Fri, Jul 16, 2010 - Page 8 News List

The pros and cons of reading on screens

By Dan Bloom 丹布隆

As digital advances continue to transform the global media world day by day, a Taiwanese company in Hsinchu, E Ink Holdings (formerly Prime View International), has taken on an important role with its development of E Ink, which is able to render text on e-reader screens. The original goal of creating e-books, of course, was to make the experience of reading on electronic devices as similar as possible to that of printed books. In many respects, that goal has already been realized.

With about 90 percent of all e-readers using E Ink, the digital reading revolution is going to have a major impact on business and education worldwide and it is incumbent upon us all to ponder just where we are headed as screens replace paper.

An important question that academics and researchers in Taiwan and overseas need to answer, as the digital revolution gathers speed, is this: Do we read differently from a computer screen to how we read the printed page? And if so, how differently, and in what ways?

With two new English-­language books about reading and the Internet making waves worldwide this summer — William Powers’ Hamlet’s BlackBerry and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows — everyone is talking about the pros and cons of reading printed materials versus reading from a screen.

An education specialist in Norway, Anne Mangen, listed in a 2008 academic paper a few reasons why these two approaches to reading are different. She said that:

• Reading on a screen is not as rewarding — or effective — as reading printed words on paper;

• The process of reading on a screen involves so much physical manipulation of the computer that it interferes with our ability to focus on and appreciate what we are reading;

• Online text moves up and down the screen and lacks a physical dimension, robbing us of a sense of completeness;

• The visual happenings on a computer screen and our physical interaction with the device and its setup can be distracting.

All of these things tax human cognition and concentration in a way that a book, newspaper or magazine does not;

The experience of reading a book, newspaper or magazine is both a story experience and a tactile one.

We still do not know just how different reading printed works is from reading on a screen, but the public discussions are getting interesting — and heated.

Some pundits believe that future MRI scans of the brain when reading will help us to understand the issues better. This work is currently being done in a few research labs around the world.

However, a doctor in Boston told me that he feels “scanning” the brain while reading printed materials or a screen, either through MRI or PET scans, still won’t determine which is the better or healthier experience.

“We don’t know enough about the brain to tell which would be better, even if different areas of the brain are active,” he said.

When I asked a noted writer on technology in New York about this, he replied: “A good test would be not telling the subjects the real purpose of the experiment, letting some read and comment on a text displayed in a printed book or on a computer screen or e-reader (e-ink or TFT), and then let raters, also unaware of the real purpose, look for differences in what people write after different modes.”

Let the research in Taiwan and overseas begin. The results could better spell out the future of screen-reading devices and what roles they will play in Taiwanese children’s lives.

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