Thoughts on the True Nature of Ebooks

Stuart Kelly at The Guardian has an interesting take on the potential new reality of ebooks:

Why ebooks are a different genre from print (posted March 26, 2013)

I’ve long been advocating for the multimedia potential of ebooks but I hadn’t really thought about the data-gathering and non-private nature of the medium before.

On a deeper level, I’d like to see more longitudinal studies done on information comprehension and retention when reading ebooks, as well as direct neurological mapping of ebook reading vs. print. I’m curious to know how our pre- and sub-conscious minds deal with the physical differences in the delivery mechanisms.

We know that our bodies – and, therefore, our brains – are wired for our existence as paleolithic hunter-gatherers. The technological changes we’ve made to our surroundings have massively outpaced our evolution, to the extent that some people (myself included) wonder if we’ve largely removed ourselves from the evolutionary process. What this innate wiring means is that visceral reality has a deep and irreducible impact on how we process input from the world through our senses.

To our paleolithic hunter-gatherer brains, there must be a visceral difference between reading ebooks and reading print. These visceral differences affect how our brains are predisposed to process the information, the initial conditions of reception; I have to believe this has profound effects on the way we comprehend, internalize, and retain the information.


  • Print books have weight and thickness, which provide tactile input on progress. Ebooks don’t.
  • Print books require us to touch and grasp each page as we proceed through the text. Ebooks proceed by hitting a button or tapping the screen. This difference gives extra dimension – and, consequently, a more powerful physical reality – to print books.
  • In print books, the ink makes the words themselves physically extant objects, separate from the paper – you can even feel them as bumps on the page. The words in ebooks are only light on a screen, and possess no self-contained reality of their own separate from everything else projected by the presentation surface.

Because of these – and many other – sensorial differences, our pre-conscious brain has already classified these as entirely different things before we even become consciously aware of what we’re reading. This must affect the rest of the mindful reading process.

I really want to see real-time brain imagery of people reading ebooks vs. print, to see these differences in the neurological activity – from pre-conscious setting the stage, to conscious reading, to sub-conscious effects.

This curiosity isn’t just idle speculation. As colleges and other educational institutions are discovering – there are significant differences between comprehension and retention of information between ebooks and print. This has powerful ramifications for any organization whose mandate includes education, edification, self-improvement, or the communication of information. We need to factor all this into our game plans.

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