I did something this weekend that I haven’t done in years: I bought a CD. For a guy who once spent nearly as much on recorded music as on books, that’s saying something. Having resisted downloading for ages, I don’t recall the exact point when my music collection basically consisted of digital encodings with no physical basis. Probably about the time Amazon Prime began offering full music albums at no added cost with their service.
But I impulsively purchased Waiting For the Dawn, by the Mowgli’s [sic]. I downloaded the album over a year ago, but only upon seeing it displayed in a downtown vinyl record store did I realize: I’ve never listened to the whole thing. I simply shelved it in an incorporeal music “library” that includes hundreds of albums I’ve never listened to, by artists I really like, from Gordon Lightfoot to Marian Hill to the Scissor Sisters.
That joins movies I’ve never watched, and e-books I’ve never read, some of which I’ve paid for, others made available “free” through an expensive subscription service. My tablet is a cluttered mess of content, a virtual TBR pile that, if translated into the material world, would crowd me out of my apartment. Why can I not power through this content? I’ve spent a week thinking about that, while I’ve kept the Mowgli’s on near-constant repeat.
Shlomo Benartzi of UCLA writes about studies going back to the 1980s about humans’ reading comprehension and retention when reading off a screen. Almost from the time computers became compact and affordable enough to read from, researchers began comparing screen reading with paper reading. And from the beginning, it’s been poor: when reading from a screen, our retention and processing ability drops by half. Human beings read better of printed pages. We probably always have.
Back when the Apple IIe was peak design, researchers attributed this to kludgy 8-bit type. No word on whether the “printed” reading came off a dot-matrix printer. But it gets complicated, because today’s screens aren’t kludgy. Typical laptop and tablet computers have dpi resolutions greater than most cost-effective printing techniques today, often twice the image resolution. Yet outcomes are unchanged. Screen reading from the most current iPad reduces retention by fifty percent, the same figure.
|The Mowgli's [sic]|
Benartzi suggests this reflects a paradox: excessively clear images enter our brains with minimal resistance. We don’t recall information we don’t struggle to process. Making screens slightly less legible might improve reading retention. He makes a pretty persuasive case, backed with evidence. But it misses an important point: whether clear or kludgy, reading from a screen reduces reading retention by half. This applies to both simple and difficult reading. Screens are the only common factor.
Simply reading digitally makes human brains less receptive to information and change than reading off paper. I lack conclusive scientific data, but I suspect this happens because digital reading is both cheap and ubiquitous. With just a mouse click or touchscreen tap, the specific information goes away, occupying no space and demanding no commitment. Physical books have mass and require storage. Paper books, with their multisensory experience and material weight, demand our accompanying psychological engagement.
This extends, I propose, to all digital media content. Streaming a Netflix movie requires no commitment, something owning a DVD absolutely demands. Playing a CD makes us listen to the whole thing, or at least consciously program which songs to include; downloading the same content doesn’t. I’ve spoken to a few people since buying this CD, and they agree: they download full albums, then listen to just the singles. Pandora streams or Spotify playlists? Pshaw.
Basically, I’ve concluded that when we don’t commit to owning the physical artifact, we don’t commit to consuming the content. Because downloading a Kindle book doesn’t require us to handle or store the material item, it doesn’t require us enough to care enough to finish the book. Downloaded music doesn’t commit us to care about anything besides the singles we already know and love. Streaming TV and movies are passive, requiring virtually nothing from us.
Don’t mistake me. After buying that CD, I did what I’ve done for a decade, ripping its content onto my laptop. Owning the item isn’t a magic talisman; we still buy the silver disc for its aesthetic content, not its physical beauty. But owning the thing still affects our thinking. It requires us to care about the entire package, not those comfortably familiar bits. If you need me, I’ll be off browsing the CD rack.