Neither Paper Nor Digital Does Active Reading Well

Books are coasting on their tactility. Digital is just sinking. Three pieces on active reading.

The Problem with Digital Reading is Paper

I’ve been digging back into some old research notes and references for a new project and came across this from The Problem with Digital Reading is Paper:

But paper has benefits, you protest. You can dog-ear a page, get a mustard stain under a picture, hold your thumb at the start of a chapter and numerous other things that make active reading tolerable. But here’s the rub—those good things are grounded in the physicality of paper, and don’t really translate to today’s digital media. Think about it—many of the best attributes of paper require it being composed of physical pages. So we’re left in a difficult spot: our digital active reading products are inspired by paper, inherit its problems, and avoid its advantages.

I agree. And I have thoughts.

A recurring theme in software development is the more you dig into the research the greater the distance is between what actual research seems to say versus what the industry practices.

Develop a familiarity with, for example, Alan Kay’s or Douglas Engelbart’s visions for the future of computing and you are guaranteed to become thoroughly dissatisfied with the limitations of every modern OS.

Reading up hypertext theory and research, especially on hypertext as a medium, is a recipe for becoming annoyed at The Web.

Catching up on usability research throughout the years makes you want to smash your laptop agains the wall in anger. And trying to fill out forms online makes you scream ‘it doesn’t have to be this way!’ at the top of your lungs.

That software development doesn’t deal with research or attempts to get at hard facts is endemic to the industry.

As Alan Kay said:

In the last 25 years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were.

So I think the lack of a real computer science today, and the lack of real software engineering today, is partly due to this pop culture.

Software developer inattention to research makes sense when you think of it as a pop culture that—in the 33% of the time where its projects don’t flame outoccasionally has a productive side effect.

The same applies to reading software. When you read up on research and papers on skills development, memory formation, and active reading, frustration with existing tools inevitably follows.

At least with paper, we can teach people to hack their tools—extend the printed book with post-its, commonplace books, bookmarks, and inline annotation. Doing the same in digital is incredibly hard without programming skills (see the low success rate above) or expensive tools, even when the closed silos allow it.

And printed books benefit enormously from incidental spatial memory that’s mapped onto the book as a 3D object.

Supporting Memory for Spatial Location while Reading from Small Displays

Like the paper Supporting Memory for Spatial Location while Reading from Small Displays [PDF] notes:

Research has shown that when people read paper documents, they can often recall the approximate location of information within those documents [1, 2]. For example, they can recall that a certain item of information was in the top right hand comer of a page, or just to the left of a diagram, and so on. This memory appears to be incidental in that it is a by-product of the reading process, rather than something readers intentionally set out to do.

Awareness of spatial location is important for readers and writers for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it supports search and retrieval of information since even knowing the approximate location of information can narrow the search space. But research has shown that it also increases comprehension while reading, both by supporting the understanding of a document’s organisational structure [3] and by facilitating the recall of a document’s content [2].

While readers are able to develop this incidental memory when reading paper documents, there is evidence that it is hindered when reading on-line.

This was old news when it was written in 1999 and yet the only class of software that has commonly adopted the solution proposed and tested in the paper (a thumbnail screenshot is used as a map of the current text) are text editors used by software developers.

(Seriously, though, a thumbnail scroller of the current page should be built into every browser and on by default.)

The primary benefits of print are incidental to the form. They aren’t designed, for the most part. Conscious efforts to leverate the book as a physical map are usually limited to reference books or textbooks (e.g. books with colour-coded page edges and tactile cutouts to mark sections). Attempts to copy the print affordances as User Interface metaphors in digital are counter-productive because the benefits of print come from its three-dimensional physicality.


Digital Reading is Hurting our Educational System and Economy

From another post from the LiquidText team (Digital Reading is Hurting our Educational System and Economy):

And this is why the situation is so alarming. The shift to digital reading despite its flaws isn’t an anomaly that will self-correct in a few months. For most of us, our incentive structures lead those short-term advantages of digital reading to be very persuasive, and in some cases decisive. And if these short term advantages become the deciding factors that lead professionals, students, schools, enterprises, etc. to read on computers even though their comprehension of the text is compromised, then manufacturers and developers will tend to compete on the battleground of short term advantages—digital. Thus, reinforcing the problem in a vicious cycle.

Exacerbating the problem is the growth in full-featured, structured, and (fairly) well-designed writing tools.

Reading and writing are symmetrical activities.

They aren’t symmetrical on the same texts. Writing a text that is simple to read can be an extremely complex activity. It’s often easiest to write about complex ideas at the complexity it exhibits upon simple inspection. (“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”)

The cognitive effort to actively and intelligently read a text in depth is, if not equal to, then on the same order of magnitude as the effort to write about a complex subject.

But we only have full-featured tools to help us with writing. Ulysses, Tinderbox, Scrivener, etc. all make managing and writing a complex writing task much easier. Even code-oriented text editing workflows (like git combined with Emacs, Vim, Visual Studio Code, or Atom) with their steeper learning curves are a major improvement over paper-based writing workflows.

We can also use paper-based writing tactics in tandem with the digital ones, to the point of going back and forth between the two. You can’t do the same easily with reading.

Which leads us to the current situation: our ability to handle complex writing tasks is increasing while our default reading toolset is stagnating at best.


That these two hyper-critical blog posts come from the makers of one of the best, if not the best, digital tool for active reading available should tell you just how frustrating the status quo is.

Those who follow the research know that the situation is pretty dire and is probably getting worse.

Making reading tools that actually address the issues raised by research (like the excellent LiquidText) is both expensive and seen as a niche market. This in turn leads to relatively high prices. And because people can’t accurately assess the impact of poor digital reading tools on their lives, they don’t see the need to pay.

Explaining the need for these active reading features, even to your colleagues, is hard, which makes getting support for implementing them tricky. Improving active reading rarely contributes directly to a business’s bottom line and, even in the not-for-profit case, improving access, distribution, and reach takes priority.

I do have some hope that we can address part of this problem over at Rebus Foundation. But it would be dishonest to pretend that it isn’t a huge problem.