Reading and Our Addiction to Distraction


My name is Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou, and I’m an addict. I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, diver­sion and inattention.

I haven’t reached bot­tom yet, but I’m still embar­rassed to be mak­ing this admis­sion in pub­lic. After all, as an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor, it’s my job to pay atten­tion. You could say that hav­ing a lit­er­a­ture Ph.D. means claim­ing to have a capac­ity to pay atten­tion. It’s called close read­ing for a reason. An addic­tion to dis­trac­tion is extremely inconvenient for aspiring close readers.

How­ever, I’ve increas­ingly become con­vinced that my strug­gle against dis­trac­tion isn’t inci­den­tal to my job. As dis­trac­tions esca­late, cul­ti­vat­ing close atten­tion only grows more impor­tant. It’s my job to teach stu­dents how to focus, how to over­come the same distraction-addiction I strug­gle with daily. This is why I ban lap­tops – and grouse when stu­dents ask to bring e-books – in class. They get in the way of clear think­ing and sus­tained atten­tion, I say.

Which is true. But I’m also skep­ti­cal of nar­ra­tives that vil­ify tech­nol­ogy. If online media weren’t dis­tract­ing us, some­thing else would get in the way (a lovely sum­mer day, for instance). Before the Inter­net stoked my dis­trac­tion addic­tion, TV did a fine job of keep­ing me away from what some second-order part of me wanted to be doing. Complicating matters further, the Inter­net has become a vital part of my lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship, a nec­es­sary tool for writ­ing. Google Books and Google Scholar are the great­est resources ever invented for aca­d­e­mics. If any­thing, these ser­vices haven’t gone far enough in mak­ing text elec­tron­i­cally available.

So which is it? Is the Inter­net a scourge or a boon for the reader? By say­ing that I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion rather than some­thing more amor­phous – like “the Inter­net” or “social media” – I hope my view is plain. Our dis­cus­sions about the future of the book often devolve into a com­par­i­son of so-called e-books and p-books. This dis­course is apoc­a­lyp­tic in tone, often zero-sum in its logic. P-book par­ti­sans such as Sven Birk­erts and Jonathan Franzen fear the diabolical reign of e-books. Others argue for the supe­ri­or­ity of e-books. In The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas claims that e-books can help us exam­ine “unex­am­ined assump­tions about the moral, intel­lec­tual, and archival worth of paper and print” (xiv). P-books, mean­while, are his­tor­i­cally impli­cated in per­pet­u­at­ing “cus­toms of exclud­ing, intim­i­dat­ing, defil­ing, and behav­ing vio­lently toward those who are per­ceived as social or eco­nomic infe­ri­ors” (xii).

This way of talk­ing incor­rectly assumes that books are some­how autonomous. It isn’t ever books – whether e- or p- – that exclude or defile. It’s peo­ple or groups of peo­ple who do, with technological assistance. This means that any dis­cus­sion about the future of read­ing needs to think not only about the form of new read­ing devices but also about the con­text or sit­u­a­tion of reading.

The real divi­sion isn’t between e- and p-books, but between read­ing plat­forms that facil­i­tate long-form atten­tion and those that don’t. When I say I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, what I mean is that my cur­rent read­ing habits don’t mesh well with exist­ing reading plat­forms. That’s why peo­ple want soft­ware like Free­dom or Anti-Social. Internet-enabled readers make it hard to resist the temp­ta­tion to divide our focus.

If this is the case, why not just stick with good old p-books? They’re quite good at keep­ing us on task. It’s true. This is why lap­tops, mobile devices and (when pos­si­ble) e-books ought to be banned from class­rooms. This is why, when I moved into my cur­rent apart­ment, I decided to con­vert a large walk-in closet into a ded­i­cated read­ing room. I put in a book­shelf, an IKEA Poäng and a foot­stool, and I made a pact not to allow elec­tronic devices into the read­ing closet. Free­dom requires lim­i­ta­tion. Fulfilling our second-order desires depends on our ability to regulate our less enlightened impulses.

The prob­lem is that I’m not only a reader but also a scholar, and my schol­ar­ship would be impov­er­ished if I didn’t have access to online resources. To do my job effectively, I have to sit in front of a temptation machine for hours at a time, which makes it hard to treat my dis­trac­tion addiction.

What I want is a book that tran­scends the dis­tinc­tion between e- and p-. I want a book – maybe I should call it a book sys­tem – that trav­els with me into dif­fer­ent con­texts of read­ing with­out los­ing its iden­tity. Some­times, I want to sit down with a book, walled off from the Internet, and just read it. At other times, I want to be able to anno­tate a book, to search it, to write a com­men­tary linked to spe­cific pas­sages in it, to link my com­men­tary to a com­mu­nity of dis­course on the book, to con­struct longer-form reflec­tions on it. Some­times I want my book system to help keep me focused on reading; some­times I want it to allow me to access larger net­works. Dif­fer­ent form fac­tors – and read­ing con­texts – facil­i­tate dif­fer­ent stages in this process. At the moment, we live in an ecol­ogy of incom­pat­i­ble, often poorly designed devices and read­ing plat­forms. A bet­ter read­ing world would allow seam­less move­ment between con­texts and plat­forms. A bet­ter sys­tem would help read­ers do the kind of read­ing they need to do at the times they need to do it.

My read­ing closet has more to teach us about the future of read­ing than any par­tic­u­lar new e-reader plat­forms. It’s my machine for man­ag­ing atten­tion. It’s a space – I might go so far as to say an insti­tu­tion – within which new read­ing habits can emerge. In A Room of One’s Own, Vir­ginia Woolf argued that women very lit­er­ally need room to facil­i­tate writ­ing. Read­ers too, just as much as writ­ers, need a room, a mate­r­ial infra­struc­ture, to facilitate reading. A read­ing closet is one tech­nol­ogy for doing this. If I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, it’s my recov­ery program.

So: ignore the gadget-obsessed, platform-mongering tech­nol­o­gists. The future of read­ing is the future of sit­u­a­tions, insti­tu­tions and habits of reading.

Readers and Anonymity


You can walk into a random bookstore, browse through the shelves, buy a book with cash, and take it home to read. No one but you and your family will know. You can visit a library and read to your heart’s content, and you’ll be the only one who knows.

When you buy a book with a credit card, in a store or online, you become part of an ecosystem that has data at its core. This means, as we move into a digital-first era, that you are giving up anonymity. We need to fix this.

Data has enormous value for everyone (including readers at times) in the emerging publishing ecosystem. As an author, I would love to know more about how my readers use what I write, including what passages they find difficult or boring, what words they look up in a dictionary and how they annotate. For publishers, sellers and middlemen, increasing amounts of data in all parts of the publishing process means vastly better understanding of supply chains, internal systems, sales, readers’ preferences and so much more. Readers can benefit from the data-ization of books, too; for example, I rather enjoy knowing how much time it will take me, at my current reading speed, to finish a Kindle book.

But readers’ privacy shouldn’t be just an artifact of an analog era. We may, in a general sense, have no objection to others knowing what we’re reading, or even how we’re reading it. But there are times when we want to keep such information to ourselves. This is just as true for books as for web searches; if you or someone you care about contracts a socially awkward virus, for example, you are wise to keep your research about that as closely held as possible. And it’s downright dangerous to hold politically unpopular views, or even read about them, in some societies. What you read may not be who you are, but you should always have the right to read what you want without fear of it being used against you.

We can’t trust the middlemen – old or new – with this information. They may sell or trade it. They may be forced by lawyers with subpoenas to hand it over to third parties. Governments will just collect it, in bulk, for analysis later. The need for anonymity in reading has never been greater.

One of the most obvious impediments to getting this right is digital rights management, or DRM, which at some levels is designed as a user-tracking system. But it’s far from the only one.  We need to create systems that restore anonymity and privacy. If they’re software-based, they can’t be bolted onto the platform after it’s built; they need to be part of the building process.

A few months ago I asked Richard Stallman, the free software leader who’s been thinking about these issues for a long time, for suggestions on how we could buy e-books (and movies, magazines, newspapers, etc.) anonymously. He had four off the top of his head:

1. Pay with a money order.  (You write a code on it and use the code to get your purchase.)

2. Buy them through bookstores (or other suitable stores) where you can pay cash.

3. If Paynearme manages to become usable for smaller companies, that would do the job.

4. Set up a system of digital cash for such payments.

The sooner the publishing world takes this seriously, the better. If we create only systems that abrogate our right to privacy, we are creating a society that breeds conformists, not free thinkers.

The Blurring Line Between Reader and Writer


When I consider how reading will change in the near term, two questions immediately come to mind:

  • To what extent is the future of reading social?
  • How much involvement will readers have in the writing process and final product (to the extent there is a “final” book)? Or: how much of reading will become part of an interactive process with the author or other readers?

Let’s start with the question of social reading. Some of the most interesting work in this area has been pioneered by Bob Stein, at the Institute for the Future of the Book. His argument is that reading has always been a social activity, and that our idea of reading as a solitary activity is fairly recent, something that arrived with widespread literacy. Furthermore, he says, as we move from the printed page to the screen – and networked environments – the social aspect of reading and writing moves to the foreground. Once this shift happens, the lines blur between reader and writer. Stein writes:

Authors [will] take on the added role of moderators of communities of inquiry (non–fiction) and of designers of complex worlds for readers to explore (fiction). In addition, readers will embrace a much more active role in the production of knowledge and the telling of stories.

Going a step further, it has even been suggested by Stein (and others) that the future of reading might look like gaming. One can see an example of this in the Black Crown project, a work of interactive fiction produced by Random House UK. The story begins with a series of questions, then the reader is put into a number of predicaments, as in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel. There is an author behind it, Rob Sherman, who said in an interview, “It’s a scary thing because you need to relinquish control and allow for readers to have an experience different from the one you’re expecting. […] I think pretty much all authors have to accept now that readers are going to take things and manipulate them and make them their own. Whether you give them permission to or not. And they’re going to share them with other people.”

One area where this phenomenon is strongly apparent is in the genre of fan fiction, which represents one of the earliest social reading communities. The bestselling novel 50 Shades of Grey was fan fiction based on Twilight, and written in progress on a public fan-fiction website; it gathered fans and feedback over time before being formally published. Amazon, recognizing the potential in fan fiction – which is not readily monetizable due to rights issues – launched Kindle Worlds to allow fan fiction writers to start publishing and earning money from their fan works through formalized licensing deals.

This begs the question: How many readers really want to be involved in the writing of the story, and how many would just like to be passively entertained? It’s true that the digital era has changed the nature of passive entertainment—we no longer have to accept what media corporations produce for us, we can create our own media, we can engage in active consumption (e.g., live-tweeting a TV show). But sometimes it’s nice to simply escape into a story, without any further obligation.

This reality has been illustrated by Ross Mayfield through his excellent diagram, “The Power Law of Participation.” Reading without interaction is classified as a “low threshold activity,” which engages the highest number of users. Social reading, on the other hand, involves writing, moderating, collaborating and possibly leading (depending on the context), and represents high engagement. Yet only a very small percentage of the community will have that level of engagement; most users will remain on the low threshold side. Mayfield’s point isn’t that one mode is more valuable than the other, but that these two forms of intelligence co-exist in some of the best communities we see online, such as Wikipedia.

Power Law of Participation line graph

But even for readers who don’t wish to be involved in creation, there are ways for them to be unintentionally involved. Amazon collects untold data through their Kindle reading platform, and probably now calculates exactly how people read a particular book: how fast, how slow and the exact paragraph where readers abandon the story. Kevin Kelly described what he thinks the future holds in a blog post “What Books Will Become”:

Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. It can map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways.  […]

Such flexibility recalls the long expected, but never realized, dream of forking stories. Books that have multiple endings, or alternative storylines. Previous attempts at hyper literature have met dismal failure among readers. Readers seemed uninterested in deciding the plot; they wanted the author to decide. But in recent years complex stories with alternative pathways have been wildly successful in videogames. … Some of the techniques pioneered in taming the complexity of user-driven stories in games could migrate to books.

If not already apparent, it’s important to differentiate between the evolution of narrative-driven books and information-driven books. We have already seen information-driven materials flourish and make more sense in online environments. It is now highly unusual to refer to a book when researching basic facts or making travel plans, for instance. Most information is superior when presented in hyperlinked, interactive forms that can be continually updated, as well as customized and modified by the reader for her specific purpose.

When we seek to be entertained, however, how much do we want to customize and modify to our satisfaction? Fan fiction indicates that some percentage of readers enjoy this, but that has so far remained a fringe activity when considering the universe of readers out there.

Reading in the Future


I don’t think we can begin to understand what reading in the future will look like. It may come to us through glasses we wear or through texts projected on our walls from libraries around the world. The printed word will always be with us. I don’t believe that books as we know them today will disappear. There is something about paper, our link with nature, that will keep all those treasured books in our midst.

The future of reading


In this age of constant immersion into the digital realm, more and more people are using the digital devices for the exploration and education of them selves.  As more and more content becomes more readily available, this method grows exponentially.  It allows the young to see words during interactive experiences through gaming and start to formulate a visual language by the continual exposure.  The schools adopting digital reading methods for text books provide an easy way to give information to the masses without the need to store volumes of materials.  The pervasive use of visual reading mediums such as laptops, tablets, phones, etc. make the opportunity to carry many different books, magazines, reference materials and the like with them at all times for immediate and easy access.  Publishing materials in the digital realm also allows the opportunity to get materials to the masses much easier than the shipping of heavy volumes.  Third world countries can now access digitially published materials in their own language where this was cost prohibitive in the past.

This seems to be the logical path into the future for the easy mass distribution of reading materials.

Ubiquitous reading in the future


Technologies are increasingly becoming ubiquitous and tangible. Instead of needing to visit a computing device in a fixed location to access digital content, people now carry around tablets and mobile phones and have access to content at any time and anywhere. While I think there will still be a place for e-readers in the future, I think we will increasingly be seeing information further and further integrated into the physical world. With the growth of augmented reality devices such as Google Glass, people may soon be reading virtual text by using contact lense-like devices to overlay it over the physical world. One might also imagine digital text built in to large-scale physical objects like walls, so people can navigate through a book much in the same way they move through physical installations like museums.