Thursday, August 19, 2010

Larry Hoffner in New York on the pros and cons of reading on screens compared to reading on paper surfaces

[In a recent email interview, we asked high school teacher Larry Hoffner -- an oft-published letter to the editor writer in the New York Times -- about his views on the digital age we are in and what it might all mean.]

DANNY BLOOM: Larry , in your opinion, and in your reading and research, do you think the brain processes reading from a screen differently than reading from a page? And how might this difference, if there is one, be measured or studied?

LARRY HOFFNER: I'm sure that there's a difference, however, there are so many variables that it is difficult to have a sensible cauase-affect analysis.

2. In your opionion, are html pages so overwrought with information that readers lose focus? What kind of research bears this out?

LARRY HOFFNER: I believe that Huxley had it right in BraveNew World. We are amusing ourselves to death! We are distracted! We Multi-task!

3. In your opionion, how close do you think the visual experience of an e-reader can be made to resemble that of a book, that is, how pleasing to the eye an e-reader page can be made?

LARRY HOFFNER: I'm old fashioned and will always want paper. However, a young generation is coming along that will adjust and the new reality will become the norm.

4. If the emulation is close enough, we may not find a difference in brain activity, certainly not in the early stages of visual information processing. But, The interesting part would be, if we found a difference in activation in association cortex where language is processed. is there any research on this yet, and if so, do you think the makers of ereaders are concerned about this or do not care at all?

LARRY HOFFNER: Do the makers of E-readers care? They care about profits!

5. If, in fact, we find out that there is more to electronic screen reading than meets the eye -- That is, whether the computer information age changes the way we process language and whether the effect may be detrimental to the processing of our thoughts -- will these findings have any impact on makers of Kindles and nooks and other ereaders and on the entire ebook industry?

LARRY HOFFNER: Profits will rule! We can choose.

6. As interesting as such brain activation studies may be, ultimately we shall look at outcome, that is, whether gathering information read from screens degrades our cognitive abilities. We do not need expensive fMRI or PET scans to answer this question. School psychologists use ability tests routinely. They would have to compare children who mainly use computers to children who do not. If performance was degraded, we would have to tease apart whether the cause is the screen or the ubiquitous distractors that web2 presents. Agree or disagree?

LARRY HOFFNER: I'm not sure if its 'degrading' our cognitive ability as much as its transforming it.

7. Have you read any of the research papers by Anne Mangen in Norway on these issues and what do you think of her work?


8. If we later find out that reading on paper is very different from reading on screens, either in terms of neuroscience or just in terms of distractability and materiality, do you think the culture at large might benefit from a new word for "screen-reading" -- whatever that word might be -- in order to help better understand the two reading modes by giving them different and maybe competing names? If so, what might YOu nominate for this word or term for reading on screens. marvin Mirsky at MIT AI lab told he likes "screen-reading" as a new term for this. What do you think or can you suggest a better word?

LARRY HOFFNER: Smilling? Preening? Weening? Sreading?

9. Gary Small at UCLA has said "the tech train has already left the station and cannot be stopped" and that whatever findings reserachers find out later about the differences between paper reading and screen reading WILL NOT MATTER MUCH to the ereader industry or computer industry, because there is so much money to be made by selling SCREENS? do you agree or disagree?

LARRY HOFFNER: Agree! Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. The markets rule.

10. What is your main interest in all this, in terms of research or personal insights of your own?

LARRY HOFFNER: How this over reliance on technology affects our lives is of paramount importance. The unabomber was insane, but he had a point about how this technology dehumanizes us and limits our freedom. However, we are not helpless. We do not have to be reactive to the technology or to anything else.

DANNY BLOOM: Thank you for your time with these answers, Larry.

LARRY HOFFNER: Thank you for interviewing me.

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