reader or a regular book?

My own opinion is that e-readers are better for more simple readings, while regular books are better for more complex stories.  Here's why . . . 

Simple readings do not have super dense plots, themes, or character developments, so they will not exercise as much learning and memory as more complex stories will.  For example, J.K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a great book, but it is not as aesthetically complex as James Joyce's Ulysses, which will tax far more brain power to learn and remember what is going on.  More complex books require more learning and memory to perform deep reading, which will work best when the reading experience is more haptic.

So perhaps e-readers are great for relatively simple reads like the Harry Potter books, which do not necessarily need a richly haptic experience to learn or remember the stories.  But since e-readers are not quite as haptic as regular books are, they are not yet ideal for the more complex and dense books that require much more effort on the part of learning and memory,  such as classic novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or philosophical treatises like David Hume's Enquiries.

To end, here’s a question for speculation:

In the future, do you think e-readers will ever perfectly imitate regular books?  

It may be possible.  Consider the prospects to perfect the haptics of e-readers.  What if the e-reader of the near future could somehow change its own weight depending on the book you select?  So when you select a light book (say, Marcus Aruelius' Meditations) the e-reader stays light in weight.  But if you select a dense book (like Herman Melville's Moby Dick) the e-reader somehow becomes heavier.

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