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ebooks, memory, and resisting change

John P. Oertel “Things as they were, and Things as they are” (1853)

John P. Oertel “Things as they were, and Things as they are” (1853)

In John P. Oertel’s “Things as they were, and Things as they are,” the artist renders Johann Gutenberg (on the pedestal) a villain whose invention sparked a never-ending series of cultural revolutions, each one taking us further from the bucolic era of simpler times. Oertel dramatizes the presumption that the handwritten text is morally superior to mechanically reproduced text. The drawing shows that anxiety over disruptive technologies has been a concern of cultural critics and commentators since at least the 1850s. If we take the artist’s suggestion that Gutenberg’s printing press is the source of our anxiety, then in fact the preoccupation is much older, dating back to the 1440s.

Like most Kindle owners, I have had conversations with ebook skeptics as well as fellow Kindle/nook/iPad owners about how we all recognize the topographical relationship between memory and printed books. Most people have had the experience of remembering approximately where in a book (the first, second, or third third of a physical book or codex) an event takes place or a character is introduced. And while we may not be able to call a page number to the tip of the tongue, we could, if challenged, flip the paperback’s pages to the scene pretty quickly.

Now, psychologists are studying the phenomenon to see whether human memory relies on topographical clues and, if it does, what implications this has for a cultural transition to electronic books, or books without topography.

“My personal library serves as extension of my brain,” says Mark Changizi in Psychology Today. And while we don’t remember everything we read, Changizi continues “what I remember is where in my library my knowledge sits, and I can look it up when I need it. But I can only [sic] look it up because my books are geographically arranged in a fixed spatial organization, with visual landmarks.”

Within a printed book, the argument goes, we can flip to the right page quickly because the text doesn’t move. Electronic text, however, is fluid, not static. Text on the web and in ebook readers has no fixed position. In fact, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony and other ebook reader manufacturers cite the ebook readers’ unique ability to “reflow text” or modify the line breaks on a page to fit the font size as an advantage over traditional print. The reader can always adjust the font and size of the text to his or her liking.

Changizi goes on to argue that “the web and e-books… are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don’t yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential.”

Of course, the subjects tested in these psychological experiments grew up reading print, and therefore have a lifetime of using the topography of the physical book for mnemonic cues. Ereaders are so new that it will be another decade or more before social scientists can query a generation who will have grown up immersed in stories told through e-ink.

And therein lies a problem for Changizi and others who are quick to assign physical books and deny ebooks the role of proxy memory. We don’t yet know what it would be like to have grown up with iPads in classrooms, nooks in lockers, and Kindles on campus.

Odysseus and the sirensTo try and say more at this point borders on the kind of neo-luddism depicted in Oertel’s 1853 drawing. For millennia Odysseus has sailed between the dual threats Scylla and Charybdis before washing up on the shore of Ithaca, regardless what form the story takes. In that time, the text of The Odyssey made the transition from oral recitation to scroll to movable type to linotype to paperback to ebook. So far, the variety of formats has not derailed the knowledge based economy.

What disruptive technologies do you think will have the greatest impact on teaching over the next decade? Leave your comment below.