'Digital technology is changing the way we think': How our reading habits have evolved over time

During Cross Country Checkup's discussion on how reading is changing, many who called in said they much preferred reading paper books to e-readers. But despite the fact that most people prefer to read physical books, Christine McWebb is noticing how digital technology affects us in different ways.
Christine McWebb says digital technology is changing the way we read and consume media. As a result linear reading is becoming a lost skill. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

During Cross Country Checkup's discussion on how reading is changing, many who called in said they preferred reading paper books to e-readers. 

But despite the fact that most people like reading physical books more to other devices, Christine McWebb says she is noticing how digital technology affects us in different ways. 

McWebb oversees the Digital Humanities and Digital Media programs as the Director of the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus. She told Checkup guest host Randy Boyagoda why digital technology is making linear reading a lost skill and changing the way we think. 

Listen to their conversation below: 

Randy Boyagoda: Is the way we read really changing? 

Christine McWebb: I have found the discussion really quite interesting. What I take away from it is that most of your callers so far prefer reading and paper, which I find quite surprising. There were a couple of exceptions. Some people said that they read both — whatever is the handiest. One said that she reads non-fiction on paper, and fiction on her e-reader, and Maddie [said she] reads on her Kobo and mostly reads e-books. But the majority seem to still prefer paper books, which I find quite interesting. 

RB: Now a moment ago, we had guy from Toronto taking us back to the origin moment for digital books in Toronto. I'd like you to take us back a little further. Take us back to the printing press revolution. How complicated was that technological shift in comparison with the one we're experiencing today? 

CM:  When I listen to the people on the show, it's interesting to see that we really live in the immediate, and we look at what's happening all around us and how we cope with transitions and technology. 

But of course, we have to keep in mind that technological revolutions have happened before and the switch from the Codec — the handwritten manuscript in the Middle Ages — to the printing press was one of those changes. I would say it was pretty complicated and complex. 

It also had consequences on reading speed and distribution of information and things like that. It really took us out of the local environment and into a much broader environment. I wouldn't say necessarily globally, but certainly across Europe at the time. 

RB: Now what changes have you seen in your students' reading styles and habits? 

CM:  I've been teaching for almost 20 years now and I would say that some of the previous callers have said that students do find it hard to do extensive research. I find that has definitely changed. They like to go to the results immediately. So, they put in their search phrases on Google and they go directly to, let's say a certain paragraph, and skip the rest of the article because it may not be relevant to what they're doing. 

In terms of reading habits in general, I teach an introductory course on digital culture and we had a debate about this very topic — the topic of the show today. It was really interesting to hear that most students, [who are] about 18 to 19 years old, prefer to read paper books. 

RB: Interesting! 

CM: Yeah, and I found that very interesting because my own experience is that when I read for pleasure, I actually read on my Kindle app on my iPad. 

RB: Did any of the students volunteer why they prefer the paper books?

CM: Yeah, they said that when they read electronically, online particularly, they feel that they are distracted. And so, they self-discipline in a way and they shut down the phone and they shut down their computer and they just read their novels. Now this is not all of them of course, but I have to say that there were a lot of students who shared that opinion. 

RB: I'm curious. Based on your research, based on your own work, on your engagement with your students… is linear reading becoming a lost skill? 

CM: I would say yes, in my view it is, because as we move more and more into digital technology and as digital technology becomes more and more refined, I really do believe that digital technology is changing the way we think and that linearity perhaps turns more into network thinking. 

What I mean by that is what a lot of people call "jumping around." So, [going from] Facebook, back to your article, back to your book, and to a site... it changes the way we approach reading and changes the way we approach problem solving and things like that. I think we've become more collaborative and more networked in our reading habits. 

Randy Boyagoda's and Christine McWebb's conversation has been edited and condensed. You can hear more of their conversation above. This online segment was prepared by Samantha Lui on August, 28, 2017.