Digital vs. print and the future of books

I’m reading an interesting paper by M. Julee Tanner that compares the cognitive aspect of digital vs. print delivery for book-length material. In summary, the printed book is not dead!

I’ve always thought the print medium (especially typeset by LaTeX) is far superior for learning and comprehension, but I figured this was my “old timer” ways (I’m 32). It seems I’m not the only one though:

Despite decades of work by computer and e-reader engineers and designers to improve the optics, display, and ease of navigation of virtual texts, readers still have a general preference for the print presentation, especially when it comes to longer, more challenging material.

The author states many good things print books have going for them, but the most interesting to me is the following quote:

[…] the greatest difference in metacognitive strategy was also found among the users of e-readers, in their reluctance to review previously read passages by virtually turning back pages. It seems that the perceived unwieldiness of screen-tapping to turn pages did negatively impact comprehension of expository texts on the e-reader platform (Margolin et al., 2013).
Since monitoring one’s understanding while reading, reviewing previously read material if necessary, underlining, and taking marginal notes are so vital to the comprehension of more challenging texts, it is important for students and educators to know how applicable these metacognitive strategies are to virtual texts.

Indeed, think about it—if you’re reading a complicated passage in a math book, wouldn’t you want to flip back and look at the equation which you saw five pages ago? In a printed book you could do that (you could in fact leave you finger on that spread and conveniently flip between the two pages). In a PDF read on the computer, it’s also somewhat passible to flip back (though a bit imprecisely), but on an eBook reader it’s not easy to do.

Learning math/physics (or other cognitively demanding material) from an eBook reader feels a bit like I’m placed in front of a slide deck: information comes, then it’s quickly taken away, leaving me in a disorganized state of mind.

Here’s the full reference: Tanner, M. J. (2014). Digital vs. print: Reading comprehension and the future of the book. SJSU School of Information Student Research Journal, 4(2).

Internet propaganda

TL;DR: The fight on the Internet is not just about True vs False, but also True vs Noise.

I’m reading this article about Internet propaganda in China, and I can’t help but wonder how much of this exists in the West. How many PR firms employ armies of paid commenters ready to intervene and vote up (or down) any content item? How many politicians employ the services of these PR firms?

I find it very interesting to dissect the tools of the System—to try to deconstruct the methods which the powers that be use to control the People. There seems to be three forces at play for any issue X. Voices in support of X, voices in opposition to X, and noise. Assuming X is something the people want, people-opposing forces (which we’ll call the System for simplicity), have at least two options to silence the X discussion:

  1. Pay shills to post opinions against X.
  2. Produce noise to drown out the X discussion altogether.

In totalitarian regimes (think Russia), official police and secret police act to suppress the supporters of X, while in “open societies” (the West) corporate media control (which is a mix of options 1. and 2. above) are used to suppress X.

It seems China’s regime is siding with the Western approach for their Internet censorship. Here’s a quote from the above article:

It’s not clear the degree to which paid comments influence the conversation the way Communist Party members hope they do. Xiaolan says the paid commenters could be adding noise to the conversation simply to drown out normal people’s desire to converse online.

The noise strategy reminds me of the “jammer towers” (заглушителни станции) that I’ve seen in Bulgaria during the communist days. The idea was to isolate the Bulgarian people from FM transmissions from neighbouring Greece and Turkey. I’m guessing they were going for FM and/or TV, because I know AM radio is more difficult to block.

Could it be that the whole education system is intentionally dysfunctional? An informed and educated citizenry would be much harder to indoctrinate and control. No. Surely this is a crazy idea to imagine science education is intentionally restricted to a small group of people, who are indoctrinated with the “you’ll get a big paycheque”-mentality in school, and forced to join the System immediately upon graduation to repay their student debt. In any case it’s worth checking. If science textbooks were made intentionally inaccessible by the system, then making more accessible science and technology textbooks will lead to more politically active citizens, armed with metis. Let’s see.