Cognition and the Internet

From The Guardian’s Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound, in which we will ignore—however true—the zeitgeist tropes of propensity to demagogy and loss of empathy, we can consider the following:

Karin Littau and Andrew Piper have noted another dimension: physicality. Piper, Littau and Anne Mangen’s group emphasize that the sense of touch in print reading adds an important redundancy to information – a kind of “geometry” to words, and a spatial “thereness” for text. As Piper notes, human beings need a knowledge of where they are in time and space that allows them to return to things and learn from re-examination – what he calls the “technology of recurrence”. The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one’s understanding of a text. The question, then, is what happens to comprehension when our youth skim on a screen whose lack of spatial thereness discourages “looking back.”

Having long understood the mechanisms of learning to vary significantly across individuals, I had assumed spatiality to be a dimension that happened to resonate well with me. Seeing this thesis emerge here and extend to the notion of recurrence confirms my own impression that information to be processed on a screen—whatever the crutches I resort to—tends to be more evanescent.

I stress that it tends to be so, because the article opens with some optimism towards the unknown:

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

Plastic flesh

The neuroscientific adage “use it or lose it” can be reinterpreted as “we become the processes we follow”. “Process” is vague, though. Since the article touts physicality, why not celebrate it with the following simile of physicality and touch? “We become the trails we follow”, says the wanderer in the forest. Trails unused are reclaimed by Nature, trails abused leave a scar beyond the footpath.

The plastic flesh we call brain grows ever less plastic with each passing day; each new kink imprinted by our thoughts and actions either reaffirms old patterns or is wasted on inflexible matter. Understanding this inexorable fact is a first step towards developing this “bi-literate” brain the author calls for.

What does this mean for digital devices of the future? Possibly a continued ingress into the physical and tactile.

Reality emulated

Magnified detail of a character printed on an e-ink display.
Microcapsules used in the e-ink display of a Kindle 3.

Reading devices such as the Kindle offer more than a paper-like display. They feature non-scrolling text, text bound to pagination. In forcing each word to a particular place in the page, could a sense of locality be triggered in the reader’s mind? These devices’ slow screen-refresh mechanism suggests that every new page turned is being printed, thus possibly reinforcing physicality. It is not clear from the article whether the study comparing reading comprehension for a paperback and a Kindle refers to the e-paper models or to the tablet ones. If it does refer to e-paper models, these are surprising results. Still, that emulation provided by e-paper goes a long way, and satisfied users have sworn by it.

However, despite its forced pagination, the Kindle doesn’t emulate depth. Pages are accessed sequentially or via indices, but flicking through pages or opening a page at random are actions not possible. In contrast, a tablet with a PDF reader that supports handwritten annotations could provide a much more spatial experience: notes can be written in the margins or arbitrarily anywhere on the page; an exposé mode gives the user the feeling of zooming out and contemplating a whole desktop with pages laid out, before zooming back in to read a different page. The criterion of recurrence is indeed met, compounded by the tactile experience of the tablet: swiping, flicking pages, annotating by hand.

Can these experiences improve learning and information processing? How close to “the real thing” can these experiences get? Is it even a matter of approaching some sort of reality, or is that physical reality simply the best support we’ve known so far?

A web of pages

Steering the conversation towards the medium of the Web—the purpose of my daily work—it’s interesting to consider that the Web has long tried to distance itself from print without exactly knowing how. On one hand, websites adapt to any screen size, text flows as necessary, experts recommend against pagination, and for the last years influential websites have embraced “content as a stream” in detriment of “content as a document”. On the other hand, consider the terminology of the Web: pages, margins, type, bookmark, form. Paper remains the analogy by which we make sense of the Web.

Byzantine liturgical parchement scroll, 13th century.

Ironically, we’ve coined the main paradigm shift away from fixed pagination “scrolling”, resorting once again to paper, yet devolving technologically. Image source.

Over the coming years we can expect new hardware applications based on foldable screens, better haptic technology, further miniaturisation and connectedness, which could mean smart objects with a strong thereness. As we scratch the surface of human cognition, will these applications be put to the service of our minds?

Author: Miguel Fonseca

Engineer at Automattic. Linguist, cyclist, Lindy Hopper, tree climber, and headbanger.

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