The Digital Revolution: Text on a Screen

The Digital Revolution: Text on a Screen March 12, 2012

I recall a conversation with a friend of mine a few years ago wherein we discussed the concept of “digital print media,” i.e., reading books, magazines, and newspapers on a screen instead of paper. This sort of thing wasn’t on the cultural radar at the time; we still had flip phones and Lost-watching parties back then. And I was all for reading on a screen: The opportunities this seemed to present seemed wonderful. My friend — a computer programmer who was much more tech-savvy than I — felt that the issue holding back that sort of technology was mainly one of aesthetics: Until text on a screen was as enjoyable to read as text on paper — and until we could find something “paper thin” to read it on — this probably wasn’t going to happen.

Oh, what futurists we were.

A few years later, 2007 saw the release of both the iPhone and Kindle, followed by the iPad in 2010. Suddenly we found ourselves holding devices that were light, thin, pretty, and (eventually) hi-definition — so we, of course, started reading on them. Devices like these are further consequences and developments of the phenomenon known as the “digital revolution,” the advent of digital technology over the past 30-40 years, and the subsequent antiquation of a number of everyday analog devices.

Now, if we were to pick up where the conversation left off, the question might arise: “Now that digital print is here, how has the switch to digital text affected the Christian reader?” (In discussing this, I’m going to assume a couple of things: you are a Christian who enjoys reading and desires to read productively, and you see the personal and spiritual benefit of reading and hold it in high regard.[1])

Most obviously, and perhaps most important, the major effect has been that we have the opportunity to access massive amounts of written information and the ability to access it anywhere, immediately. Especially with the advancements and affordability of smart phones and tablets, we’ve cut the PC tether, no longer required to be in the office when we go digital. “Everything, everywhere, immediately” pretty much describes the consequence of text on a screen.

This prospect was what had excited me in that first conversation years ago: having access to more text, more often, more conveniently. And now that we have it, it really is pretty cool. We can fill up the time spent waiting on an oil change or doctor’s appointment with theology, classics, and current events, and we’re not limited by the size of our knapsacks when we want to escape to Starbucks. But a strange, unexpected thing has happened as we’ve ventured into the new world of digital literature: It’s getting to be too much to handle.

As I’ve started taking advantage of text on a screen in the past few years (specifically for me through iPhone and Kindle) I’ve run into this constant problem. My reading inbox fills to the brim, and I feel overwhelmed. The difficulty and danger for the Christian reader and learner is that we now have too much to read and learn. We can’t take it all in; it gets overwhelming.

I once heard a pastor remark that when he walked into Barnes & Noble, he felt like a million ideas were crying out from the shelves for his attention, and it was emotionally overwhelming. He said he would pray that God would lead him to the ideas worth hearing and lead him away from the rest. Multiply the content of your local Barnes & Noble by some exorbitant number, and that’s the ‘Net. This problem of informational overload and this need for divine guidance is multiplied infinitely by the ever-growing wiki-world of cyberspace.

There is a lot of thinking to be done, but here are a few thoughts that might help:

Don’t get caught up in the obsession to appear cutting-edge. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to be “the guy who reads it and posts it to Facebook first.” The ‘Net has given us an unprecedented ability to know what’s going on in the world as it happens, and the classic journalistic drive to “scoop thy neighbor” assures us that an article, essay, or blog post will follow just a few minutes later. It’s great to be aware of the world around us, but investing yourself too closely in the constant stream of current events can fill up your reading inbox and bury you in the inane.

Enjoy technology, but beware the distractions. After the Kindle Fire was released last year, some who traded in their black-and-white Kindle classic started to feel that the full color, tablet-style “reader plus” was less an upgrade for readers and more of a hassle. Instead of being able to immerse themselves in a world where the only option was digital lit, the Fire makes digital lit just one of the many digital options presented by the device. In short, digital reading on fun, techy gadgets can become easy distraction.

Take it all in, but limit yourself. It’s easy to fill the RSS reader with blog after blog, follow too many Twitter accounts with excessive link postings, or every sweet new 99¢ Kindle book deal. It makes a reader’s stomach queasy to consider missing out on a great read, but the reality is that you will most likely have to. At some point, you’ll need to hit a few “unfollow” buttons and permanently archive a few lesser e-books. In other words, you’ll have to delete something somewhere just to survive!

Invest in a “reading consolidation” account. Sites like Instapaper and Readability (which also offer convenient iPhone/iPad/Web apps) allow you to save articles, blog posts, and pretty much any other ‘Net-published text in an online account for later access, sifting, archiving, and deletion. Stripping out unneeded ads and pics, these sites allow you to consolidate your online reading into a convenient queue in a simplified format, allowing you to take things in at your own pace.  This has been a boon or me personally, readers such as these allow me to keep track of articles I enjoyed, allow me to easily share snippets and links through social media, and assist me in the “limiting” (read: deletion) that is needed in the life of the online reader.

Remember that good reading takes hard work. The digital revolution has primed us for immediacy and ease in all things. And this convenience is usually a good thing — we have the ability to accomplish an amazing amount of work and play in a day due to the digital world, and we have an amazing opportunity to stay easily connected to friends and family. But we risk the danger of adopting ease and immediacy as a philosophy of life in areas where it simply doesn’t work. Ideas and understanding take our full attention, focused time, and meaningful processing, all things that can get lost in the clicks between too many browser tabs.

Take some time to cut off the digital, grab a cup of coffee, and read a “real” book. This is just an idea — have a literary “back to nature” day. Grab your Bible or dust off a classic: something printed on paper. Turn off the iPhone and the laptop and enjoy a book the way we people have enjoyed them for hundreds of years, with all their tactile glory. In all of the conversations on the wonderful convenience and picky problems of text on a screen, there is still for most of us a simple, refreshing joy in the feel and smell of a book in between your hands.

[1] Though I’d like to note that all Christians, whether you enjoy reading consistently are not, are “people of The Book.” We all hold the canon of Scripture in the form of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired, authoritative words of God. The life, work, and divinity of Jesus; the redemptive metanarrative of history; the explication of true morality; salvation by grace through faith — these are all ideas that we base entirely on the teachings of Scripture, which is a book. We are people for whom reading is at some level a necessity, because we are people who believe that God has revealed himself through the written word, so in a very real way this discussion affects all believers of all interest levels in literary pursuit.

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  • So true about the obsession to Be Aware of It All. Reading with the goal of knowing more than others or knowing it first is a joy-stealer for me. And now I’m seeing a connection between The Obsession and omniscience. We can be fooled into obsessive searching and reading because we are on a power trip (or knowledge trip). Great thoughts, Kirk.

  • Geoffrey R.

    I love your thoughts in the column, Kirk. Of course, I like computers—I’m reading this website, after all—but sometimes I need to kick back and open a book with a spine and a smell. I believe that there are many potential positives to Kindles, Nooks, iPads, etc., but with new technology, as with all other things, we need to approach such developments with wisdom and discernment. To me, there will never be a substitute for the feel of pages in my fingers. My prayer is that e-books and physical books will be able to coexist harmoniously. I know that for me, screens almost intrinsically cause me to read more quickly, more sloppily, and more uncautiously, because of the superabundance of options and information. Your thoughts and Erin’s regarding the whelming flood of information are very well founded. And personally, I am especially fond of your last two tips, Kirk. Great post—exactly the kind moderate, well-considered posting I expect from and love to see on Christ and Pop Culture. Thank you.

  • Ciara Kay

    THANK YOU… I’ve been called a Luddite for my hesitation to swallow e-readers as ultimate good… I appreciate your well-expressed concerns about e-readers and the culture they promote without swinging too far one way or the other. This article was very balanced & very reasonable. Again, thank you for asking people to consider the costs of new technology!

  • Seth T. Hahne

    “The difficulty and danger for the Christian reader and learner is that we now have too much to read and learn. We can’t take it all in; it gets overwhelming.”

    I will submit that this is not a problem unique to those with e-readers but has long been a common problem to anyone with access to a passable Friends of the Library bookstore.

    On the question of ease, I worry that by saying the problem is ease of access, you shift focus from the fact that the problem is more likely not caring enough to carefully approach one’s reading. Ease of access may open the gateway to carelessness, but it’s carelessness that is the problem. Before information could be easily got at, people may not have had the tools to recognize their problems with information. I see the innovations in terms of ease as a tool for diagnosing one’s problems rather than the problem itself.

    And, for all the people who talk sentimentally of the smell of books, they’re referring to one of three things: the smell of fresh ink (which only new books possess and for a short time), the smell of a leather cover (a beast died so you could enjoy the smell of a book?), or the allergenic, musty smell of deteriorating paper, mildewing or rotting. It’s a nice sense memory for sure, but most bound-paper novels you’ll read aren’t going to offer you any particular smell.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    @Ciara – You very well may be a Luddite, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone describe digital text as an ultimate good. I think digital text is a good (because I think text is a good), but ultimate seems a little off-base.

  • Ciara Kay

    @ Seth – I felt that Kirk pointed to the fact that our inability to take in so much information (access) wasn’t the whole problem… and that we should be intentional in limiting ourselves to avoid those pitfalls. That’s just plain and simple wisdom, which can be ignored for the allure of shiny new technology…

    I do fail to see why you can fault anyone for liking the smell of books… I like the smell of horses, which using your method means I like the smell of poop and grass and animal sweat, but that doesn’t negate the associations I have with those smells. And if the attachment to the smell is purely sentimental that does not mean it’s without value… it points to the real love (for books: escaping to new places, thoughts, ideas, stories, people, etc.). A large part of reading is physical interaction with the text… some are able to do that in certain circumstances better than in others.

    In response to your last comment… Owing to the fact that I am using a computer to write this to you, listening to music on iTunes, and in the middle of a digital painting, I think it’s safe to say I’m not a Luddite… but I do like to test everything before adopting it. ;) And yes, ‘ultimate good’ may have been extreme… I have an unfortunate (inherited) tendency to deal in hyperbole.

  • @Ciara – You’ve mistaken my meaning. I haven’t faulted anyone for liking the smell of new books. What I said was that as much as we refer to the smell of books, that smell represents a quantifiably minuscule portion of our interaction with bound-paper literature—since most books don’t actually smell.

    Neither did I represent you as a Luddite. I left that (rhetorical) question up to you.