Thursday, September 9, 2010

Should every sentence be easy to read?

When it comes to technology I'm a late adopter. Whether it was getting a cellphone, switching from VHS to DVD, or making the jump from analog to hi-def, I've always been several years behind my peers. I don't have a smartphone and have no plans to get one, nor do I feel the need to get a Kindle or Nook. I'm still buying books at a good clip, which lately have been accumulating in ever taller stacks around our crowded bungalow.

Yet, I suspect in a few years I'll have one of those e-reading devices (maybe I'll get one for Christmas). And perhaps then I'll wonder how I lived without it, as I now wonder how I ever watched sports on my old analog television set. If my buddy invites me over to watch the Gators game and he doesn't have HDTV -- I ain't going! Even if he does have chicken wings.

Jonah Lehrer is one of my sharpest tacks out there and today he writes about the future of reading. He points out that consumer technology moves in one direction.

[Toward] making it easier for us to perceive the content. This is why your TV is so high-def, and your computer monitor is so bright and clear. For the most part, this technological progress is all to the good. (I still can’t believe that people watched golf before there were HD screens. Was the ball even visible? For me, the pleasure of televised golf is all about the lush clarity of grass.) Nevertheless, I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten.

What's interesting, Lehrer explains, is that there's a neural reason for his worry that making books easier to read could have baneful unintended consequences. He cites the work of French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who discovered "two distinct pathways" for making sense of what we read.

Most of the time when we read we're using the "ventral pathway" of our brain. This route enables us to easily slip into a sort of autopilot when we're reading familiar words and sentence structures. But when we encounter something unfamiliar, even bad handwriting or an unusual font, this activates the "dorsal stream" of our literate brain forcing us to sit up and pay attention. We're no longer on autopilot. In Lehrer's phrase "the automatic act has lost its automaticity." If that experience of struggling with a hard-to-read text is taken away Lehrer worries that. . .

before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink – to these screens that keep on getting better – that the technology will feedback onto the content, making us less willing to endure harder texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a literate clause. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.

Hear, hear! The future of books and reading may be digital, but I'm in no hurry to trade my pages for megabytes. The idea of settling down with a beverage in one hand and a Kindle in the other doesn't give me as much pleasure as the lo-tech alternative. Then again, with another baby on the way we sure could use the extra space!


redeyespy said...

I read yesterday that the New York Times will cease publication in print and go 100% digital in the near future. Um, good thing they have an iPhone app.

Stephen Ley said...


Randy said...

Wow. Just when I have almost decided that I had let Neil Postman's thesis (from one MacLuhan, I understand) carry too much weight in my mind and perspective. I'm still afraid I overweight it a bit but this piece just re-enforces the idea that medium matters more than message, all that "dorsal" stuff aside. :)
Perhaps better said, medium colors the message in ways that we miss and yet the message IS affected.
BTW, I can't shake the idea that this thesis plays largest in music. When I accept Plato saying that the music always plays larger than lyrics as the influence it says something about what is happening with the ever-present muse of our day. Lyrics matter and without question they interplay with the sounds -- but when we like a song, or dislike it, it is the packaging that is largest on our mind. And that packaging -- the music -- is the most influential. Medium over message.
Thanks for a bit of helpful thought stimulus this morning, Steve. Hope this e-ink is worth the bandwidth, and that the message doesn't deserve to be ruined by the medium!

Stephen Ley said...

Randy, your e-ink is always worth the bandwidth!