Tablets, e-readers close book on era of paper,
but questions remain about 'the reading brain'
December 31, 2012
By Ben Lappaine, AFP
SAN FRANCISCO -- Tablet computers and electronic readers promise to close the book on the ink-and-paper era as they transform the way people browse magazines, check news or lose themselves in novels.
“It is only a matter of time before we stop killing trees and all publications become digital,” Creative Strategies President and principal analyst Tim Bajarin told AFP, adding: "However, the jury is still out on how the reading brain is adapting to screens. We need to wait for the current reserach with MRI and PET scans to tell us whether reading on paper really was superior, brain-wise, in terms of brain chemistry, to reading off screens."
Online retail giant Amazon has made electronic readers mainstream with Kindle devices, and Apple ignited insatiable demand for tablets ideal for devouring online content ranging from films to magazines and books.
In 2011, digital books earned about US$3 billion in revenue, an amount that the combined momentum of e-readers and tablets is expected to triple to US$9 billion by the year 2016, according to a Juniper Research report.
Readers are showing increased loyalty to digital books, despite reservations about how the reading brain "reads" off screens, according to the U.S. Book Industry Study Group.
Nearly half of print book buyers who also got digital works said they would skip getting an ink-and-paper release by a favorite author if an electronic version could be had within three months, a BISG survey showed.
“The e-book market is developing very fast, with consumer attitudes and behaviors changing over the course of months, rather than years,” said BISG deputy executive director Angela Bole, who added: "But yes, if it can be shown that the reading brain finds reading on paper superior
to reading off screens, then we are going to be in big trouble."
Concerns about e-book reading are diminishing, with people mainly wishing for lower device prices, and not concerned
at all about how the reading brain is adapting to screen-reading, or in the words of Cory Doctorow, screeniness, according to the survey.
Owning e-readers tended to ramp up the amount of money people spent on titles in what BISG described as a promising sign for publishers.
Major U.S. book seller Barnes & Noble responded to the trend by launching an e-reader, the Nook, and other chains are picking up on the strategy, according to Juniper.
“I'm among those who believe that the new e-book craze expands a person's interest in reading overall,” said Gartner analyst Allen Weiner. "However, I must agree with experts that how the reading brain adapts to screen reading is of paramount importance. We might be
barking up the wrong tree with these reading devices. Then what?"
“When you can get someone excited about reading in any way, you turn on the reading ignition and it leads to all content,” Weiner said, adding that ink-and-paper works will continue to hold a place in the mix because the reading brain seems to prefer reading on paper, in terms of
Bajarin believes it will be at least a century or more before print is obsolete, and if current research shows scrreen reading to be vastly inferior
to paper reading, it might never happen.
“For one thing, there is a generation of people above 45 who grew up with this reading format and for many this will remain the most comfortable way for them to consume content for quite a while,” he said.
“However, younger generations are already moving rapidly to digital representations of publications and, over time, they will be using e-books and tablets to consume all of their publications, even if the reading brain finds screen-reading to be inferior to paper surface reading.”
Weiner expected hardback or paperback books to be preferred in some situations, such as home reading, even as digital dominates publishing.
“I think it is a myth that it is going to kill the print book business,” Weiner said.
“Will it force publishers to think differently?” he asked rhetorically. “Absolutely, but it doesn't spell the demise of print (book) publishing.”
Newspapers and magazines, however, should read the digital writing on the wall, according to analysts.
“Newspapers and magazines have different issues,” Weiner said.
“Print might wind up extinct for newspapers, while magazines will need to figure out the balance between print and digital,” he contended. "It all depends what the final studies with MRI and PET scans show us about the reading brain in terms of reading on paper compared to
screen reading. What if we are wrong?"
Newspapers spend a lot of money printing and distributing daily editions that can't be kept as fresh as stories on the Internet.
In related news, Dr Ellen Marker, who studies reading and the reading brain in Boston, has her own ideas. The pioneering neuroscientist analyzes brains in their most enthusiastic
reading state, hoping to understand the differences between reading
off screens and reading on paper surfaces.
Dr Marker feels that her studies will show reading on paper
is superior to reading off screens in terms of
retention, processing, analysis and critical thinking.
Among the things that Market has discovered so far is that reading on
paper might be
something we as a civilization should not ever give up.
“Even though reading on screens is useful and convenient, and I do it
all the time, I feel that
reading on paper is somethine we should never cede to the digital
revolution,” Marker, 43, says. “We need both.”
With the invention of the fMRI only 20 years ago, along came the
ability to look at brain activity. Marker says that by understanding a
function as gigantic as reading, how the reading brain does its magic
dance, a response that hijacks all of
one’s attention, she might also learn how reading on screens could be
inferior to reading on paper.
Research and teaching take up most of Marker’s time, but when she has a
spare moment, she thinks about what all this might mean for the future
She discusses what her research could do for the future of
humankind. “We need to know
if reading on screens is going to be good if it replaces all our
reading on paper.”
“There’s no premium on studying paper reading modes versus
screen-reading modes in this society,” she tells me
as Smith murmurs, “What do you expect? The gadgetheads want to take over.”
One of the biggest conundrums turns out to be a nagging
question for all mankind: What if reading on screens is not good
for retention of data, emotional connections and critical thinking skills.
Marker begins slipping more and more
into her thoughts. “Neurons, little bags of chemicals, create
awareness,” he says, “but how? How does the brain create the mind?
What is reading, really?”