This is Your Brain on E-Lit

Posted on March 18, 2016 in Academic Essay

Screenshot of Electronic Literature Collection - volume 3

From LongReads to Medium, WattPad to Electric Lit, we are reading more than ever thanks to the internet and in fact, electronic literature is now an evolving field of publishing. As we read differently on paper versus on screen, our brains learn the tasks we engage in, adapting our inner wirings to complete the task even quicker and easier the next time. Many researchers argue that the way we read digitally is adversely affecting our ability to engage in deep thought and uninterrupted focus. Many news articles also pick up on this fear-mongering angle, devolving into a discussion that moralizes the importance of deep thought and intellectual engagement. Yet many studies conversely report literacy and e-reading rates soaring; we as a society are reading more than ever. How do we reconcile these two seemingly disparate beliefs? By looking at the concepts and implications as neutrally as possible, I will examine the potential opportunities these developments create.

Brain Neuroplasticity & Cognitive Functions

Our understanding of the human brain has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades. As both researchers and neuroscientists can attest, how we read affects our brain; whether we’re skimming and multi-tasking, or immersed in deep thought, our brains adjust to the circumstances. And they are constantly changing; readapting to tasks we repeat often, storing away skills accessed less frequently. To describe this function, neuroscientists have developed the concept of neuroplasticity: the notion that the brain adjusts its connections and programming with use or disuse. As we have learned more about the cognitive functions, attentional abilities, and information procession, questions have been raised about the possibilities and future dilemmas they create. Torkel Klingberg, a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Stockholm Brain Institute, explains in his book The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory (2009) that “information technology is now starting to present us with such a surplus of information per unit of time that the capacity limitations of our brains … has become a very real matter for our daily lives” (pp. 9). Psychology and neuroscientists have been studying the effects of information overload on humans for many years, and have come to understand more about the challenges and abilities of the human brain. Our brains, although excellent at adapting to situations and changes in the environment, do not handle multi-tasking well.

Our brains are not actually wired to multitask, as MIT neuroscientist Earl K. Miller explains, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so” (Levitin, 18 Jan 2015). During the morning commute, while listening to a podcast and reading saved articles on our smartphone, you think you’re making good use of the time, whereas it is in fact taxing your brain unnecessarily. Naomi S. Baron’s (2015) research showed that multi-tasking doesn’t increase cognition, nor does it save time. While browsing online, each time we click a link, or ignore click bait, read a sidebar, we spend some of our cognitive energy. Eventually, we will have very little cognitive energy left with which to finish reading the article, much less analyze or critically engage with the text.

“The brain changes not only when we lose information, but also when we are exposed to excessive activation” (Klingberg, 2009, pp.12). According to Maria Konnikova, in “Being a Better Online Reader” (The New Yorker, 16 July 2014), this is one of the main problems with digital reading. Consider the many different styles of web pages—colours, fonts, sizes, images, etc. Adapting to all these minor differences, even if we’re not consciously aware of our brain adjusting to these changes, exhausts us mentally.

Another main issue with digital reading is the manner in which we engage in online reading—skimming, skipping, multi-tasking. By generally being distracted by the Internet’s myriad functions, the concern is that we are no longer engaging in deep thought or uninterrupted focus that comes with print books. Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), knows that our brains are changing but believes that we are not changing for the better. Although there have been studies about the different brain areas that are stimulated by computer use, Carr is concerned that we are not stimulating the correct functions. Scientific research has shown that even five hours of practice at a computer task improves skill, during which the brain adjusts its functions as you learn. By learning new skills, you improve the white matter synapses in your brain.

But when it comes to digital reading, are we improving some skills (such as information mining and assessing a variety of sources) at the cost of other functions, skills or even interests? In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, worries that skimming, and other superficial ways of reading online, is “affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing”. Michael S. Rosenwald for the Washington Post states “This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia” (6 April 2014).

One of the main problems with a lot of the data thus far is that it is either anecdotal, or fixed time frame, meaning no longitudinal behavioural studies. There is essentially not enough data to consider whether reading digitally or superficially has a long-term negative effect on us as readers. Wolf is adamant that longitudinal data is vital to understanding if our apprehensions around digital reading is perhaps misdirected. In Canada, this problem is compounded by the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census by Harper’s Conservative government in 2010, replaced by the voluntary National Household Survey in 2011. This type of data about the Canadian population is vital to organizations that provide goods and services, including governments at all levels, NGOs, academics, news media, as well as businesses. The census is useful to contrast against other studies, such as reading or adoption of digital technologies, in regards to education, income, location, and language, to name a few.

The Rise of E-Reading and Digital Devices

The idea that we are hindering our ability to consume thoughtful, long form writing seems pretty evident given the anecdotal evidence and focused studies. Yet, contrasted against studies of e-reading and use of digital technologies for information retrieval, these fears seem tenuous at best. Different studies are finding that digital technologies are actually increasing the amount we read. According to Statistics Canada (2013) “In 2012, 83% of Canadian households had access to the Internet at home, compared with 79% in 2010.”. In data presented by Magazines Canada (2013), Canada is one of the world leaders in online usage metrics, per visitor averages of 41.3 hours online and more than 3,700 pages visited monthly.

Canadian Online Usage — From Magazines Canada's Digital Magazine Fact Book 2013
Figure: Canadian Online Usage — From Magazines Canada’s Digital Magazine Fact Book 2013

However, as mentioned, one of the problems we currently face is the lack of current data following the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census. Thus, the most recent comprehensive data that exists is from 2010, which by digital technology standards, is quite out of date. In just five short years, a lot of digital trends and new technological advances arrived, bringing products that we now consider second nature to our lives. For example, in the first iPad and Android were both released in 2010, and cloud computing was only just beginning to gain traction in the early 2010s. According to StatsCan (2014), the use of Internet-enabled mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets rose from 53% in 2012 to 60% in 2013. These statistics correspond to the increased availability of these products as well as the pervasiveness of them in every day life. A 2013 report on digital reading trends from BookNet Canada found that the majority of Canadians who read ebooks used dedicated ereaders, and ebook purchasing remains steady at approximately 17%. Based on the type of device used, mobile ranked in fourth (last) place, but over 2013 mobile reading was on the rise with a significant and steady growth (BNC, 2013). These trends are also reflected on a larger scale in American research; a PewResearchCentre study from 2014 found that “Overall, 50% of Americans now have a dedicated handheld device–either a tablet computer like an iPad, or an e-reader such as a Kindle or Nook–for reading e-content” (Zickuhr & Rainie, 2014).

BookNet Canada data on preferred e-reading device
Figure: BookNet Canada’s 2013 data on preferred e-reading device

Where data becomes less informative is how ebooks are defined in quantitative studies with self-reporting from respondents. I couldn’t find specific information regarding specific definitions from BookNet or Pew, so I am unable to tell if people are self-reporting free books through apps such as WattPad or if they count self-published titles. Although BookNet Canada does ask respondents how much they paid, and “a significant amount of ebooks” are acquired for $0, which could be “public domain content, self-published material, or ebooks acquired through other means” such as illegal downloading. BookNet’s SalesData only captures print purchases from participating retailers, so we cannot compare self-reported numbers to actual sales, and e-tailers such as Kindle and Kobo also keep that data under tight lock and key.

The issue of self-reporting is further complicated when we consider the vast scope of things people read online and the fact that the definition of “reading” is so varied. In Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (2015), Naomi S. Baron seeks to find if “digital reading is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read” (xxi). By nature of the internet, a vast quantity of content we consume is, in fact, words. Therefore, we must read on the internet. But every study seems to define “digital reading” in a slightly different way—from everything you read online regardless of length or source, to only from particular outlets such as news media or digital magazines. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate online if something is ‘just a blog’ or an online magazine.

“At the functional level, Canadian literacy is doing fine: Recent international test scores show 15-year-old Canadian students, when compared with their peers in other developed countries, continue to perform above average as readers” (Taylor, 18 Jan 2011). The problem for many, as expressed at the National Reading Summit, is the quality of reading. Founder of Groundwood Books and co-chair of the National Reading Campaign, Patsy Aldana, believes the problem is “not whether you can read a newspaper, it’s wanting to read a newspaper” (Taylor, 18 Jan 2011). Aldana’s concern coincides with Wolf’s apprehensions regarding deep reading and in-depth processing; if we aren’t used to participating in these activities or functions, how interested or willingly will we be moving forward? Furthermore, as we move into a more digital environment, “will some of the uses of reading (and, for that matter, writing) fall by the wayside?” (Baron, 2015, xxi).

Enter Electronic Literature

 Electronic Literature Organization logoAs we have explored thus far, we are actually reading more than ever because of the internet. With the rise of personal computing, and the prevalence of the internet in every day life, people began to experiment with digital tools to create and change text. Experimenting with these tools and the new platforms afforded by digital spaces, electronic literature is an established and burgeoning field as well as continually evolving. In the early 1990s, this type of literature was referred to as “hypertext fiction”, but as digital technologies expanded, so did the scope of digital literature. Now encompassed under the umbrella of “electronic literature”, the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) defines e-lit as born digital works that include “important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (n.d.). This can include literary apps, collaborative writing, novels in the form of messages or blogs, interactive fiction, computer-generated lit, as well as literature created with digital tools or techniques.

As Joseph Tabbi, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues in his 2007 article about ELO, e-lit is not just a medium or a genre, it is an “emerging cultural form”, the production of new literary objects intended to be read on digital devices. But as we continually redefine what is digital and what is reading, we also redefine what is considered electronic literature. While it’s impossible for me to encompass the entirety of e-lit in this paper, at the core it is literature that operates in a digital space and/or innovates through the use of digital technologies. The diversity and scope of e-lit is what makes it an interesting and thought-provoking response to the challenges faced by e-reading studies and perceptions.

Screenshot of Electronic Literature Collection - volume 3
Figure: Diversity and scope of e-lit reflected in volume 3 of ELO’s Electronic Literature Collection

There is a lot of scholarship and exploration into “born digital” literature, as a small subset of the digital humanities overall. Tabbi seeks to define the “possibility and conditions of literature’s persistence in digital environments” (29 Jan 2007) whereas N. Katherine Hayles seeks to define the field in both her book, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (2008) and numerous articles. For Hayles, when looking for the future of literature in an increasingly digital world, she argues that “almost all contemporary literature is already digital” in the sense that it has existed mostly as digital files throughout the editorial and production process (Hayles, 2008, pp. 159). “Print and electronic textuality deeply interpenetrate one another” (Hayles, 2008, pp. 160).

Another deep interconnection is reading and writing. According to Baron (2015), “if reading habits change, so do the ways authors tend to write” (xiii). This is not a particularly shocking revelation when you consider the different authorial voices for blogs versus news media versus narrative non-fiction. But it also raises all sorts of fears about the death of the book, the loss of deep reading, or the distractedness of readers by digital technologies. The persistent anxiety among publishers and authors that the print book is being superseded by other forms of entertainment is more of a perception than a reality. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a leading scholar in publishing and obsolescence (planned or feared), prefers to take a more sociological approach—how human motives and interactions influence the text (Fitzpatrick, 2009). Hayles (2008) believes it’s more complicated and this, “anxiety of obsolescence has a complex relation to the recent explosion of creativity in contemporary print novels” (pp. 162). When an author begins to consider how people read digitally, it may in fact inspire or motivate new forms of literary objects. Thus we begin to enter e-lit territory.

Looking to the Future

Moving forward, what different people consider “real literature” and actually reading varies. If you’re consuming comics, is it still “reading”? Can fluffy romances be considered “literature”? These judgments as well as the concerns around deep reading, are caught up in specific biases—the perceptions of value, cultural capital, and social class. There are also presumably many reasons why more traditional publishers and writers may not be involved in these activities, but at its core is a concern with monetization and lack of revenue models. Despite some Canadian grants available for digital innovation, without a clear revenue model or business plan, many creators will be skeptical of the purpose and potential audience. But as we have new ways to write, we will find new ways to read, and vice versa, regardless of monetary gain.

E-books have changed reading—both print and digital—as have tablets, mobile phones, and other digital technologies. But many of the concerns stem from the assumed goal to reproduce a traditional reading experience, what some call a ‘paper under glass’ issue. As Taylor posits in the Globe & Mail, “many argue the video components that can be added to an e-book are no more revolutionary than the interviews with a movie’s director and stars that appear as extra features on a DVD. Real experimentation may lie elsewhere” (9 July 2011).

If our brains are changed by the way we read, it stands to reason that writers are also changing the styles they write. Writing experimentation may include multimedia experiences with non-linear storytelling, audio and video components, or other components that e-book publishers are not considering. Instead of fear-mongering and moralizing the concerns around these changes in reading, e-lit embraces them. In a new age of reading digitally, electronic literature seeks to promote literacy in print and on screen as well as audience engagement.