reading-computersHow will reading be affected by computers? Some sanguine folks have argued that computers, behind the wizardry of the Internet, will make conventional books, magazines, and newspapers obsolete. This opinion, though not yet a consensus, is growing.

At the forefront of the revolution is best-selling author Stephen King. One of the United States’ most dominant publishing forces has famously issued a recent novella on-line and, in the process, created a flurry of buzz about the implications. Meanwhile, technologies like the Rocket eBook-a small computer meant to look and feel book-like, and containing enough memory to hold upwards to 100 books-certainly suggest that significant changes to the ways we read are afoot. Why, with technology like this, proponents ask, would you carry around a hardback copy of a Henry James novel, when, at not much more weight, you could carry all 20 of James’ novels, plus all of his brother William’s work, not to mention Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf?

Why, indeed?

The knee jerk response is, of course, that we like to read from actual books and we like to use computers for things like finances. But this argument only goes so far. We used to like to do our finances with calculators, and before that with pencil and paper.

New research, however, suggests that there might be another reason for our discomfort with reading on-line; it might just be harder to do than reading from printed text.

Dr. P. Karen Murphy, an educational psychologist at Ohio State University, has begun looking into just how reading from a computer screen compares with reading from paper. Aware of strong sentiment to get computers into the classroom-and compelled by previous studies that have suggested that students are more persuaded by paper texts than other media, such as video–Murphy became curious about the impact of computers.

“People do not transfer the skills and strategies they use when processing printed text to this new medium. I think it is a product of our hard-wired reasoning ability.”

In a study presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in August, 131 OSU undergraduates were asked to read two articles from Time magazine. One group of students read the articles in the paper version of the magazine; the other group read the same articles after they were scanned into a computer. Murphy discovered that, when confronted by the same material on screen and on paper, the subjects of the study understood the paper versions better, and, ultimately, were more persuaded by them.

What could explain the difference between paper and screen?

“I think,” says Murphy, “that people do not transfer the skills and strategies they use when processing printed text to this new medium. I think it is a product of our hard-wired reasoning ability.”

According to this idea, the problem is really one of exposure. Children who are exposed to computers from an early age would presumably have the converse response-they would find it easier to read on-line. And this is the way Murphy tends to see it.

“I definitely think that age plays a role in the processing of on-line text,” Murphy says. “I have a very difficult time reading on-line, in part, I believe, because I did not learn to read on-line.”

“Most web page designers know that interactivity, color, variable fonts, etc. help readers become more involved in the act of reading on-line.”

The Pictures Make the Text
Dr. William Valmont, a reading and technology expert at the University of Arizona, however, takes issue with Murphy’s research. His primary criticism stems from the fact that Murphy’s experiment involves generic, scanned text on the screen, what Murphy calls “computerized text.”

“[Dr. Murphy] obviously didn’t know what most web page designers know: that interactivity, color, variable fonts, etc. help readers become more involved in the act of reading on-line. Did [she] forget that people hated the original on-line materials that looked like old-fashioned typed text? That material was interesting to almost no one, and scanned documents aren’t either.”

The interactive nature of material is surely an important, perhaps even crucial, variable, but that the exact same words could elicit different responses depending on the medium in which they were read is interesting. Many, says Murphy, have suggested that it’s really just a matter of resolution; printed text is simply more highly resolved and thus easier to read. But this does not convince Murphy either. An experiment controlling for this variable, she says, would likely yield the same response.

Quite fundamentally, Murphy says, “Research has shown that students and adults are simply not very good at transferring their knowledge and understanding to new or novel situations.”

If this ultimately proves to be true in the case of reading on-line, then it would stand to reason that the generation born during the last decade, as greater and greater numbers of youth are exposed to computers early on, will be the first to prefer reading on-line. Who knows, it might even come to pass that reading a computerized novel on the beach will seem normal one day, and not at all like something dreamed up in the realm of science fiction cinema.

Murphy, P. Karen, et al. “Persuasion On-line or on Paper: A New Take on an Old Issue.” Presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C., August, 5, 2000.