In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Paul Mason wrote about his thoughts on how technology is changing the way we read (I suggest you read it before reading the rest of this post). Specifically, he argues that e-readers have brought something new to the reading experience and that we are shifting in our literary tastes because of this technology’s intervention. He continues to argue that in response to this shift in reading patterns and tastes writers and publishers are altering what they do to adapt to the new technology. While Mason’s article is a statement of a single person’s belief, I find I am troubled by it. I see it as symptomatic of an attitude towards technology that owes more to the tech business’s desires for dominance than a true assessment of what is actually happing. To my mind, Mason’s point it is another example of the kind of technological determinism that is currently dominating our social and cultural understanding of our relationship to technology. It is part of an attempt to claim that technology changes us rather than seeing it as something we create as part of larger shifts. Yes, it is true that people are reading differently when they approach different methods of mediation (paper, e-readers, mobile screens, billboards, newspapers, etc.), but it is quite a statement to say that the technology is the sole cause.
Speaking against what he calls the “literary backlash” where writers and editors make the point that e-readers are not quite the complete replacement for books that they are declared to be, Mason argues: “I think such complaints are missing the point. He continues by saying that the addition of an “information layer” to everyday life is transforming the way we react to stories: both for the creators and the mass audience. Our lives are already impossible without summarisation. Just as the first encyclopaedias were written in response to the problem of too many books, so we, too, have evolved new, instant reference tools.”
Here Mason is trying to make the point that the e-reader technology is, and must, change the way we read, write, and publish texts. He is trying to point out that e-readers, and the supposed “information layer” they bring are the cause for these changes. However, with these sentences Mason actually effects the usual sleight-of-hand that is typical of this kind of argument. His counter-critique immediately slips from speaking about reading, literature, and books to something else. The examples he uses create a context-agnostic understanding of the act of reading. He uses examples of reference material and information found on the internet and implies we read them in the same way that we read a novel. I argue they are not the same, and that novels and reference materials involve different acts of reading and writing.
It takes a very simplistic view of reading to see the two as directly related. Yes, both reading a novel or other kind of fiction and reading things on the internet, or in encyclopaedias, both require reading, but the context and purpose for both are very different. It is wrong to see the act of reading as universal no matter what the text or the context. While they both can be done on paper or on tablets or e-readers, when one reads novels or reference materials we engage a different kind of reading. The act itself is different.
People are capable of reading using different methods of engagement. The idea that this is somehow all interchangeable strikes me as missing a larger point about the media through which we read. I certainly read articles such as Mr. Mason’s in a different way than I do a novel or a non-fiction work. I suspect that others are able to make the switch too.
He continues by continuing this implicit redirection, adding “Any word in an ebook can invoke its own dictionary definition, simply by selecting it. If a passage in an ebook strikes you as cogent, beautiful or profound you can bet – once you’ve switched the highlight-sharing function on – hundreds of other people have already highlighted it. It’s a short hop from realising that to paying special attention to the highlighted bits – not out of laziness but as a wise learning strategy. And while the academic study guides to major novels are usually worthless, the Wikipedia pages devoted to them can be invaluable. That is because study guides are often the work of a single, low-paid hack and the Wikipedia page contains the real-time wisdom of crowds: often wrong, but rarely worthless.”
Amongst others claims, he is arguing that the digital format’s expanded feature set and ability to bring people together are advantages that make it preferable to any other format. This is so close to the well-worn fallacy common in the tech industry that because many people are involved, it must be good, that it begs the question of what he is actually arguing here. Are we to understand that digital texts are preferable simply because they connect people? Is this really the purpose of reading? Surely the fact that millions of people are reading a text is sufficient. Is there anything truly valuable to be gained by changing the reading experience so we can tweet our favourite passages? It is likely that, yes, something is gained, but not in the realm of reading. Certainly, if I can easily tweet from my reading, my social media activities will flourish. But in these cases, have I gained something that was not to be had while reading alone?
Lying at the core of his argument is this statement: “what I think the literary academics are worried about is the loss of immersiveness.” He is really trying to counter the problem of the act of reading. And I think that his argument is lost as he debates the various strengths and limitations of what he calls “analogue and digital” books. It is lost because of another slight-of-hand shift exploiting our tendency to treat the terms “novel” and “book” as the same thing. We tend to refer to a literary genre and a work of art with
I see this distinction as being inherently false. I have always seen e-readers, in whatever format they appear, to be replacements for the printer and not the book. You can print, or for that matter hand-write, a novel on any medium you choose. When it is printed as a book, it is a novel printed as a book. When it is written on a scroll, it is a novel on a scroll. The tendency to use the problematic metaphorical replacement of “book” for “novel” clouds our ability to speak about the interrelationship between reading and the technological mediation of text. Mason, and others, are falling into this easy substitution, and are missing the point.
No matter what benefits the electronic distribution of text are—and there are so many—it seems that we read differently when using electronic devices than when we do with paper. Without further investigation, it is unclear whether or not this is because of the socio-cultural contexts surrounding each medium or if it is something inherent in the media themselves.
Despite being clouded by this same kind of technological determinism, Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about media can offer some indication of what is going on. What Mason writes about is the shift from a “hot” to a “cold” medium. According to McLuhan “a hot medium is that provides a great deal of information whereas a cool medium is on that provides very little information (McLuhan, 24-25). He continues by writing “any hot medium allows of less participation that a cold one, as a lecture makes for lest participation than a seminar, and a book for less that a dialogue” (25).
Mason’s point is roughly as follows: because the technologically mediation of novels provides additional functions—that are part of the ebook or tablet’s functionality—that participation becomes part of the experience. The technology’s ability to change the nature of the experience is essentially turning the hot medium of the book into the cool medium of the internet (here the internet stands as the technology that facilitates sharing of content). I argue that while this shift is happening, it does not necessarily have to be a good thing. Like McLuhan, Mason is mistaken about the fact that the novel is unchanged in this transfer. Because both are arguing that the medium is the message, they are missing the fact that the medium is not simply a function of its technology or its inherent nature, but must exist within a socially constructed context. The message, medium, and reader are part of a complex that gives purpose to all three at the moment of reading.
The usual response to this system’s analysis of the circumstances is summarized in McLuhan’s odd announcement that the “conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot” is as foolish as it sounds. This quote, taken from his famous—badly written, and often misunderstood—essay The Medium is the Message is the battle cry of the iconoclastic technological determinist. Here he makes the mistake of overstating his position and missing the point that his title, and his overall point, should read that the medium is also a message. The medium is not just a message. Content and the more abstract notion of ‘the work’ are not necessarily part of the medium through which they are delivered. The novel and the book are separate entities, and should be treated as such. With this division, McLuhan’s point is not possible because it immediately means that the message is both the content and the medium together.
By dividing the two we can immediately see that e-reader technology does not force change but provides a choice. Yes, we may well read differently on tablets and e-readers, but we do not have to if we do not choose to do so. One can read on an e-reader in the same manner that we do with a book if we work at it. The agency of readership should always include the choice of the reader, and as a consequence is not directly, or totally, organized by the technology at hand. We can approach a novel through a book for one experience or through a tablet or e-reader for another. Reading is not a single act, it is a range of skills. The belief that the technology changes the reader is only true if the reader has lost the skill to participate in the choice of how to read and is not aware of their choice. Even a choice unconsciously made is still a choice.
Ultimately, this means that the changes McLuhan predicted and the changes Mason sees are not caused by the technology, but arise because of the collective choices readers and publishers are making together about how to understand and use the technologies, or media, available to us. We have decided as a society to reorganize the way we consume novels and found the older formats, themselves part of a set of choices of how to adapt and use technologies, to be somewhat wanting. The novel will change, but it would have changed anyway to suit collective choices. However, to believe that it is the technology that is driving this shift alone, and that we are not fundamentally in the driver’s seat, is at its core to mistake our relationship with technology and content, between the medium and the message. Mason is right to see that things are changing, but wrong about what is causing the change. If saying this makes me a technological idiot, then so be it.
Mason, Paul. 2015. “Ebooks are Changing the Way we Read, and the Way Novelists Write.” In The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/10/ebooks-are-changing-the-way-we-read-and-the-way-novelists-write (accessed August 10, 2015).
McLuhan, Marshall. 2005 (1964). “The Medium is the Message.” In Understanding Media. London: Routledge, 7-23.
-----. 2005 (1964). “Hot and Cold Media.” In Understanding Media. London: Routledge, 24-35.