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Reading, fast and slow

The concept for the title of this article is borrowed and adapted from Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling book “Thinking, fast and slow”. The book's central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: "System 1" is fast, instinctive and emotional; "System 2" is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The analogy with reading is not perfect, but it does provide an interesting way of thinking about our collective reading habits.

Batteries not included

In some ways, the origins of the whole debate can be traced back to well before the internet – the idea of a paperless office was first mooted in 1975 in a Business Week article. And whether the debate manifests itself as e-reader versus physical book, or simply online versus print, neither side of the extreme is correct. They simply don't have to be mutually exclusive.

We can be sure of two things. Firstly, that digital reading will continue to grow. The Pew Research Center highlights that in May 2010 almost no one in the US had an e-reader or tablet, yet as of September 2013, nearly half do. But this doesn’t mean that print books will die out. As any book lover knows, there is something special about a book that a digital file just can't replicate. To touch, and for the really obsessive smell, the pages gives you a level of connection with the author and words that typeset on a screen fails to come close to. Physical books also have a level of technological simplicity that is very difficult to compete with – they are portable, resilient and have an exceptionally long battery life.

Cultivated versus well-informed

"In a rapidly changing age, there is a real danger that being well informed may prove incompatible with being cultivated. To be well informed, one must read quickly a great number of merely instructive books. To be cultivated, one must read slowly and with a lingering appreciation the comparatively few books that have been written by men who lived, thought and felt with style."

Aldous Huxley, Text and Pretexts, 1932.

It's interesting that Huxley felt this way nearly 100 years ago, and yet his piercing sentiment still resonates. Fast forward to today and the digital world supplies us with the information we need (‘instructive’ in Huxley’s language). And traditional books still typically provide 'cultivation'.

The majority of research into the debate is inconclusive and woolly at best. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an important scientific angle to all of this. How we process information is crucial; as is consideration to the very purpose of our reading therefore, which can vary drastically. We need take a leaf out of Aldous Huxley’s proverbial book and think far more carefully about what it actually means to read.

To highlight the simplistic nature of the online versus offline debate, on the surface digital reading appears more suitable for information consumption and therefore rapid reading, while print and offline content lends better to slower, more thoughtful digestion. However, the basic e-reader creates an enormous amount of blurriness. Although they may be ‘online’ in the very basic sense that you can connect and download new books, if connectivity is restricted they do carry the immersive ‘offline’ benefits. So print versus screen is not the same as online versus offline. And further, reading on a computer is very different from reading on a dedicated e-reader.

Longer and more thorough studies into our cognitive abilities will no doubt add clarity to what is quite a mystifying landscape, but these will naturally take time to conduct. For now it is too early to glean any meaningful insight. In the meantime, our mental filing systems will continue to adapt, and the research being conducted will need to try to anticipate and keep up.

Planning for the future, with one eye on the past

All of this creates a very real dilemma for marketing professionals as advertising space is probably the biggest field in which this titanic battle is being played out. For example, would you rather buy space in a medium that offers greater attention and focus (dwell time in media jargon), but with a dwindling readership – i.e. print? Or in a medium that attracts large swathes of visitors but garners only an iota of their attention, if any at all – i.e. digital? These may not be fundamentally new challenges, but the digital revolution has meant that they are presenting themselves in new ways.

Tablets, however, are re-shaping the newspaper industry and everybody is scrambling to catch up and make sense of the future. In slight contradiction to the point above, there are statistics and examples that indicate tablet as opposed to computer dwell times are far more comparable to those achieved by print. You wouldn’t sit down and read the weekend paper on a desktop or even a laptop for that matter, but the evidence suggests that with a tablet you probably would. Demographics are a useful way of putting the situation into context. Embedded habits take time to change, and many of the valuable segments targeted by advertisers are older age categories more wedded to their behaviours. In order to survive, we must therefore keep one eye on the future, but not ignore the traditional past either.

The need for speed - but only when appropriate

There are times to read fast, and there are times to read indulgently slowly.

There are times to read fast, and there are times to read indulgently slowly.

And understanding when, where and how is a very personal decision. We are very adaptive creatures and are learning to live with multiple mediums. While there may be no clear answers, at the very least the debate will force us to consider what type of reading we are doing and which medium will be most effective for it.

Source: Pew Research Center

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