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There’s still some uncertainty in the research, but several studies have found that digital reading impedes understanding for both fiction and nonfiction reading and in both students and professionals. So from what we can tell, when people read on paper they think better—there’s an improvement in retention, overall problem solving, and understanding of what’s going on in the text.
Yet despite these findings and people’s seeming preference to read on paper, digital reading is on the rise. We see this very clearly for K-12 students, but it is also a growing trend for general reading and in commercial contexts. Why? Because the short term incentives to read in digital are huge. The upfront cost of the materials is often lower, the environmental impact seemingly lessened, the physical heft largely gone, and integration with our digital information ecosystem closer to seamless.
And this is why the situation is so alarming. The shift to digital reading despite its flaws isn’t an anomaly that will self-correct in a few months. For most of us, our incentive structures lead those short-term advantages of digital reading to be very persuasive, and in some cases decisive. And if these short term advantages become the deciding factors that lead professionals, students, schools, enterprises, etc. to read on computers even though their comprehension of the text is compromised, then manufacturers and developers will tend to compete on the battleground of short term advantages—digital. Thus, reinforcing the problem in a vicious cycle.
Technology companies have been incentivized by consumer’s behavior to optimize products for convenience or cost and typically not comprehension and actionability.
If this continues to happen, what impact will it have? Let’s first think about our education system—a major aspect of which is reading comprehension. If the ability to understand prose is hindered in the way the studies suggest, we’re systematically disadvantaging a generation of students who are going to have to assimilate more information faster than any generation in history, and then go compete in a global talent-pool.
Things get worse when we expand our focus to the larger economy. Writing has historically been crucial for our economic activity (it’s thought to have emerged to facilitate commerce in Mesopotamia), and nothing has changed. As we transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the complexity and the volume of information we needed to assimilate in order to describe our economy grew vastly.
What’s especially interesting to me is that today, as we drift towards a post-industrial economy, information (specifically prose) isn’t just the tool to describe and represent economic production, it increasingly is the thing being produced! Consider the reams of market news published every minute of every day to the reports your consulting firms sends you. We pay to produce, and are paid to consume, prose at a stunning rate. So if my ability to comprehend is hindered, even a little, then once again it puts me at a disadvantage at a task that is already overwhelming me.
What’s worse is that exchanging prose does not happen at one single “layer” of the economy. Every step in the value-creation process (both within and between organizations) is communicating and creating value by exchanging prose. Even only a small difference in reading comprehension will have opportunities to be compounded many times over. I don’t know what impact this could ultimately have on our productivity, but I’d prefer not to find out experimentally!
The reason this is happening is because of design. Technology companies have been incentivized by consumer’s behavior to optimize products for convenience or cost and typically not comprehension and actionability. The basic structure of what the digital reading experience has turned into isn’t something designed to support deep thought, collaboration, or understanding. It’s designed to get the book or document opened and consumed quickly, and perhaps it supports a couple highlights along the way.
This scary picture is what we set out to fix with LiquidText. We took a different approach to designing the reading experience, and grounded our work in real research. And although we didn’t neglect either, we set our sights on a larger prize than just cost or convenience.
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