7 Digital Reading


Learning Objectives

  • How technologies shapes new ways to read and interpret information
  • That we need to expand the forms of reading and content we place value on
  • How we can use data to understand reading behaviour and preference

Key Messages

  • That machine reading provides great possibilities and limits
  • That our brains are learning and evolving along with advances in technology and digital reading

What is “Reading”?

When we discuss digital reading or audiobooks there is often debate over their legitimacy compared to printed text. Yet, regardless of format, be it a physical book, an audiobook, or an ebook, the meaning the texts carry remains the same—making them different paths that lead to the same end. To think that there is a hierarchy within the different forms (or claiming one is more “pure”)  is to negate the historic ways people have learned information, the different ways people receive information (see the social model of disability), and the quality of the information they get through these different forms.




As oral storytelling and the written word are intrinsically linked within our physical states, we should think of them as two sides of the same coin—to read is to listen. Indeed, most readers do something called ‘subvocalization’, which is the habit of ‘saying’ the words on the page in your mind as if they were an external voice. In fact, those of us who subvocalize when we read will find it incredibly difficult to even imagine any other form of reading. Writers of great historical importance in ‘western’ literature, from Homer to various contributors to the Bible over multiple centuries were never in-fact writers but oral storytellers. And in the case of the latter, literacy became a powerful tool of social control through the delegitimization of religious stories not contained in sacred texts. But does this make their work any less valuable? Any less literate? Of course not. So why would we assume that listening to audiobooks is somehow inferior to reading them?

Listening to oral stories and reading texts both disseminate the same set of ideas, feelings, and messages. The mediums may vary, but the message remains the same. Text used to be the only means of relaying information across space and time, but modern technology allows for the spoken word to be stored and shipped in the same way, and it can even be used to convey information that text is often lacking, like a specific intonation, or a musical score.

To limit the idea of reading as being something we only do with our eyes, or within the contained structure of printed books, is to fail to value to the experiences of those who exist outside our default norm. Digital formats like ebooks are essential for those with visual impairments (who can change the size of the text on an e-reader), those with dyslexia (who can apply Open Dyslexic font), those who simply aren’t able to physically turn the pages of a book, or those in remote communities who don’t have access to physical books. Audiobooks work in much the same way. Originally created as wax cylinders as part of the initiative of the American Institute for the Blind, they are now used by those with visual impairments, by children who struggle with reading, people who learn auditorily, and people who are non-native speakers (and plenty more!). These “non-traditional” ways of reading do not negate any of the information conveyed by the authors. Some have argued that the information provided through these forms is somehow less valuable, or less tangible. Yet research has argued that information is equally comprehended in these different forms. Furthermore, others such as Flanagan (2016) have argued that listening to audiobooks actually helps people read. Audiobooks are not a substitute for literacy, but they are also not something that should come with any of the stigma attached to illiteracy.

how Digital Reading changes us

As discussed above, humans have evolved alongside new technologies and ways of learning information. Written language took over from oral traditions, and books eventually took over from tablets and scrolls. Today’s rise of digital technologies and digital reading is no different than the shifting technologies of the past. According to Maryanne Wolf, the areas of our brains that interact with written material have a high degree of plasticity and are constantly shaped by our daily reading. This constant adaption allows us to evolve alongside new technologies. Yet, the changes come with their own challenges.  Digital reading has taught us to sim content (in an F or Z pattern)  like never before. Wolf claims that this skimming can be problematic—and promote the loss of critical reading skills and empathy—if it is not balanced with enough in-depth reading. According to Wolf, ‘[t]his is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation…In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it.” Wolf goes on to state that  “digital reading is showing the possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read.” But this isn’t to say that digital reading is problematic. Instead, it is to say we need to teach ourselves how to read better online. According to a 2014 study, children were shown to read deeply online, but they just had to be shown how. As Wolf states, “[t]he same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment”.



Example—As discussed in chapter 4, data can often be used in nefarious ways. But, for publishers, it can all provide valuable information on users reading habits and preferences. Publishers can often gain insights into when and how readers interact with digital books (see JellyBooks article below) which helps them develop better digital texts. Furthermore, data on book sales and the use of algorithms can help determine what books could be successful, helping publishers eliminate risk.

Question—Imagine that you are a publisher and had access to any data that is out there. What information would be beneficial to you and how could you get this information without impeding on personal privacy? How do you intend to use this information to guide your decision making?


Measuring and Tracking

Machine Reading


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The Web, Publishing, and Ourselves by Juan Pablo Alperin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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