Take a look at Tim Carmody’s recent Atlantic essay “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books” for an interesting historical perspective on this question. As Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979) told us, the printing press allowed for the reliable production of “identical text” — and that change was important to the Scientific Revolution. Now, as we are increasingly using electronic reading technologies, the text is becoming less stable, less fixed than it would be in print or, say, a stone stele. We are moving, Tim Carmody says, toward “ephemeral-but-portable” text.
I’d say that we are also moving in the direction of more text, and more accelerated text. More of it crosses our field of vision, and it moves in front of us (e.g., scrolling) as our eyes move across it. It is more readily copyable and re-distributable than print text — as long as the people we’re distributing to are online. So if we are networked people, we see more text, probably, than we used to in the old print-only days. We are learning to accelerate our process of reading. Or maybe we should call it “scanning” because, of course, “seeing text” and understanding it, comprehending it, synthesizing it are quite different things. We scan a lot of text. How much text do we really read?
From eye-tracking studies we have evidence that readers of web text often scan/read the page in the pattern of an F, as Jakob Nielsen (2006) discusses in reference to the following heatmaps:
(For a comparable eye-tracking analysis of how users scan a Google search result, see Aula & Rodden, 2009. For a smart discussion of the limitations, as well as advantages, of eye-tracking research, see Ross, 2009.)
Where do our patterns of reading come from? Well, first and foremost they come from habit: How we have been trained to read and how we have read things in the past carry over to new things we read in the present — whether or not our established reading process applies to whatever new text we are reading or new technology we are reading it in/with. Habit — the pattern our bodies typically follow — has a strong persistent influence, though of course with effort and re-training we can change our habits. As we read online we re-learn what to read and how to read. We coordinate our hand movements to choose and select text, and to scroll text in ways that align conveniently for our eyes scanning the text. And we learn what NOT to read online. (Have you trained yourself to ignore pop-up ads or sidebar advertising on the web? I’m trying, but our peripheral vision is still picking up those nasty ads.)
So the technology changes the text (its shape as well as delivery), the text is moving, and we’re moving with it and across it, our hands, our eyes … it’s a dance. And the dance is teaching us, anew, how to read. We might love it or hate it, but if we want to stay in touch with our world we better learn it.
Aula, Anne, & Rodden, Kerry. (2009, February 6). Eye-tracking studies: More than meets the eye. Googleblog.
Carmody, Tim. (2010, August 25). 10 reading revolutions before e-books. The Atlantic.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe (2 vols.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Nielsen, Jakob. (2006, April 17). F-shaped pattern for reading web content. Alertbox.
Ross, Jim. (2009, October 19). Eyetracking: Is it worth it? UX Matters.