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Redefining Reading: The Impact of Digital Communication Media

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


It's not a book. It doesn't have a smell, you don't touch it …, you're plugged into the internet, you can't concentrate, it hurts your eyes, and you lose the beauty of the words behind this screen. Life itself is in hard copy. … Not this treacherous digitalism which has permeated our lives and our reality.

—Respondent to survey comparing on-screen with hard-copy reading

Each new technology may be janus-faced, potentially improving and degrading the human condition. The steam engine made industrial products cheaper and more diverse but contributed to the exploitation of child labor and proliferation of squalid urban living conditions. The automobile makes transportation more convenient but pollutes and leads to countless highway deaths. Calculators let anyone perform feats of math but have weakened basic arithmetic skills.

A related conundrum holds true for technologies of the written word. The printing press helped spread literacy but shook the foundations of the Catholic Church. Word processing enabled the Japanese to generate text without producing each kanji stroke by stroke, but now many Japanese find themselves forgetting the stroke order. The spelling checkers in word-processing programs monitor typographical errors but dampen motivation to master spelling.

Information and communication technologies have generated new platforms on which to read. The list includes desktop and laptop computers, e-readers (such as the Kindle and Nook), tablet computers (e.g., the iPad), and handheld devices (e.g., the iPod Touch, mobile phones). But does reading on these devices differ from reading in hard copy? If so, does our growing dependence on reading onscreen contribute to a redefinition of what it means to read?

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2013 by The Modern Language Association of America

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