Digital Psychology?

Reading through Laura and Olivia’s critiques of Sven Birkerts’s article in The American Scholar, I found myself agreeing with their criticisms and yet unable to let go of the way that I felt moved by his description of reading practices. I agree that there is something more than the mere contents of a text that move us. I also feel that “my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it”. Analytically, his article is flawed, as previous posts have examined. Still, he is getting at something about the way we feel when we read, the way we enter into the worlds that we read, that I believe is related to the way we discuss the digitization of texts.

Thinking about the question “what does the digital do to the text”, our prompt for this week’s reflection, I am aware of how easily we group together the way we read, the way we produce text, the way we mediate text, into one wholesale reaction to the relationship between the digital and the text. I think that it is useful to separate these modes of engagement and look at each in its own right. Of course, these are related, probably inextricably, but for the sake of analysis I’d like to focus on the way we read. While re-reading Birkerts’s article, I allowed myself to wander off through the corridors of The American Scholar website (figurative slap on the wrist from Birkerts here), and I came across this short article on psychonarratology by Jessica Love . Love writes, “a number of psychologists are investigating how we read—how we respond to narrative techniques, or track characters and their motivations from one scene to the next”. Psychonarratology differs from the description of reading given by Birkerts because “psychologists, for better or for worse, are not in the business of understanding art”. The effect studied by psychonarratologists is that of a character’s impact on the psychology of the reader. Even so, it seems to me that a lot of what has been discussed as we deconstruct the effect of digitization on the text is whether we, as readers, are losing something essential in our relationship with the text when we read it in a digital format. The psychology of this is something that seems to really interest Birkerts and that I’m not sure we can totally ignore. Perhaps it is important that we don’t completely neglect the way our relationship to digitization is psychological, the way our reading practices inform the way we internalize the texts we read.

What I would like to see is the same type of explication that Birkerts engages in of the way we read novels to take place about the way we read a digitized text. His quite slippery point about the division of the analytic and the comtemplative may be of use here. The digital, in all of its convenience and effectiveness, is easily backed by an analytic argument. Digitizing makes sense and we have little trouble arguing why. There is no reason to back it up with an argument about how it feels to read digitally, as is often done when we argue for our attachment to paper. However, I don’t think it is quite so easy to dismiss an argument like Birkerts’s that focuses on the ineffable way we are psychologically affected by our reading practices and I do think that we need to think about the other side of the coin.

And so, how do I feel when I read digitally? When I read a novel digitally, I find it more difficult to feel that I am alone in doing so. While I can imagine that others have read a paperback before me, I picture myself reading simultaneously with others when the work is digital. Similarly, as I navigate the internet, read the news on a website instead of in a newspaper, I feel that I am participating in a community in real-time. Though I agree with Birkerts that it is often more difficult to enter into the imaginary world of a novel fully when reading a digital version, this is not because the interruptions are more frequent, as he suggests, but because there is always the potential to expand on what the novel is saying by using the enumerable secondary sources immediately at my fingertips. I understand allusions more fully, I become interested in a more specific meaning of a given word. I don’t know whether I am getting more or less out of my reading when it is done digitally but I do know the digital text it not dead, or unimaginative, as Birkerts seems to believe; rather, it mediates the contents of the text in ways that produce different responses than a paperback would. This is a cursory reflection that could be developed much further. My point is that that there is a psychology of reading digitally that does not need to be premised on the utilitarian advantages of the digital.

Birkerts writes that when we enter the world of a novel, “the vital thing is this shift, which cannot take place, really, without the willingness or intent on the reader’s part to experience a change of mental state”. And the same is true when we engage with the vastness of the digital landscape. Even if we are reading one specific novel, we are entering into a mental space that we choose embrace, or not.

How do you feel when you read digitally?

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3 Responses to Digital Psychology?

  1. julie.morrissy says:

    Claire’s exploration of the “feeling” of reading digital is interesting. I was mulling over her observations on the psychology of reading as I read this post. I then realised that I have actually never read a novel digitally. While I do frequently read digital copies, I reserve this practice for course work, academic articles, and news. Thus, I have separated my own reading practices along quick obvious lines – and ones that are not that different to what Birkerts is discussing. It seems I have split my reading into “analytical” reading, when I am reading to amass information, and “contemplative” reading, when I am reading for imagination. Some part of me must believe that I cannot access the digital imaginatively in the same way as I can access the print copy.

    Having said that, this split in practice could also be reflective of the point at which the internet began to play a role in my life. I grew up reading books in hard copy – that will always be my original experience of reading. I really only started reading digitally when I started working and studying. Thus, my reading practice split could be a symptom of my particular age. I imagine that younger people who are growing up with equal access to print and digital texts may not experience the same split, and therefore, may “feel” the same when reading an actual book as they would when reading a book in digital form. Maybe someone younger than me can weigh in here!

    • michelle.keith says:

      Unfortunately, I think we may need a bigger age gap than can be found in our program. I don’t know how much younger I am but as I was reading Claire’s post and your response Julie, I realized that I too have done the same thing. I have never read a novel online or even on a kindle/kobo etc. I prefer the physical copy: I like the weight of the book in my hands, I like knowing that if I fall asleep and it drops I won’t break it (unlike my computer). That being said, maybe I’m too old at heart to have an unbiased say – even when it comes to academia, I still prefer the physical copy and often find myself printing out anything that I really need to delve into (I like to mark it up, colour code it, and post stickie notes on the pages).

      While there definitely seems to be this divide between my “analytical” reading and my “contemplative” reading, I have to admit one thing: no matter which form (digital or print) or which purpose (academia or pleasure) I like to have my computer or phone close by. The reason for this is so that I can easily research anything that sticks out to me as “interesting,” references that I don’t understand, and even references that ring a bell but that I cannot quite place in my memory.

      However I think that there is an important distinction to be made between digital and print. When reading anything digital I end up with a feeling similar to Claire’s, especially when the article is news related. I feel closer to the subjects, as well as to the other readers – there is a stronger, more immediate feeling of community. Although, I guess I should specify that it is a “different” feeling of community than one I get while reading a printed novel. In both cases there is a sense of community – while reading electronic news, this sense of community comes from knowing that people around the world are learning the same piece of news/information that you are, and most importantly, they are learning it at the same time. The sense of community I get when I read a printed novel (or other printed piece of literature) is one that stems from knowing that while thousands of others have read the same book, this phenomena has happened over an extended period of time – in some cases, hundreds of years. It could be my love of history that makes this particular sense of community more inspiring to me, but I like the way that the printed version makes this expanse of time and community tangible to present day readers.
      I do think that Claire’s last point is vitally important – whether we are entering and engaging with a printed or digital novel, we, as readers, need to “experience a change of mental state.” This change is not exclusive to one or the other, print or digital – Julie and I demonstrate this with the division between academia and pleasure reading, both of which require a change in mental state to properly engage with the task at hand.

  2. Pingback: Digital Production | The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes

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