Category Archives: doctorow

follow the eyes: screenreading reconsidered (again)

From Editor&Publisher (via Print is Dead): The Poynter Institute just released findings from a study in which eye-tracking sensors were used to analyze the behavior of 600 readers across print and online news sources. The resulting data clashes with the usual assumptions:

When readers chose to read an online story, they usually read an average of 77% of the story, compared to 62% in broadsheets and 57% in tabloids…
The study looked at two tabloids, the Rocky Mountain News and Philadelphia Daily News; two broadsheets, the St. Petersburg Times and The Star-Tribune of Minneapolis; and two newspaper Web sites, at the Times and Star-Tribune.

Considering the increasingly disaggregated nature of people’s news-sifting, is “two newspaper websites” really the right test bed for gauging online reading habits? Still, this is a pretty interesting, myth-busting find, though in a way not at all surprising.
This takes us back to the discussion around Cory Doctorow’s recent piece betting on the long-term persistence of print for certain kinds of reading. Print reading, he says, tends toward the sustained and immersive, the long-form linear narrative. Computer reading, on the other hand, is multi-tasky — distracted, social, bite-sized, multidirectional. One could poke a lot of holes in these characterizations, but generally speaking, they do sum up the way in which many of us divide our reading labor (and leisure) across “platforms.” Contrary to popular belief, Doctorow argues, people do like reading on screens. But they also like reading from printed pages. It’s not either/or — the different modes of reading reinforce the different modes of conveyance, paper and PC.
I’ve tended to agree, but many of the folks in the comments here didn’t. They insisted that it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be doing the vast majority of our reading on screens — even the linear, immersive reading that seems most resistant to digital migration. Getting past my own deep attachment to print, and reckoning with how far into daily practice electronic reading has already penetrated in so little time, I have to admit that this is probably true, though I imagine print will likely persist for at least a few more generations, and will always have its uses (and will hopefully be kept as a contingency reserve in case the lights go out).
Ultimately, this is a boring game, betting on which technology will win out. But it’s interesting sometimes to analyze what motivates certain big cultural actors to wager the way they do.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that Doctorow, generally an advocate for new technologies, wants to see print survive, and why despite his progressive edge, he’s a bit of a traditionalist. As a novelist, Doctorow is deeply invested in the economic model of print. That’s the way he actually sells books (and probably the way he likes to read them). And yet he grasps the Internet’s potential to leverage print — his career as a writer took off at precisely the moment when these two worlds entered into a complex symbiosis. As such, he has long been evangelizing the practice of giving away e-books to sell more print books, pointing to his own great success as proof of the hybrid concept.
At the surreal Google conference I attended at the New York Public Library in January, Doctorow took the stage as mollifier-in-chief, soothing the gathered representatives of the publishing industry with assurances that print is here to stay, is in fact reinforced by new online discovery tools like Google Book Search and free e-versions (which he suggests are used primarily for browsing or “market research”). All of this is right and true — for now — and Doctorow’s advice to publishers to loosen up and embrace the Web as a gateway toward offline reading experiences, and as a way to socially situate their texts on the network is good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily shed light on the longer term. The Poynter study, in its crude way, does.
Net-native writing will always be for a distracted audience, print for a captivated one, says Doctorow. He’s comfortable with that split. And I guess I’ve been too, suggesting as it does two sorts of knowledge, neither of which we’d want to lose. But the gap will almost certainly narrow, and figuring out the consequences of that is certainly one of our biggest challenges.

screenreading reconsidered

There’s an interesting piece by Cory Doctorow in Locus Magazine, a sci-fi and fantasy monthly, entitled “You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen.” discussing the differences between on and offline reading.

The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
Computers want you to do lots of things with them. Networked computers doubly so — they (another RSS item) have a million ways of asking for your attention, and just as many ways of rewarding it.

And he illustrates his point by noting throughout the article each time he paused his writing to check an email, read an RSS item, watch a YouTube clip etc.
I think there’s more that separates these forms of reading than distracted digital multitasking (there are ways of reading online reading that, though fragmentary, are nonetheless deep and sustained), but the point about cognitive difference is spot on. Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, most people have indeed become quite comfortable reading off of screens. Yet publishers still scratch their heads over the persistent failure of e-books to build a substantial market. Befuddled, they blame the lack of a silver bullet reading device, an iPod for books. But really this is a red herring. Doctorow:

The problem, then, isn’t that screens aren’t sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren’t screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.
Electronic books are a wonderful adjunct to print books. It’s great to have a couple hundred novels in your pocket when the plane doesn’t take off or the line is too long at the post office. It’s cool to be able to search the text of a novel to find a beloved passage. It’s excellent to use a novel socially, sending it to your friends, pasting it into your sig file.
But the numbers tell their own story — people who read off of screens all day long buy lots of print books and read them primarily on paper. There are some who prefer an all-electronic existence (I’d like to be able to get rid of the objects after my first reading, but keep the e-books around for reference), but they’re in a tiny minority.
There’s a generation of web writers who produce “pleasure reading” on the web. Some are funny. Some are touching. Some are enraging. Most dwell in Sturgeon’s 90th percentile and below. They’re not writing novels. If they were, they wouldn’t be web writers.

On a related note, Teleread pointed me to this free app for Macs called Tofu, which takes rich text files (.rtf) and splits them into columns with horizontal scrolling. It’s super simple, with only a basic find function (no serious search), but I have to say that it does a nice job of presenting long print-like texts. By resizing the window to show fewer or more columns you can approximate a narrowish paperback or spread out the text like a news broadsheet. Clicking left or right slides the view exactly one column’s width — a simple but satisfying interface. I tried it out with Doctorow’s piece:
I also plugged in Gamer Theory 2.0 and it was surprisingly decent. Amazing what a little extra thought about the screen environment can accomplish.

interview with cory doctorow in openbusiness

There’s an interview with Cory Doctorow in Openbusiness this morning. Doctorow, who distributes his books for free on the internet, envisions a future in which writers see free electronic distibution as a valuable component of their writing and publishing process. This means, in turn, that writers and publishers need to realize that ebooks and paper books have distinct differences:
Ebooks need to embrace their nature. The distinctive value of ebooks is orthogonal to the value of paper books, and it revolves around the mix-ability and send-ability of electronic text. The more you constrain an ebook’s distinctive value propositions — that is, the more you restrict a reader’s ability to copy, transport or transform an ebook — the more it has to be valued on the same axes as a paper-book. Ebooks *fail* on those axes.
On first read, I thought that Doctorow, much like Julia Keller in her Nov. 27 Chicago Tribune article, wanted to have it both ways: he acknowledges that, in some ways, ebooks challenge the idea of the paper books, but he also suggests that the paper book will remain unaffected by these challenges. But then I read more of Doctorow’s ideas about writing, and realized that, for Doctorow, the malleability of the digital format only draws attention to the fact that books are not always as “congealed” as their material nature suggests:
I take the view that the book is a “practice” — a collection of social and economic and artistic activities — and not an “object.” Viewing the book as a “practice” instead of an object is a pretty radical notion, and it begs the question: just what the hell is a book?
I like this idea of the book as practice, though I don’t think it’s an idea that would, or could, be embraced by all writers. It’s interesting to ponder the ways in which some writers are much more invested in the “thingness” of books than others — usually, I find myself thinking about the kinds of readers who tend to be more invested in the idea of books as objects.