A critical and theoretical evaluation of the social, ethical and ecological impacts of digital reading platforms on the academic sphere and in wider society.

This essay will discuss the social, ethical and ecological impacts of the proliferation of digital technology on the way that we read and consume information in the modern age. In addition, it will review the transition from tangible paper-based reading formats such as books, to more modern, digital screen-based platforms such as Kindle, iPad and the computer. This essay will identify a paradigm shift in modern attitudes towards books and consider digital reading platforms as an example of digital disruption, exploring the way in which they have infiltrated the media ecosystem and now pertain to our everyday lives. Furthermore, the concept of neuroplasticity will be debated – specifically the long-term impact of reading from digital platforms on the impressionable human brain.

So often, media scholars are concerned with the dangerous, indoctrinative effect of media content – a television programme or newspaper article, for example, omitting the study of the medium in the process. This essay will focus on the impacts of the technology, rather than the content itself. As Marshall McLuhan (1969) said, ‘it is the medium itself that is the message, not the content […] it literally works-over and saturates and moulds and transforms every sense ratio. The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stencilling on the casing of an atomic bomb’. This essay proposes that digital reading is pervasive, and equally harmful, in the daily lives of many in developed societies (those who are submerged in a world of technology and media). Whilst one may not read an e-book or pdf document every day, they may scan through an email, a Facebook status or a website – it is reasonable to suggest that most adults, and perhaps even children, read from a screen on a daily basis. Reading on digital platforms is a common experience and one of which the repercussions could be severe. As Markham (2017) says, ‘if you ask people what media they like, they will usually talk about content – their favourite television programme or website. If you ask them about technology, on the other hand, they will simply tell you what they can or can’t do with it’. Essentially, he seems to highlight a certain ignorance towards the effects of technology. To fully understand the social and ethical implications of media, we instead need to consider those of the medium and explore its capabilities more deeply.

The term digital disruption refers to ‘the rapidly unfolding processes through which digital innovation comes to fundamentally alter historically sustainable logics […] whilst recombining linkages among resources or generating new ones’ (Skog, Wimelius, & Sandberg, 2018). In essence, digital disruption involves the trigger of a new paradigm – a new era of thinking, a new technology or a rupture of reality leading to a dramatic and impactful change. One influential rupture in the book and reading industry in recent times came in the shape of the Amazon Kindle in 2007; a digital platform, connected to the internet, that allowed readers to simply download an entire library of books all from the comfort of their home. Furthermore, the conception of the iPad in 2010 added to the growing popularity of the digital book with Apple selling ‘half a million e-books in less than a month’ via its iBooks application (Government Book Talk, 2019). Despite the first  digital book, a ‘digital version of the United States Declaration of Independence’ (Government Book Talk, 2019), being conceived in 1971, it would take a further thirty-six years for the e-book technology to ultimately pervade the modern media ecosystem, with the aforementioned platforms leading the way.

Despite this digital disruption and the presence of a new dynamic in the media ecosystem, books have largely remained ‘the most resistant to the net’s influence’ (Carr, 2010). In some instances, when a new medium enters the home, its predecessor somewhat moves aside in the prevalence of daily life. The television, for instance, supplanted the radio as the focal point of the living room. The book, however, has not entirely experienced the same fate – ‘book publishers have suffered some losses of business as reading has shifted from the printed page to the screen, but the form of the book has not changed much’ (Carr, 2010).

Digital reading platforms are an example of ‘intellectual technology’, they ‘support our mental powers to share knowhow and knowledge’ (Carr, 2010). The term technology is important here, simply because of its connotation. Many perceive technology as a positive force for human advancement, indeed The Economic Growth Centre at Yale University say that ‘there can be little doubt about technology – both in its process and quality dimensions, when combined with human development – makes a critically important contribution to economic growth which, in turn, leads to advances in human development as a society’s bottom line achievement (Ranis, 2011). What if, in the case of reading in the digital age, technology has the opposite effect on society and is, in fact, a means of regression rather than progression.

‘The screenagers are here, and they will take no prisoners’ – this quote depicts the utopian way of discussing modern, technological society: those with the capacity to use contemporary media and function within the ubiquitous technologies of the modern era are more ‘current, efficient and productive’ (Rushkoff, 1996) . The so-called screenagers ‘embrace the digital awesomeness that allows us new and unprecedented opportunities for social connection, political mobilization and the production and dissemination of information’ (Choudhury & McKinney, 2013). There seems to be little concern surrounding the effects of the medium, but ‘the claim that digital technology is leading to societal transformations through cerebral changes evokes a much deeper emotional response’ (Choudhury & McKinney, 2013, p. 194). The following paragraphs will discuss a selection of social and ethical factors that portray modern, screen-based technology as a weaponised force that is, seemingly, claiming more and more oblivious victims.

‘Technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment (Derbyshire, 2009). This, according to a combination of neuroscientists and media pedagogues, is particularly accentuated through reading from digital platforms. Nicholas Carr (2010) delinitates the process of excessive usage of digital reading, specifically within the academic sphere, and coins the phrase ‘pancake people’. He describes how, before the dawn of the computer, he ‘used to find it easy to immerse [himself] in a good book or a lengthy article’ whereas now, his ‘concentration starts to drift after a page or two’ (2010, p. 5) . From his academic perspective, he believes that ‘spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the internet’ has made him more distracted and less focused. ‘The more people use the web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing – some worry they’re becoming chronic scatterbrains’ (2010, p. 7). Perhaps, to some extent, this is true; the influence of consuming information from a digital medium is turning us into ‘scatterbrains’. A research project, conducted in 2008, seems to concur. Harnessing six thousand so-called members of ‘Generation-Net’, the respondents were interviewed about their reading techniques. The lead researcher concluded that ‘digital immersion has even affected the way in which they absorb information – they do not necessarily read a page from left to right and top to bottom, they might skip around, scanning for pertinent areas of interest’ (2010, p. 9).

Returning to an earlier point; these individuals who, instead of reading deeply and concentrating, simply skim and scan through an electronic version of a text for relevant information, are lamented by Carr as ‘pancake people’. Described as ‘those who think widely but superficially and skim-read headlines’ rather than ‘cathedral-like people’ who are ‘classics-reading, literary types, able to think with rigour and depth’ (Choudhury & McKinney, 2013, p. 196). Carr bemoans the proliferation of digital technology and the rise of digital reading platforms for this regression in intellectual standards. This transition though, both from the printed page to the digital screen and from ‘cathedral-like’ thinkers to ‘pancake people’ is not a whimsical one, but one that is routed in neuroscience; particularly the concept of neuroplasticity. Niels Birbaumer (2017, p. 30) states that ‘you can only get a taxi license or a PhD by using your brain’s best feature: its extreme plasticity’. Carr (2010, p. 33) agrees, stating ‘brains are plastic as opposed to hard-wired, they change depending on what we do, with certain segments growing or shrinking depending on their use’. Digital platforms, then, can have a forceful and lasting impact on the brain, changing the way we read and consume information. ‘Given the brain’s plasticity, we can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming and multi-tasking are strengthening, whilst those used for reading and deep-concentration are eroding’ (2010, p. 35). In essence, the transition from ‘cathedral-like’ thinkers to ‘pancake people’ could actually be occurring and the perpetrator, in this instance, is digital reading platforms and the way in which they are re-wiring the brain.

Perhaps, though, this stance is somewhat out-dated, and society should be encouraging the use of technology for human advancement, rather than denigrating it. Indeed, a selection of students are quoted in Carr’s book The Shallows venerating the birth of digital reading platforms, with one saying ‘I go to Google, I can absorb relevant information quickly […] sitting down and going through a book cover to cover doesn’t make sense, it’s not a good use of my time as I can get all the information I need faster through the web’ (Carr, 2010, p. 9). This seems a very sensible stance and, perhaps its only our ‘contemporary fears about digital technologies’ and a ‘historical pattern of technologically related anxiety’ (Choudhury & McKinney, 2013, p. 194) that is withholding society from dropping the stigma against digital reading platforms as an understudy to the seraphic image of the book.

However, there are other contributing factors for the conception of the so-called ‘pancake people’, this time stemming from technological affordances. These are certain navigational and action areas of a medium which, essentially, guide the user through the process of utilising the technology to its full potential. Indeed, ‘when affordances are perceptible, they offer a direct link between perception and action’ (Gaver, 1991, p. 79). For digital reading platforms, though, certain affordances can be perceived as ‘training our brains to be conscious of the crap’ (Carr, 2010, p. 40) as the reader is distracted by a host of ‘useful’ tools such as: highlighter, zoom, bookmark or comment. We can also consider these affordances through the framework of Marshal McLuhan’s (1966, p. 234) ‘tetrad’, a ‘means of examining the effects on society of any technology by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously’. In this instance, we consider the affordances of digital reading platforms through the lens of ‘reversal’. This is what a medium ‘flips’ when ‘pushed into extremes’. Here, we have a clear example; the affordances designed to aid the user and increase their productivity instead become objects of distraction and procrastination. Furthermore, according to Carr (2010), we should consider the multi-tab nature of modern internet usage and the distraction of balancing the reading of a digital text with other open tabs such as social media and email. He states that these media users are ‘far more likely to be distracted by irrelevant environmental stimuli as they lack the neural capacity for concentration’; another damning symptom of modern, digital reading technology.

Lastly, this text considers a broader social and environmental effect of the proliferation of digital reading platforms – the persistent closure of British public libraries. Whilst ‘screenagers’ and individuals of ‘Generation-net’ may not be too concerned with the fading of, what they perhaps consider to be, outdated institutions, the closure of libraries is leaving an indelible stain on communities across the United Kingdom. Of course, the proliferation of digital technologies is not the only responsible culprit, funding cuts have also contributed with ‘reductions in central government grants to local authorities resulting in reduced library services and closures’ (Woodhouse & Zayed, 2019). An article featured in the Independent describes how ‘library funding cuts are denying people the joy of reading for pleasure’ (Cowell, 2019). Regardless of how much blame resides with each contributory factor, the closure of public libraries is very sad indeed and, perhaps, evidence of the move into a post-modern, digital society where the digital reading platform prevails over the paperback book.

To conclude, the proliferation of digital reading platforms has a number of social and ethical issues; specifically, the dumbing-down of the reader and the birth of ‘pancake people’ who are losing the ability to think deeply. Whilst it can be argued that modern platforms are a force for good and enable more efficient and productive academia, the effects on our intellect and the comprehensive capacity of society could be irreversibly deadly.

Bibliography

Birbaumer, N. (2017). Your Brain Knows More than you Think: The New Frontiers of Neuroplasticity. London: Scribe .

Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows. New York: W W Norton.

Choudhury, S., & McKinney, K. A. (2013). Digital media, the developing brain and the interpretive plasticity of neuroplasticity. Transcultural Psychiatry, 192-215.

Cowell, C. (2019, January 25). Library funding cuts mean we are denying people the joy of reading for pleasure. Retrieved from Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/libraries-funding-museums-cuts-cressida-cowell-how-to-train-your-dragon-a8746431.html

Derbyshire, D. (2009, February 24). Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist. Retrieved from Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1153583/Social-websites-harm-childrens-brains-Chilling-warning-parents-neuroscientist.html

Gaver, W. (1991). Technology Affordances. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 79-84). New Orleans: ACM.

Government Book Talk. (2019). The History of eBooks from 1930’s “Readies” to Today’s GPO eBook Services. Retrieved from Government Book Talk: https://govbooktalk.gpo.gov/2014/03/10/the-history-of-ebooks-from-1930s-readies-to-todays-gpo-ebook-services/

Markham, T. (2017). Media and Everyday Life. London: Palgrave.

McLuhan, H. M. (1966). Marshall McLuhan. Information Theory, 234.

McLuhan, M. (1969, March). Marshall McLuhan interview in Playboy. (P. Rogaway, Interviewer)

Ranis, G. (2011). Technology and Human Development. Economic Growth Centre – Centre Discussion Paper 1004, 2-22.

Rushkoff, D. (1996, October). Tech-tube Children. Men’s Health. New York, United States of America: Hearst Magazines.

Skog, D., Wimelius, H., & Sandberg, J. (2018). Digital Disruption. Business & Information Systems Engineering, 431-437.

Woodhouse, J., & Zayed, Y. (2019). Public Libraries. London: House of Commons Library.

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