Paper vs Screens

Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the Guardian, looking at a favourite topic: negotiating the different experiences of print and digital reading and writing, and trying to move beyond the notion that one must be “better” for everything.

My son is 18 months old, and I’ve been reading books with him since he was born. I say “reading”, but I really mean “looking at” – not to mention grasping, dropping, throwing, cuddling, chewing, and everything else a tiny human being likes to do. Over the last six months, though, he has begun not simply to look but also to recognise a few letters and numbers. He calls a capital Y a “yak” after a picture on the door of his room; a capital H is “hedgehog”; a capital K, “kangaroo”; and so on.

Reading, unlike speaking, is a young activity in evolutionary terms. Humans have been speaking in some form for hundreds of thousands of years; we are born with the ability to acquire speech etched into our neurones. The earliest writing, however, emerged only 6,000 years ago, and every act of reading remains a version of what my son is learning: identifying the special species of physical objects known as letters and words, using much the same neural circuits as we use to identify trees, cars, animals and telephone boxes.

It’s not only words and letters that we process as objects. Texts themselves, so far as our brains are concerned, are physical landscapes. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we respond differently to words printed on a page compared to words appearing on a screen; or that the key to understanding these differences lies in the geography of words in the world.

For her new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, linguistics professor Naomi Baron conducted a survey of reading preferences among over 300 university students across the US, Japan, Slovakia and Germany. When given a choice between media ranging from printouts to smartphones, laptops, e-readers and desktops, 92% of respondents replied that it was hard copy that best allowed them to concentrate.

This isn’t a result likely to surprise many editors, or anyone else who works closely with text. While writing this article, I gathered my thoughts through a version of the same principle: having collated my notes onscreen, I printed said notes, scribbled all over the resulting printout, argued with myself in the margins, placed exclamation marks next to key points, spread out the scrawled result – and from this landscape hewed a (hopefully) coherent argument.

What exactly was going on here? Age and habit played their part. But there is also a growing scientific recognition that many of a screen’s unrivalled assets – search, boundless and bottomless capacity, links and leaps and seamless navigation – are either unhelpful or downright destructive when it comes to certain kinds of reading and writing.

Across three experiments in 2013, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared the effectiveness of students taking longhand notes versus typing onto laptops. Their conclusion: the relative slowness of writing by hand demands heavier “mental lifting”, forcing students to summarise rather than to quote verbatim – in turn tending to increase conceptual understanding, application and retention.

In other words, friction is good – at least so far as the remembering brain is concerned. Moreover, the textured variety of physical writing can itself be significant. In a 2012 study at Indiana University, psychologist Karin James tested five-year-old children who did not yet know how to read or write by asking them to reproduce a letter or shape in one of three ways: typed onto a computer, drawn onto a blank sheet, or traced over a dotted outline. When the children were drawing freehand, an MRI scan during the test showed activation across areas of the brain associated in adults with reading and writing. The other two methods showed no such activation.

Similar effects have been found in other tests, suggesting not only a close link between reading and writing, but that the experience of reading itself differs between letters learned through handwriting and letters learned through typing. Add to this the help that the physical geography of a printed page or the heft of a book can provide to memory, and you’ve got a conclusion neatly matching our embodied natures: the varied, demanding, motor-skill-activating physicality of objects tends to light up our brains brighter than the placeless, weightless scrolling of words on screens.

In many ways, this is an unfair result, effectively comparing print at its best to digital at its worst. Spreading my scrawled-upon printouts across a desk, I’m not just accessing data; I’m reviewing the idiosyncratic geography of something I created, carried and adorned. But I researched my piece online, I’m going to type it up onscreen, and my readers will enjoy an onscreen environment expressly designed to gift resonance: a geography, a context. Screens are at their worst when they ape and mourn paper. At their best, they’re something free to engage and activate our wondering minds in ways undreamt of a century ago.

Above all, it seems to me, we must abandon the notion that there is only one way of reading, or that technology and paper are engaged in some implacable war. We’re lucky enough to have both growing self-knowledge and an opportunity to make our options as fit for purpose as possible – as slippery and searchable or slow with friction as the occasion demands.

I can’t imagine teaching my son to read in a house without any physical books, pens or paper. But I can’t imagine denying him the limitless words and worlds a screen can bring to him either. I hope I can help him learn to make the most of both – and to type/copy/paste/sketch/scribble precisely as much as he needs to make each idea his own.