Micro distractions

Why are long articles easier to read on paper than on a screen? The explanations I’ve heard most often involve resolution or other properties of screens. But the culprit may not be the screen per se. It may be links, notifications, and other distractions.

Obviously if you follow a link you’ll won’t finish reading your original article as quickly (or possibly ever). But even when you don’t follow any links, you have to decide not to follow each link. These decisions are not as obvious a distraction as say constructi0n noise or flickering lights, but they are still distractions and they take a toll. That is the explanation Nicholas Carr gives in his new book The Shallows. (Sorry for the distraction.)

Paper books don’t offer readers many options, and that may be their strength. If you’re aware of things you could do to interact with an e-reader, you have to decide whether to take these actions. E-readers are expected to get better screen technology as well as ads in the near future. The ads may harm reading efficiency more than increased screen resolution will help.

12 thoughts on “Micro distractions

  1. When I read a research paper on screen I read the paper – fullscreen, no distractions, not a link in sight. It’s still much harder to read than having the same paper printed out in the same format and same size.

    I rather suspect it’s either the fact that the screen is backlit and somewhat shiny, so my brain keeps trying to filter out what it interprets as glare; or possibly that the screen backlight flickers (my current laptop has an LED backlight and it does feel a bit better); or a combination of the two.

  2. Janne: You’re right. If you eliminate links, you’ve still got problems with glare etc. But those problems may go away with improved technology, while the problems Carr is concerned about will remain. They may even get worse.

  3. even without the links you still have to fight the urge to google stuff. let alone emails, twitter, facebook, RSS,… ;)

    do you maintain a comprehensive list of the books you are reading?

  4. Thomas: No, I don’t keep a list of books I’m reading.

    I made a page listing all the books referenced on the blog and where. But I have stopped maintaining that. Now I have a books tag for posts that are primarily about a single book.

    I don’t blog about everything I read, only things that I believe would be interesting to a fair number of readers and that are easy to write about. Some good books are hard to write about because they require too much context to discuss.

  5. Another problem is resolution. Print’s usually at 300DPI or so compared to 80DPI or so on screens. If you’re reading math with lots of footnotes, it makes a big difference (on top of issues of contrast reduction caused by glare that others have mentioned.

    Also, papers are easier to write in the margins of. Current computer apps make it rather hard to write in a margin, and also suffer from lower resolution.

    Paper’s easier to flip back and forth or lay out in multiple page displays by holding one page in one hand and one in the other.

    Computer-based reading is much easier if you need to search. I often curse not being able to search paper.

    I would’ve said a year ago that another big factor was being able to sit on my couch with my feet up. I only read papers in a comfy chair, but now I might be able to do that with something like an iPad. Paper’s still much lighter, but if I want to write, I need something like a lab notebook for solidity.

  6. Bob: Regarding margins, we might not have had Fermat’s Last Theorem if Fermat had been reading from an iPad. :)

  7. It has long been the convention that technical literature contain references and citations in its text. Are you saying these typographical “links” to appended pages are micro distractions and contribute significantly to the fact that such literature is not as popular as, say, romance novels? Of course not.

    Besides, I see no reason to believe there will not soon be technological solutions to any micro distraction problems e-readers may have. For example, Firefox has had a great ad blocker add-on for years.

    You make an interesting point, as usual. But I think we need a little more experimental data before we should reach a conclusion here.

  8. Carr’s book gives some evidence to support his thesis. For example, in one study reading comprehension went down in proportion to the number of links in a text.

    I know nothing about the studies he quotes; they may be junk, as many studies are. But it’s at least an interesting anecdote.

  9. Maybe this is just me, but I’m beginning to find contrarians altogether *distracting*.

    We’re going through a period of change due to technology — in reading modes and habits, forms of communication, etc. I suspect the sum total effect of this will be that we’ll experiment and adapt to arrive at some equilibrium that leads to greater productivity. Curmudgeons like Nick Carr notwithstanding, we’re going to get on with it and figure it how this can enhance the generation of knowledge.

    I’d like to see some kind of cost-benefit analysis here. Maybe “deep reading” isn’t all it’s made out to be. In most areas, Sturgeon’s law is in full effect: 97% of everything is crud. Most people are terrible writers, and many “great ideas” don’t need 90% of the words expended on them. It’s not the written word that’s important, but the generation of ideas, followed by experimentation, verification and innovation. You know, by actually *doing* rather than simply *thinking*. This kind of thing seems to elude Nick Carr, Jaron Lanier and the like.

    Perhaps hyperlinks and the like facilitate this. Rather than spending the marginal hour reading crud that could have been expressed more succinctly, I gain more by surfing over to other words and letting the thoughts and patterns percolate. Who cares if subject X fails the reading comprehension test but goes on to discover some vaccine or other. I don’t know that any of this is strictly true, but I doubt Nick Carr does either when it comes to his pet theories. Like 97% of contrarians, he’s discovered he’s talented at turning a tidy profit by doing this sort of thing. And really, how hard is it to find studies to back you up. p < 0.05? Check. Stick it in the footnotes.

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