Reading machines

Reading is a pretty magical process: our brain transforms squiggles on a page into images, scenes and ideas that then link with our emotional and intellectual archive to form new internal experiences. This internal world bridges our imagined and lived lives, giving reading the power to transform not only our perspectives, but also us as individuals. But the changes to our lives brought about by technology have simultaneously changed our relationship with reading. It’s now the source of myriad anxieties: are we reading enough, what and how are we reading, are we retaining the knowledge and so on?

These days, people spend more time interacting with text than ever before – but what are we taking from it, and how is it changing us? There are hordes of (often web-based) media articles exploring these questions, but most offer as many questions as they do answers. Theories abound: some claim that it is the internet or Google ‘making us stupid’, others that it is reading apps or interactive educational resources. Is it the material read online, or perhaps the e-reader itself that is changing our relationship with reading? One thing we do know is that reading has changed: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from established readers who have noticed changes in their reading habits in this age of distraction. I admit that I’m one of these.

I’m particularly interested in long-form reading, such as reading a whole novel or nonfiction book, an endeavour that requires – theoretically – time, space and immersion. As others before me have shown, ‘deep reading’ exists somewhere at the intersection of our experience of space and time. Because our unconscious, embodied processes are equally part of our reading experience, the act of reading a book (as opposed to digitally ‘processing’ text) offers us something beyond the acquisition of information.

Academic Robert Hassan has published widely on the impact of technology on our lived experiences, particularly our perceptions of time and space. He argues that the ‘chronic distraction’ brought about by today’s tech-driven world has created a distinction between ‘information’ (to be processed) from ‘knowledge’ (to be experienced, absorbed, known). In The Age of Distraction: Reading, Writing and Politics in a High-speed Networked Economy, Hassan shows how the rise of information and its flow goes hand in hand with the expectations of our post-industrial, capitalist society. It is linked to the compression or ‘neutralisation’ of time that started with the clock: the expectation for humans to be productive and punctual participants in a system where everything can be measured. Hassan sees this as a sort of space/time compression, where ‘cyberspace’ is accompanied by ‘cyber time’, and where both of these further distort processes and experiences that were, in pre-industrial times, temporal and embodied.

E-reading extends this digitalised compression of space and time to the compression of reading. We can store thousands of texts on a Kindle or e-reader, and can switch between them at whim on a single train ride. The ultimate manifestation of this is the recent development of speed-reading apps that promise to increase our reading consumption. The movement of the eyes across the page, they say, wastes time, so apps like Spritz remove this hindrance by flashing words on the screen at a rate the reader chooses. (Spritz also argues – in its favour – that ‘traditional reading consumes huge amounts of physical space.’) One Spritz user reported going ‘crazy’ during the conclusion of a novel read at 650–700 words per minute. The words were just too fast for thought, and inspired an unpleasant increase in physical sensation similar to panic:

Spritz gives you no chance to linger … exquisite dialogue is not allowed any room to breathe. At the moment, reading a novel on Spritz is like riding a unicycle from Shepherd’s Bush to Brick Lane. You can do it, but there are far more pleasant and logical ways to get there.

Reading is an activity that takes time. But it is also a cornerstone of our global, networked, intellectual, market-oriented world, and thus it seems obvious that reading would eventually become another victim of commodification and time-conscious hyper-production. Like the clock, speed-reading apps and related developments distort not just space and time but us – that is, our understanding of ourselves – by allocating and reducing our experiences into measurements. It’s increasingly less frequent that we ‘lose’ our sense of time, that we give ourselves over to experiences that are not measurements of consumption or production – for example, the embodied sense of being in space and place that accompanies the reading of a long text. Hassan argues that ‘what has been missing thus far is a temporal perspective on capitalism, a social process that has, in its space-time crises, brought about a largely unrecognised crisis in the processes of reading, writing, and cognition.’ In this digital capitalism, we read ‘[i]nformation, as opposed to knowledge,’ which ‘is the currency of the network society, because it is produced at speed to be consumed (digested) at speed.’

The space in which we read and the way our body interacts with the representation of words contributes to the way we draw meaning from the text. Many studies suggest that comprehension is lower on e-readers than on paper because of the way the (hitherto unacknowledged) spatial aspect of reading is altered; the absence of referential shape and context changes how we interact with the text.

When we read, Ernst Rothkopf argues, text becomes an ‘object’ and is perceived as a ‘physical landscape’ by our brains. Navigating this landscape involves the unconscious absorption of words in relation to each other (it’s called ‘parafoveal processing’), but also requires the ability to go back over the text to reread sections. When this landscape is altered – for instance, on the screen of an e-reader – our perception of the text’s shape and content are also changed. So, too, are our emotional responses, as several widely reported Norwegian studies, led by academic Anne Mangen, found.

These emotional responses are key to the changes and anxieties inspired by the digital age. The capitalist attitude towards reading is visible in arguments that claim that any engagement with text is positive. In this view, the ability to process and manage text in cyberspace is just as – if not more important – than the ability or impetus to read a novel. But the value ascribed to this type of reading is perceived in relationship to future job prospects, to survival in the cyber-dominated market.

The fear that we are becoming stupid reinforces the view of reading as a consumer activity: an activity that is productive and competitive, that can be measured by increases in our intellect. We are reading more, we are reading faster, we are allocating all of our time to reading, we are being so productive – in other words, we are doing everything the market dictates – so how are we getting more stupid? Our choice-less participation in this system threatens to betray us, and here the anxiety arises. It is an emotional response to the political dimensions of these changes: those of speed and choice, of being changed by outside forces that we can’t escape. The anxiety emerges from a perception that we are poorer, not richer, for these changes.

Our emotional and affective experiences of reading are as important to our digestion of a text as they are to our appreciation of it. Affect and emotions theorists alike debate the source of our bodily sensations that are linked to emotional responses. Each side questions the ‘triggers’ (whether they are termed ‘affect’ or ‘emotion’): are they spatial/external, learned, cultural, internal, biological?

In her critique of the ‘turn to affect’ in the humanities, Ruth Leys identifies a single common belief held on all sides: that affect is a non-cognitive and anti-intentional process that ‘occur[s] below the threshold of consciousness and cognition and [is] rooted in the body’. By extension, emotions and affective responses are recognised as both drivers and inhibitors of cognition, creativity and learning – and both are affected by new technologies.

These are the aspects of reading that can’t be measured: the experiential and imaginative elements that offer multiple forms of ‘knowledge’ and that are not linked to ‘information’. The admittedly unpleasant experience of reading at speed using Spritz, for example, may hint at the cognitive problem of e-reading and the way our chronic distraction prevents us engaging with text. Leys summarises research that suggests unpleasant affective experiences are generally related to an increase in physiological activation of some kind (mild activation is pleasant, even if sad, while a strong increase is experienced as unpleasant). She cites the ‘Snowman Experiment’ – a 1980 German study of the emotional effects of the media – which found that high activation levels link to poorer recall, due to inhibited memory.

Clearly, speed-reading apps reflect our desire to be able to read a book quickly by maximising our already over-allocated time. And yet everything about reading on a device links back to ‘temporal capitalism’ – a project that makes everything, including books, objects of endless time- and space-saving consumption within the digital realm: the purchase of a new device, the omission of time by making books instantly available by download (saving me that pesky hour travelling to the library), the compression of books into a digital form so we can possess more of them, more cheaply.

These changes also reflect the way that physical objects need to be absorbed into this digital networked world to retain their currency for us as users and consumers. A book can no longer simply exist as a book – it must be on our ever-present screen to be worthy of our engagement, with words flashing as fast as the thoughts in our distracted minds. The rewiring of our brains by the use of technology reinforces itself by pulling us back into the use of more and newer technologies.

Interestingly, the ‘device’ itself reinforces the idea of humans as gadgets, as machines. The device encourages us to be constantly networked; indeed, requires us to be perpetually available, productive, processing information. Reading an e-book or using a reading app on a device that has infiltrated every aspect of our functional lives means that we are multitasking, even if doing so unconsciously.

Multitasking is a concept derived from computer science that describes the ability of a machine to function and process multiple acts simultaneously. Former Silicone Valley programmer Jaron Lanier argues that many of the technological changes that rule our lives were the result of programming decisions often made without awareness of their long-term social and political implications. Technology shapes our brains and wires us for gratification, and so it follows that the act of reading on a device – even one that is ‘disconnected’ – has us primed for the arrival of a text or the ping of a notification, even if it never arrives.

It is the affective experience of e-reading (in whatever form it takes) that is antithetical to our time- and place-based experiences of deep reading. If affect occurs unconsciously and in the body, then it’s the device that unconsciously reinforces our distractedness and prevents us from mentally and somatically disconnecting and reconnecting in order to immerse, absorb and engage. Following the logic of the Snowman research, the subliminal state of overstimulation and anticipation related to the device inhibits memory and retention. A book is nothing but a book – its very inertia is, potentially, what allows us to apply our imagination to it and, in doing so, to create internal worlds. But an e-reading device links to the ever-expansive cyber world, thereby confusing the ‘book’ function with one of the million other things it can do, with the places and worlds it can contain at a click.

Reading, therefore, is a different process to consuming. Text on a device may give us the same information as a book, but not the same knowledge. Reading a book may offer a window into the other, less-frequented dimension beyond the unreality of ‘cyber time’. If we can maintain it, long-form reading has the potential to offer us an antidote to distraction: a window through which the world can come in, and through which we can meet the world. A window through which, as Hassan says, we can ‘rediscover and connect with the deeper embedded temporalities that exist within ourselves and the natural world’. Here, we don’t step out of time in the same distracted manner we do online; instead we are in it, keeping pace with it, measuring it with our turns of the page.

We experience time temporally in the time it takes us to read, dependent on how we are in our bodies and whether we want to pause, think, reread, sip a drink, watch something out the window, indulge in a memory or follow a thought – all processes that link us in time and space to time and space, and through which we draw our own experiential understanding of a text. Reading not only offers us the possibility of this alternative experience, but perhaps this alternative experience is reading. It might be one thing that keeps us connected to an experience of time and space, to the world we risk losing touch with – if not losing altogether – in the age of distraction.


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Jessie Webb

Jessie Webb is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Melbourne.

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