Digital reading and the future

Book apps, digital reading and the future of our culture

An interesting debate over the value of book apps has bubbled up, sparked by comments from Nicolette Jones at the Bookseller Children’s Conference. She was critical of book apps, suggesting that interactivity got in the way of the story, and that reading a book with a child is a hug, whereas an app is leaving them to their own devices.

While there are many bad examples of interactivity in book apps, I think that’s a feature of digital storytelling and reading being relatively young. Publishers are still learning the medium. Some such as Nosy Crow, Inkle and Failbetter Games have been making good and interesting interactive reading experiences (though the latter two aren’t aimed at children).

With the “hug element”, to a large extent that’s down to how adults use books or use tablets. You can give a child a book to read by themselves just as much as a phone or tablet, and you can play an app with your child. But there is also a responsibility for publishers and developers to ensure that they are creating stories, whether in digital or physical formats, that lend themselves to that.

Working out how to create good digital reading experiences is vital for the future. As Kate Wilson argues,

Reading must not be the most boring thing a child can do on a touchscreen.

We need to offer exciting digital reading experiences digitally if we want digitally orientated children to read. Digital reading offers new and different opportunities for interactivity, creativity, sociability. Of course, we need to remember that the written word is already interactive, since it is brought to life by the reader’s imagination. But there are many ways that digital reading can extend that.

Stuart Dredge asks the million-dollar question:

How are apps going to use interactivity and multimedia to do something “special and beyond and valuable”? How can they best serve storytelling and reading and children’s imaginations, rather than just giving them things to tap and swipe on?

But to come at it from another angle, “thinking of the children” also raises some hard questions about the kind of culture we are creating long-term by reading digitally. As Roy Amara famously said,

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run

The printed page is being swallowed whole by the computer screen – desktop, tablet, mobile – and with it, distinctions between reading, browsing and watching; books, apps and web; with the ever-present background of sharing and notifications and messages. We are becoming digital omnivores, consuming stories and information through the medium of the screen in the context of hyperconnectivity.

In the short-term, print and digital media will no doubt continue to co-exist, and it’s tempting to conclude that this will be the case indefinitely. But a more fundamental shift is taking place beneath the surface, as digital reshapes the very way we think. Our minds will no longer be defined by the book, but by the screen. As Neil Postman argues in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the rise of television hasn’t just change our habits, but the structure of our thought. The digital age just accelerates that process.

The cultural strongholds of the codex such as the university, which shape the next generation of minds, are adapting themselves to the world of the screen with electronic textbooks and streaming lectures. If print and its semi-digitised cousin the e-reader survive, then they will be as niche tools for the minority of dedicated readers. The short-term impact is incremental; the long-term effect on our culture and institutions will be revolutionary.

We are witnessing the next stage in the shift from Gutenberg to Post-Gutenberg Minds, from Print Culture to Screen Culture. This shift won’t necessarily make us stupid or kill the novel, but it will undoubtedly redefine what we mean by intelligence, by the novel and by many other things.

Similarly, there are those who argue that Google is making us stupid, that social media is shredding our attention spans and trapping our thoughts in the shallows. The digital doomsayers have a point. Reading requires deliberate choice and discipline when we can get quicker, easier fixes for our attention. Reading long-form text encourages complex, logical thinking, and deep imaginative engagement with different characters and situations. There is a real danger that deep reading will become a specialist skill, and our culture would be the poorer for that.

In Neil Postman’s book Technocracy, he cites the story from Plato’s Phaedrus of Thamus, an Egyptian king. Thamus entertained the god Theuth, who invented many things. Theuth presented writing as sure to improve the wisdom and memory of the Egyptians. Thamus replied:

The discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this […] those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful […] your pupils will have the reputation for wisdom without the reality.

People in oral cultures are capable of what seem to us great feats of memory, which we have lost through our reliance on writing. The tools we use change and shape us, and our new reliance on digital screens is changing the shape of how we think.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Postman goes on to observe, Thamus’ error was “in believing that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden […] every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that”.

We need to embrace that complexity: making the most of Screen Culture, while upholding and translating the benefits of Print Culture into a digital age. We need to make deliberate choices about how we use technology, rather than doing whatever we can just because we can.

I don’t have immediate answers to how that plays out in terms of the specifics of good apps and the like, but I think this is a discussion we need to be having. It’s not just about the book apps of the next few years, but ultimately our culture for the next few centuries.

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