Skip to main content

The Guardian: eBooks Are (Still) Making Us Stupid

13242684424_a2ae9acfe1_bIf there’s one thing that certain elements of the literati like more than discussing which book will be the next masterpiece, it’s to lament on how the web and or ebooks are making us stupid.

This lament is a variation of the centuries-old cenotechnophobia trend. It crops up every year or so, in one publication or another, and now The Guardian is joining the hand-wringing.

Yesterday this paper published a piece that states, but fails to actually prove, that ebooks are making us stupid:

But what is the ebook doing to the way we read? And how, in turn, are the changes in the way millions of us read going to affect the way novelists write? This is not just a question for academics; you only have to look at people on a beach this summer to see how influential fiction remains, and how, if its narratives were to change radically, our self-conception might also change.

I would argue with the premise, but that piece offers no credible argument that can be debunked. It is hand-wringing from beginning to end, and frankly some of the claims made are ridiculous:

The attention span has shortened not just because ebooks consist of a continuous, searchable digital text, but because they are being read on devices we use for other things. Baron reports that a large percentage of young people read ebooks on their cellphones – dipping into them in the coffee queue or on public transport, but then checking their work email or their online love life, a thumbswipe away.

In turn, in so far as form and business models has reacted to such behaviour, fiction has become shorter. Every major publisher has experimented with short stories, serialised fiction, anthologies and mid-range “e-only” books. By contrast, experiments with fictional forms that only work for ebooks and hypertext have failed to make the big time.

Yes, folks, the rise of ebooks in the past decade are responsible for late 19th-century publishers producing serialized fiction and short fiction, and 20th-century publishers producing anthologies. (Obviously someone has a time machine.)

This piece is not all bad, but it is flawed in that it assumes (without proof) that ebooks have changed everything because they’re being read on connected devices that are rife with other distractions (Twitter, games, etc).

The fact of the matter is, there is no proof. What little research has been done in this area is, at best, inconclusive.

There is a paper (PDF) that shows that comprehension suffers when reading digitally as well as similar reports from researchers (I can’t find the papers, however), but there are other papers that show that comprehension doesn’t suffer on ereaders, and there’s another study that showed that a properly used ebook can help a child learn faster than if they were being taught to read from a paper book.

Not all the studies come to clean conclusions; one muddied the waters when it chose its test subjects poorly, resulting in a flawed conclusion.

While I freely admit to being biased against laments like the one published by The Guardian, what bothers me the most is the assumption that the trend is not just a proven fact but also that it is immutable and irreversible. That implies an assumption that people are unable to see patterns in their behavior and then seek to positively change said patterns.

Have you head of the slow reading movement, by any chance? This term was coined to describe actions that some readers have taken in response to the distractions of modern life.

Or as I described it several months ago:

This movement is the yin to the speed reader’s yang. Its practitioners believe that developing a slow and practiced reading style improves comprehension and increases enjoyment. Or as Ottawa-based John Miedema, author of Slow Reading, put it: "If you want the deep experience of a book, if you want to internalise it, to mix an author’s ideas with your own and make it a more personal experience, you have to read it slowly".

One could look at that movement and say that it proves the point that ebooks are making us stupid, but it should also remind you that you can’t make trite observations about this topic and offer conclusions that can be summed up on the back of a napkin.

It’s not that simple.

Or rather, people aren’t that simple.

image by Harald Groven


Similar Articles


Joanna Cabot August 14, 2015 um 11:27 am

We talked about this a lot in the reading courses I took this summer to upgrade my teaching credential. The conclusion we reached was simply this: reading digitally may indeed involve a somewhat modified skillset. People skim, they have to focus their attention differently and so on, But it is a *learnable* skillset, the same way reading on paper is. We have to teach kids different strategies for all sorts of things. We teach them that even on paper, reading non-fiction vs fiction requires different skills. So all we have to do is teach them digital reading skills, and the problem will be solved…

Feda August 14, 2015 um 1:30 pm

I don’t get this claim at all. I read both paper and e-books the same way. Actually, I’m probably more likely to skim through a paper book than an e-book since it’s much easier with paper.

Write a Comment