Anne Mangen on the Technologies and Haptics of Reading

On: May 22, 2011
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About Ekaterina Yudin
A New Yorker. An entrepreneur. A New Media Master’s student at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. A media and film junkie, intrigued but apprehensive of our digital future. A curious explorer, visualizer, and wanderer of the ever-evolving and innovating world and web. A skier, scuba diver and lover of all outdoor adventures. A happy cyclist and supporter of good public transportation. A live music enthusiast. A sticky rice and mango addict.


[This post was originally published on The Unbound Book Conference Blog)

The Ascent of E-readers‘, the third session of the day, kicked off with Anne Mangen, Ph.D., an Associate professor in literacy and reading research and a reading specialist at The Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger in Norway. Her research interests mainly lie in the impact of digital technology on reading, writing and pedagogical methods, where she is particularly concerned with cross-disciplinary approaches to reading, writing and comprehension, focusing on multisensory, embodied aspects.

Anne Mangen @ the Unbound Book Conference – photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg

Anne is primarily concerned with questioning the role of haptics in the reading experience and whether the use of hands engages the brain in ways that play a constitutive role in the reading process; what DOES the clicking do or add to the reading experience? She is particularly interested in evaluating and theorizing the impact that physical and technological affordances have on the phenomenological experience of immersion in narrative storyworlds and longer linear texts, as compared with reading a narrative by leafing through pages of a book. At the heart of her passionate talk are questions of what these physical/technological affordances do with the reading process cognitively, phenomenologically and perceptually, and how we experience a text differently when we handle it with an e-reader, mouse and screen as compared with the print medium. The talk reflects on these questions and related concerns using findings that address different aspects of reading from a host of empirical studies she surveys (though a large portion of findings range from a time before the experience of the digital reading and writing landscape substantially evolved to what it is today).

An Embodied Process
By investigating the role of gestures of readers and the way they use their hands for interacting, pointing, directing and sustaining attention, new media is also changing the role of the hands. For Anne, what is evolving as a fascinating, interesting and relevant paradigm for studying reading (and how reading changes with digitization of text), is the paradigm of embodied cognition – a cross-disciplinary paradigm evolving from psychology, evolutionary anthropology, neuroscience, and a wide-range of social sciences. She elaborates how it’s important to see and be aware of how reading is an embodied process and activity by observing and identifying the way we use our hands differently with digital devices — the way we click, read, handle or touch screen, and write – and what affordances and impacts this has on reading. In this way, sensory processes play crucial roles, particularly for pedagogy and reading instruction.

Referring to a study on the use of hands in shaping the brain, language, and human culture, Anne discusses findings that show how the human hand and brain became an integrated system for perception, cognition and action through a process of co-evolution. Thus, what we think of as human intelligence becomes embedded in the hand just as it is in the brain.

Redefining Reading
With all the talk about redefining the book — bound unbound – Anne wants to shift the conversation to redefine reading, and to highlight those perspectives of reading as a skill and process that haven’t been duly dealt with, in her opinion, as becoming both apparent and important. She reminds us that reading is multisensory (not only visual) and is embodied (not only cognitively).

The Ergonomics of Reading
‘Reading digitally also changes the ergonomic affordances provided by the interface, since a book on the computer or e-book “invites” us to do something different with it than a printed book, and so reading by clicking with the computer mouse versus turning the pages of a book changes our perception and impacts reading directly.’ Various reading devices – an e-reader, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, etc. — by way of their affordances, all invite us to do different things with our hands. Anne describes how this subsequently affects our perceptual processes and sensorimotor actions, and thus influences reading processes, comprehension processes, aesthetic experiences, and by implication then, reading.’

As an embodied cognition, ergonomics of reading devices become crucial to understand how reading is changing, for better or worse.

Print vs. Digital Reading Technologies
Anne then reflects on the fundamental differences between print & digital sensorimotor affordances.‘Whereas print is tangible, fixed and imprinted on a physical substrate, digital is intangible, with the content and storage medium separated, and with a temporary visible display that is unstable; elements that could play a crucial role for children when they are beginning to learn how to read. In this way different relationships emerge between something that is printed and something that is digital, and it becomes necessary to ask how the intangibility of the text impacts reading on different levels, different kinds of text, and for different reading purposes.

The Multifunctionality of the Digital or the Physical Structure of Print?
The multifunctional character inherent to digital text on digital devices is that it has no status of external memory, points out Anne. You cannot point to the iPad or Kindle to prompt its memory of where you read something – it contains thousands of additional materials. Conversely, in a printed a book you can tell from the spine or cover, which serves as an eternal aid to memory. This role of intangibility leads Anne to further stress the role of body in perception and the phenomenology of the intangible. The emergent claim is that the nature of the digital technology has implications for our sensorimotor, perceptual and cognitive processes and experience of reading and comprehension for certain lengths of text. This is in part because the reconstruction of text is not only based on content, gist, meaning and story, but on the composition, layout and physical structure of a text.

Anne then shifts to hypertext and presents findings from empirical research selected over the course of the last two decades. Some claims that emerge from these studies:

  • despite the ubiquity of hypertext people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read hypertext
  • writing in word processors interferes with the ability of the writer to form a sufficient mental representation (global perspective) of the text. (Eklundh 1992)
  • scrolling disrupts the user’s sense of physical structure and consequently disrupts their ability to form a global perspective of the text (Eklundh 1992; Piolat et al. 1997)
  • spatial mental representations of text are known to be useful for reading comprehension (Piolat et al. 1997)

Sense of Text
Jumping from digital hypertext, Anne argues that a physical sense of the text  becomes important to the way we mentally reconstruct the text as an entity, as something in a certain pattern or way. Spatial mental representation of text based on layout is known to be useful for reading comprehension, and this can be understood by the affordances of paper, which allow tactile clues to sense with your fingers the progress of a book, or to layer papers, for example.

To conclude, Anne reemphasizes the aspects of haptic affordances, insisting that the most lasting reading technology has been one we can comfortably hold in our hands, where the human hand-eye coordination is taken into consideration in optimal ways. Though people are increasingly willing to read periodicals in digital format, Anne points out that the experience of reading [intangible] text is different, less efficient and less focused. In the end, for her, materiality of reading matters, and is one of the key differences between reading print and digital – a distinctive aspect of new reading technologies she claims will have a huge impact on the way people learn how to read and comprehend.

For more, visit the Reading Centre of the University of Stavanger in Norway.

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