This post is named after my favorite line in a recent Discover article by Mark Changizi. He writes about how much of what we know is located in our books. He gives the example of calculus integrals: he knows how to do a lot of them. By saying he knows, he really means he knows where his book of integrals is, and he knows about where in the book different methods are located. The book has plenty of visual cues to help him pick it out among others on his bookshelf, and the pages also have visuo-spatial cues to help him find the section of interest. He refers to these facts as harnessing: because we use visual information to make our way to things in the world, using visual cues to find information like integral processes harnesses our natural instincts.
Changizi contrasts books with e-readers (and the web), which remove the navigation process. He claims that “the way we get to the information isn’t by spatially navigating our way there, but, instead, by “beaming” directly there like in Star Trek.” He wonders if this might be detrimental for our memory of the information we just beamed to. Because we’ve evolved to find things in physical space and there is no spatial component of e-info, remembering it won’t be as natural.
He doesn’t denounce e-readers altogether, noting that they may harness us in a different way, a way that he hasn’t yet discovered. As someone who appreciates reading from physical books and from my iPad for different reasons, I’m also trying to articulate how e-readers help us maximize our natural instincts. Maybe they don’t. Maybe instead of bootstrapping evolved skills, they provide us with new ones. For people who most easily find information in physical books as Changizi did by scanning the visual cues on the page, e-readers may not be as searchable as for less visual people who have no idea what a page looked like but can recall some of the neighboring words. Personally, words make more of a lasting impact on me than visual information, and technological platforms are great at sifting through words. I know most avid readers have definitive opinions about the platform they prefer for reading… might our different reading preferences arise from, or at least be connected with, other cognitive preferences and strengths? Do we all have different underlying instincts to harness? If so, does it imply that books and e-readers can coexist peacefully? Weigh in below: