Never fully recovered from eye injuries gotten from serving in an artillery unit in the Prussian army, Nietzsche’s vision hindered his writing. As a remedy, he ordered a typewriter in 1882. The writing equipment allowed Nietzsche to resume his writing because he could write with his eyes closed once he was accustomed to it. This had an impact on his prose. His writing had become tighter, more telegraphic, and more powerful than writing on paper (Carr, 2010). As the epigraph shows, Nietzsche had a keen observation on the impact of the writing tool on thought. If he was right about the function of writing tools, the medium through which we read may also have an impact on our thoughts.

Given that digital text and technology-mediated text have become more prevalent than ever before, how reading on screen differentiates from traditional reading on paper and how the brain responds to on-screen text are crucial questions to ask these days. As a consequence of habitual use, the digital revolution reshapes the way we read, write, and process new information. Wolf (2018) asserts “[w] hat we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think” (p. 2) and that “[i] n our almost complete transition to a digital culture [the fact that] we are changing in ways we never realized would be the unintended collateral consequences of the greatest explosion of creativity, invention, and discovery in our history” (p. 3). This kind of change will be intensified with a constant engagement in digital text. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018, about 26% of American adults go online ‘almost constantly,’ and the percentage increases to 39% of those aged 18–29. Those who are connected daily to the Internet account for 77% of the American public (Pew Research Center, 2019). It also shows that nearly all (98%) of children below eight years of age in the U.S. have access to mobile devices. It is expected that not only will these numbers continuously increase for younger children, but this trend is also consistent globally. In these contexts, this chapter discusses the impact of digital text on our information processing and literacy behavior. It first surveys the phenomenon of the digital age, and compares reading on digital screens to reading in hard copy. It next discusses the possible effect of digitally-mediated text on our cognition in light of script relativity.

1 Reading and Writing in the Digital Age

The emergence of digital platforms has transformed the traditional function of the media. The phone is no longer a means of oral communication only, but it has morphed into an omnibus device for a semi-computer and camera with multiple functions. The digital world has also transformed the mode of reading and writing. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and more, have emerged into the forefront of the digital world, which has become the new environment for reading and writing. With the demand of immediacy and instantaneity in this digital age, we tend to compose short to-the-point messages, often with the use of emoji or emoticons and acronyms (e.g., YW for you are welcome, DK for don’t know, TL for too long, etc.). Various resources, such as websites, blogs, forums, chat rooms, and other social platforms, are available literally at the fingertips. The zenith of social media is that, when a short-form verbal phrase transcribed in the social media text goes viral, it shapes language. Social media have even become an intermediary hybrid between spoken and written languages. Twitter is where people who rarely read can argue in a vernacular form of language with people who write books, which means that the boundary between specialists and lean subscribers of written language gets blurry.

In the face of this change in the digital world, Baron (2015) claims that digital reading reshapes the realm of reading and that there is a division between digital reading and traditional reading. According to her, digital reading works for short pieces and light content that do not require a focused analysis or rereading. E-reading is less well suited for long essays that require serious thought or deep reflections because the interactive features of the digital text tend to distract readers from the content.

When the reader’s reading habit changes, the author’s writing style changes accordingly. Since on-screen readers are more likely to skim rather than read in depth, writers of e-essays place to-the-point statements upfront and/or use bullet points instead of running texts of full sentences.

2 Ink versus Pixels: Reading on the Two Media

Reading is a multi-sensory cognitive activity. In a traditional sense, reading involves optical gaze and the tactile act of holding a physical book or pages beyond the invisible brain activity. Baron (2015) summarizes the advantages of print over digital text. Print “enables us to stumble upon works, reminding us of things we’ve read before or have meant to read; gives us a tangible sense of ownership (of both the physical book and its contents); offers a sensory experience—of smell, of sight, of touch; is conducive to generating emotional engagement; affords us personal space for recording responses to what we read (though, granted, mobile reading affords a different sort of privacy, as for erotica); and encourages us to slow down when we are reading, clearing time for understanding or reflection” (p. 153). With the digital text, we have a similar sensory involvement to some extent. However, the degree of attention, the depth of engagement, and comprehension are variable. The advantages of on-screen materials include convenience, cost efficiency, environmental benefit (although this can be debatable), and accessibility through open education and open access (Baron, 2015).

Although they are more convenient and easier to carry than heavy books, most digital texts on screens, tablets, and smartphones are less likely to provide the reader with the intuitive mapping and navigation of texts than printed books. The impact of technological interfaces on reading comprehension has been investigated, as educational reading materials are increasingly digitized. Mengen, Walgermo, and Brønnick (2013) examined the effect of reading texts in print versus on screen on reading comprehension among Norwegian tenth grade students. Seventy-two students were randomly assigned into two groups, in which the first group read two texts (1400–2000 words in each text) in print, and the other group read the same texts as PDF on a computer screen. Their baseline data were collected on word reading, vocabulary, and reading comprehension to examine the extent to which the two reading media (i.e., print or screen) influenced students’ reading comprehension. Results showed that students who read texts in print scored significantly higher on reading comprehension than those who read the texts on computer screens.

Mayes, Sims, and Koonce (2001) examined differences in reading speed, comprehension, and mental workload on computer screens and printed books. Results showed that those who read from computer screens were significantly slower than the counterpart who read in print. Results also showed that comprehension scores were lower for those reading from computer screens than those who read from printed copies. Participants might have comprehended less when they read on a screen because screen-based reading was more physically and mentally demanding (due partly to the eye strain coming from the light that computer screens, smartphones, and tablets emit directly on the reader’s eyes) than reading in print.

Noves and Garland (2003) replicated Mayes et al.’s study (2001) and found slightly different results while examining reading speed, the number of correct answers, and memory retrieval. They asked British university students to read study materials for an introductory economics course on a computer screen or printed booklet for 20 minutes. The participants were tested on multiple-choice questions. They found no difference in reading time and comprehension of reading on computer screens and in traditional paper-based materials. Although the participants’ scores were not different between the two presentation media, a difference was found in how they recalled the information they read. Based on the significant difference in cognitive processing associated with memory in the use of the two media, Noves and Garland (2003) suggest that other variables that go beyond the traditional performance outcomes (e.g., reading speed and reading comprehension) need to be used in research in order to accurately assess the magnitude of the difference in reading performance between the two media.

Some of these variables involved in-print and on-screen reading seem to be interactive variables. Porion et al. (2016) examined the effect of computerized versus paper-based texts on reading comprehension and memorization using a one-page text with hierarchical structures among secondary school students. Three types of questions were used to measure reading comprehension skills: surface comprehension, semantic comprehension, and inference. The results showed no difference in comprehension and memory between the two types of presentations. For both comprehension and memory, regardless of the text media, surface comprehension scores were higher than those of semantic comprehension and inference. The authors concluded that, when certain variables, such as text structure, single page presentation, screen size, and types of questions measuring reading comprehension and memory, were controlled, reading performance was not significantly affected.

The effects of reading media and contexts have also been examined. Daniel and Woody (2012) investigated the cost of digital reading by comparing performance on reading electronic and print texts at home and in a laboratory. College students’ comprehension was similar across both media (i.e., electronic or print texts) and contexts (i.e., home or lab). However, reading speed was significantly slower in reading on screen than in print and at home than in the laboratory. Students also reported that they tended to be involved in multi-tasking at home, which might have been the cause of slower reading at home. Baron (2017) also reports that students tend to multi-task more when reading digitally than in print and that about 85% of users in the U.S. are multi-tasking when reading on screen, compared to 26% in print.

Ho, Rashid, and Lee (2017) also examined print and screen reading to identify whether a cognitive map or medium materiality was involved in the modality of reading among three groups that used paper books, digitally equivalent texts, and digitally disrupted texts. Results showed that the reading outcomes of reading paper materials were similar to those of digitally equivalent texts and that reading scores obtained from paper and digital texts were better than those from digitally disrupted texts with respect to comprehension, the level of fatigue, and psychological engagement. Ho et al. (2017) concluded that readers’ abilities to construct a cognitive map of the entire passage, which was easier for students to create in print than on screen, were the main source that affected reading outcomes, supporting the cognitive map mechanism but not the medium-dependent mechanism (i.e., medium materiality in their terms).

Research compilation would provide collective information. Recently, Delgado, Vargas, Ackerman, and Salmerón (2018) carried out a meta-analysis on the effects of paper-based and digital-based reading on comprehension based on studies published during the span between 2000 and 2007. Studies that used between-subjects and within-subjects designs showed the general advantage of paper-based reading over digital-based reading. Three significant moderators were found, including time limit specified for reading tasks, text genre, and publication year. Specifically, reading on paper showed more advantages over digital reading when time constraints were placed in reading; the advantage of reading in print was consistently found across studies that used informational texts or a mixture of informational and narrative texts, compared to narrative texts only; and the advantage of reading in print over reading digitally has increased over the passing years. Kong, Seo, and Zai (2018) also conducted a meta-analysis to compare the effect of print and screen reading on reading performance. They found that, although reading speed was not different in reading in print and on screen, comprehension was better in paper-based reading than digital reading. Another meta-analysis showed that reading medium (on paper or on screen) plays a significant role in comprehension according to text or task conditions and readers (Singer & Alexander, 2017).

Baron, Calixte, and Havewala (2017) conducted a multi-nation survey, including the U.S., Japan, Germany, Slovakia, and India, to examine the use of digital technologies among more than 400 university students. A series of questions were asked as follows: How much time they spent reading in print versus on screen; whether cost was a factor in their choice of reading platform; in which medium they were most likely to reread; whether text length influenced their platform choice; how likely they were to multitask when reading in each medium; in which medium they felt that they concentrated best; and what they liked most and least about reading in each medium. Baron et al. (2017) note that the demand of quick action in the digital era goes hand in hand with a notion that writing is for a here-and-now mentality, which is different from the function of traditional written language as a durable form of communication. This change makes writing more ephemeral than writing in the analog era. Table 11.1 summarizes the dimensions used in Baron et al.’s study (2017) and their findings, which can serve as a synopsis of the profile of digital reading.

Table 11.1. A Summary of the Findings of Baron, Calixte, and Havewala (2017)

Although reading online has virtues, such as convenience, cost savings, and easy accessibility, readers tend to scan and rarely read word by word. According to a Nielsen report of the average U.S. Internet usage, the duration of a webpage viewed in January 2013 was, on average, 1 minute 12 seconds (Baron, 2015; Neilsen, 2013). Eye-movement research shows among 300 people aged 18 to 64 years that readers on screen scan webpages and phone screens in various patterns and that the dominant gaze pattern is in the shape of the capital letter “F.” Readers on screen tend to scan the upper part of text in a horizontal movement and then move down several lines and read across in a second horizontal movement, and finally read the first few words in a vertical way, which makes ultimately an F-shaped gaze pattern (Pernice, 2017). On-screen readers tend to scan in this F-shaped manner when trying to read most efficiently on a page that has little or no formatting (i.e., no bold fonts, bullets, or subheadings).

3 The Effects of Digitally-Mediated Text on Information Processing

Genetic blueprints between the human genome and the chimpanzee genome show that both species share 96 percent of each other’s DNA. The genetic difference between humans and chimps is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats (Lovgren, 2005). Despite the similarities in the DNA between humans and chimps, the latter have never learned a sophisticated language system or learned to read. Although reading is a relatively recent cultural invention that is only 5,000 years (or 3,500 years depending on how to view the primitive writings) old, compared to 13,000 years of human civilizations (Dehaene, 2009; Diamond, 1999), human beings have adapted well to the demand of reading, becoming well versed in the skill. Even media for reading have been extended in the digital era with the widespread presence of platforms such as computer screens, tablets, e-readers, or mobile phones.

The use of digital media may have a significant influence on brain circuitry due to the adaptability of our brains to habitual use. The shift from page-based reading to screen-based reading can change the specialization of the neural networks and circuits because the brain is not genetically fixed into rigid modes of thought and behavior, but rather neuroplasticity allows for neuronal accommodation to the demands of reading in different scripts (Dehaene, 2009; Perfetti & Liu, 2005; Wolf, 2007). Changes in our habitual thought can (re)shape and (re)fashion our neural pathways and circuits. The continuous use of on-screen materials may weaken higher-order cognitive functions and cognitive depth, such as mindfulness, reflection, critical thinking, inductive analysis, imagination, reflection, and abstract vocabulary, because of shrinking attention, multitasking, distraction, and information overload involved in screen-based reading (Baron, 2015). Baron (2015) asserts that digital reading discourages “reading longer texts, rereading, deep reading, memory of what you have read (which is often aided by handwritten annotation), [as well as] individual (rather than primarily social) encounters with books, stumble-upon possibilities, and strong emotional involvement” (p. 213). However, it is still uncertain how the heavier use of visual aids in digital text affects the overall reading processes and reading outcomes.

Baron (2015) forecasts the digital future based on advances that have already been made or are in the pipeline. First, digital reading devices will continue to get thinner and lighter but the storage capacity and battery life will be extended for greater downloads. Eyestrain resulting from reading on screens will reduce. Second, public access will increase through public digital libraries and open-access journals. Third, the traditional notion of textbooks will change, especially in higher education. Fourth, the concept of reading experience will be redefined. Fifth, the public will acculturate to reading on mobile digital devices, as technological advances continue to progress. Next, battling distraction in digital reading will continue in an effort to more effectively read on screen. Last, the future of publishing will have unifying forces in the mode of “digital plus print” based on the content of the book rather than two separate forces of media. Fictions and light content will go digital, while nonfiction and classics will stay largely print.

4 Script Relativity in the Digital Era

As discussed in Chapter 10, the processes of reading texts and images are different in terms of the modes of processing and brain regions that are dominantly recruited for processing. Texts are more likely to be processed in a one-at-a-time (at the initial level) or bottom-up manner particularly in alphabetic scripts, while images tend to be processed in an all-at-once or top-down fashion (Shlain, 1998). In short, the left hemisphere of the brain is primarily engaged in reading, while the right hemisphere is involved in perceiving images (Dehaene, 2009). Digital texts use more images and visual aids, like photographs, animated images, or embedded video clips, than traditional texts. This suggests that both left and right hemispheres of the brain as well as both sequential progression and holistic processing are likely to be involved in reading digital texts. This has implications for simultaneous and more balanced brain functions in on-screen reading than in hard-copy reading.

The writing systems used in the world boil down to two conspicuous written languages--the alphabetic writing system and the Chinese writing system, although alphasyllabaries of South Asia are another type of writing system. As I specified in Chapter 1, South-Asian scripts are excluded from the discussion in this book for contrastive purposes. Alphabetic and Chinese writing systems exhibit differences in appearance as well as in internal structures. Due to these differences, brain imaging studies show that alphabetic scripts and Chinese characters recruit slightly different brain regions for reading, as discussed in Chapter 9.

This digital era reinforces biscriptal use. Although the purpose of adopting Pinyin has little to do with the digital era, the Chinese have been using Pinyin as an official supplementary Romanization system since 1958. Because it is virtually impossible to type in tens of thousands of characters using the limited dimensions of a keyboard, the Chinese type in the alphabetic code (i.e., Pinyin) on the keyboard and then select a character of interest out of options that appear upon typing the alphabetic code of a given word. A similar way is used for typing in Japanese Kanji, as the Japanese have used multi-scripts, including Kanji and Kana, since A.D. 794 (Taylor & Taylor, 2014).

In recent decades, the use of bi-scripts has been observed worldwide, adding an additional writing system to an existing writing system. For example, the official script for Hindi is Devanagari, but it has become biscriptal in recent years through the use of the Roman alphabet to write in Hindi (primarily in online contexts, such as social media, text messages, and Internet searches). The term Romanagari, which combines Roman and Devanagari, is used to refer to the addition of Roman script. Similar biscriptal use is also found in Greek with Greeklish (the use of the Roman alphabet to write in Greek), in Arabic with Aralish (the use of the Roman alphabet to write in Arabic), and in Japanese with Romaji (the use of the Roman alphabet to write in Japanese).

Dehaene (2009) notes that mixed writing systems have “the vast advantage of being particularly well suited to the connectivity of the letterbox area” (p. 189), considering “the way our memory is structured, how language is organized, and the availability of certain brain connections” (p. 189). He continues to argue “a mixed writing system using fragments of both sound and meaning appears to be the best solution” (p. 189). Especially for Chinese characters, our memory is not well equipped to memorize each character of 50,000 words in the lexicon.

Digital text tends to include more visual aids than traditional text. Due to the use of visual images in the digital text along with biscriptal or multiscriptal use in the writing systems of said text, both hemispheres of the brain are likely to be engaged in reading on screen. Hence, the increased use of digital text and mixed writing systems may cause the magnitude of script effects to gradually diminish. As a result, the difference between the East and the WestFootnote 1 will also gradually diminish in the future. This has an implication for the hypothesis of script relativity because the global phenomenon will make testing the hypothesis more difficult than uni-script use in one culture and traditional reading on paper due to the possibilities of more intervening variables involved in the design of research. This also has another implication for positivity. The ongoing phenomenon of reading on dual platforms may lead us to harmonization or co-existence on the globe beyond the bipolar concept of the East and the West.