Technology, intellect, and the future of reading

A recent article titled “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds” examined the impact of smartphones on the intellectual activities (and abilities) of their users.  I’d like to highlight several excerpts, then discuss what they mean for us as writers – and for our audience and target market.

The smartphone is unique in the annals of personal technology. We keep the gadget within reach more or less around the clock, and we use it in countless ways, consulting its apps and checking its messages and heeding its alerts scores of times a day. The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are.

. . .

Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens … Dr. Ward and his colleagues wrote that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain” that can diminish such vital mental skills as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”

Many people (including myself) read e-books using their smartphones.  That would certainly involve “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity”, as the article mentions.  However, that’s only one of many things for which we use those devices.  Readers are frequently interrupted by incoming calls or text messages, which demand their attention visually and aurally, and in many cases require a response.  Advertisements flash onto the screen, interrupting one’s concentration.  If one’s relying on services such as navigation (for example, to tell one when to get off the bus or train), they, too, interrupt one’s attention on the book one’s reading.  One’s attention span is attenuated and “ambushed” by multiple outside factors.  Is this one reason for the complaint from some readers, at least, that they don’t seem to be able to get as much out of an e-book as they do out of a “dead tree edition”?

There’s also the reality that smartphones can demand – and be given – a dangerously high proportion of our overall concentration.  Who hasn’t heard of, or witnessed, smartphone users stepping off a pavement into traffic, oblivious to the danger?  How many people have been blithely sending text messages, only to crash into other pedestrians, or stumble over an obstacle and fall down?  Instead of concentrating on the important things – getting safely from point A to point B – we’ve allowed our concentration to be undermined by the sheer convenience of the smartphone, thereby endangering ourselves.  Somewhere, I’m sure Darwin’s laughing at us…

Finally, from our perspective as writers, there’s the impact of such devices on creativity.  How many of us, striving to write our next book, have been distracted by incoming e-mails, or text messages, or phone calls?  It used to be relatively easy to shut the door on the outside world and write.  That’s no longer the case.  The smartphone is portable and ubiquitous;  and even if we leave it outside our “writing space”, there are messaging apps on our computers as well.  It’s very difficult to escape these constant demands on our attention, and their distraction, without making a deliberate effort to do so.  However, if we do, we’re likely to face irate questions from family and friends about why we don’t respond at once, if not sooner, to their communications.

The evidence that our phones can get inside our heads so forcefully is unsettling. It suggests that our thoughts and feelings, far from being sequestered in our skulls, can be skewed by external forces we’re not even aware of.

This highlights a dilemma for writers.  Our audience, our potential market, is vulnerable to that sort of distraction.  Can we write in such a way as to “cut through the noise” and hold their attention?  Should we, rather, be considering ways in which our work can fit into such a crowded, externally influenced environment, and perhaps write accordingly?

It’s been demonstrated that graphic books can teach concepts more quickly than a text-only work, but they also appear to demand less from students (who have grown up in a highly technological environment, and therefore may be more intellectually disposed to such a “lighter” approach).  For example, Shakespeare is being taught using such an approach, with different levels of text to match the intended audience.  On the other hand, graphic novels may also present less of an intellectual challenge – and that may be dangerous in itself.  Research suggests that “intellectual stimulation may directly help maintain a healthy brain“;  but the corollary would suggest that the absence of intellectual stimulation (as in graphic novels versus their text equivalents) might have the opposite effect.

I suggest that the growing popularity of graphic novels (epitomized by the recent stunning crowdfunding success of the Alt*Hero project) shows that such forms of entertainment are here to stay.  Are we – should we be – taking that into account in our own writing?  Is there room for collaboration with graphic artists, to produce such versions of our books, perhaps using simplified language?  Might such versions lead readers to tackle our longer print works in future?  It’s a thought.

… even in the history of captivating media, the smartphone stands out. It is an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what Dr. Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it is part of our surroundings—which it always is. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.

This observation may highlight one reason why our creative processes seem to become more difficult.  We used to be able to research a topic fairly simply (e.g. the use of poison in murders), and then apply it to our book’s plot.  Nowadays, instead of reading a book on the subject, we’ll do an Internet search on it.  That will lead to links, which lead to further links, which take us off down a side track to pursue an interesting concept that may (or may not) have anything to do with our original premise.  Before you know it, our “research” has developed into what’s become known as a “Wikiwander“.  We’ve poured hours down a rat-hole without producing any worthwhile “return on our investment” of time.  The smartphone is iconic of this process of distraction, and our computers aren’t much better.

The same can apply to our readers.  I recently decided to observe my own reactions to new concepts while reading a new-to-me fantasy series (Miles Cameron’s excellent Traitor Son cycle, which I highly recommend;  its fifth and last book, “The Fall of Dragons“, will be published at the end of this month).  He uses many concepts that are rooted in and grounded on history (e.g. early Byzantium, medieval England and France, hermetical theory and theology, etc.), which he’s adapted to the world he’s created for his books.  I found myself growing frustrated if I didn’t (or couldn’t) stop reading when I came across elements of those concepts with which I wasn’t familiar.  I was almost driven to open a Web browser to look up the word or subject involved, and learn more about it before resuming my reading.  My mind’s become conditioned to the ability to do that – something that would not have been a factor even twenty years ago, when I could read an entire multi-volume work like this without once feeling the need to digress into research or fact-checking.

The problem is, the ability to do that may actually be interfering with our ability to comprehend what we’re readingThe article points out:

As strange as it might seem, people’s knowledge and understanding may actually dwindle as gadgets grant them easier access to online data stores … Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology. If the only thing at stake were memories of trivial facts, that might not matter. But, as the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.” Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking. No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.

Speaking as an author, this makes me think.  Do I need to incorporate enough background information into my books to make it unnecessary for my readers to leave my book, look up something for themselves, then return to read further?  That can be dangerous;  the dreaded “infodump” lurks in the wings!  (That’s not to say that infodumps can’t be done well;  check out these examples, and this handy column on how to write them.)  On the other hand, if I write so esoterically and/or impenetrably that my readers can’t figure out what I’m saying or where I’m going, they soon won’t be my readers any more!

The article raises this question.  Do we need to – should we – take into account the platforms on which our readers will access our books, when we write them?  Should we try to adapt the way we write, so that our work is more suited to a high-interruption-level, distracted sort of reading?  Or should we try to write so absorbingly that our readers will resent interruptions and do their best to “stay with us”, even at the expense of ignoring other demands on their time or attention?  Is that even feasible in our technological age?

I look forward to your responses in Comments.

56 thoughts on “Technology, intellect, and the future of reading

  1. I think blaming smart phones, computers, or the internet is a fools game. We should be looking at the education system which has done more to squelch the concept of memorization and actual reading comprehension. Not to mention how to thoroughly research subjects. I remember back in the 90’s when Microsoft came out with “Encarta” essentially an encyclopedia on CD. The ad was about someone that was researching hang gliding and eventually ends up reading about Mt. Everest. So the whole “Wikiwander” has been around for quite awhile.
    I have tried to limit my phone use as much as possible, only pulling it out when I need a brain break so to speak. Somedays I need more breaks then others unfortunately.
    Are they handy? Very, I can now be in contact as much as I want without being tied to the phone at home where I would end up playing phone tag like the old days with only land lines. In that aspect it’s very freeing. Any new technology can be abused and usually is. All the study author is seeing is typical modern human behaviour. That being said, my son wont’ be getting a real device until he’s much, much older then now. I have seen far too many parents use tablets or phones as a tool to keep the child occupied. That is the major issue with the new mobile technology.

    1. I generally distrust studies about human beings reported in media. Human beings have a lot of confounding factors, and media doesn’t generally have the background to make their version as valuable as reading the study directly.

      The way to test against the school or device hypothesis might be doing a Japanese study.

      I can believe that smart phones can be used harmfully, because I’ve recently taken a course on time management, discovered how my habits were killing my productivity, and made some improvements. The psychological impact of our behavior really does alter our ability to focus. Like Facebook, I can see smartphones as potentially conditioning behavior that is generally harmful. My own habits could be comprehensively bad, and I’ve never had the excess capacity to invest in either.

      1. Yeah. I keep my smartphone with me as much as possible because I generally expect phone calls at random, or text messages. I don’t get idly called or messaged – it’s either my housemate, or my husband, or the children’s school, or similar important contacts. Sure, I’ll occasionally use it to reply to comments on WordPress, or answer some emails, but overall, it’s used for communication.

        The second largest use I’ve had for it is to listen to music, usually while I’m out of the house. This is probably followed closely by taking photos on the phone (I have an ASUS Zoom, which has an excellent camera, beating out my previous LG G3.)

        I’ll sometimes read on it, or browse something, but reading on my phone is not the primary reason I have the phone. It’s handy if I want to look up a recipe while I’m in the kitchen, but my children complain that I also tend to forget it rather often.

        But if I focus on something especially if I’m enjoying it, I’ll focus; sometimes to the point that I’ll not notice if someone is talking to me, and not realize that it’s dinnertime. I’ll let things like emails and texts and chat / blog stuff slide.

    2. The only tablet we gave the yard ape was a deliberately air-plane-mode set kindle . She got her first computer (an older relative’s cast-off) young, but it’s next to our desks where we work. TV is recorded or on DVD so we can constantly stop and discuss what we’re watching. She still doesn’t want a cell-phone. She got her own bookshelf, however, in utero.

      I agree with the Paladin it’s a useful tool.

      We keep the gadget within reach more or less around the clock, and we use it in countless ways,

      Which I do. The alarm, mapping and camera functions are really handy, without having to do

      consulting its apps and checking its messages and heeding its alerts scores of times a day. The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are.

      Unless we so choose. And as my teenage daughter proves, that’s not necessarily a generational thing, cultural values thing.

      As for e-books, I find reading them on my phone intolerable, so I keep my tablet handy for reading books. With WiFi off, it doesn’t interrupt me,at all.

  2. We had a set of encyclopedias. It wasn’t uncommon to look up one thing and then look up a side issue, and so forth and so on. I’m a bit skeptical of the perennial “Doctor Dodad says new technology is bad” stories that’s probably been around since man figured out how to make fire.

    As for Wikiwander, the last story I wrote came about from information found while trying to get a handle on a question about capacitive coupling. That happened to be a hard science crime story. If I hadn’t wandered, I wouldn’t have written that story.

    1. Oh, yes! I had a complete set of the Book of Knowledge. Part of its charm was that articles didn’t seem to be in any logical order. I could look up the Spanish Armada for school, read on to learn how to tie six different knots, and wind up declaiming chunks of “Horatius at the Bridge.” I remember those bookwanders with great pleasure.

      Of course, the Book of Knowledge had gatekeepers and limitations. There weren’t options for anything remotely resembling the brain-rotting timesuck afforded by the Internet.

    2. Doktor Ugg say fire bad, raw meat better for you. That’s what the Lascaux cave paintings are, his study.

    1. This phenomenon has been around since computers. “I haven’t lost my mind, it’s backed up on disk somewhere.”

  3. The fancy phone. Stupidest invention since the pet rock. Mind you, I don’t own one. I did, found I was paying a big bill for something I never used, and disconnected it.

    Once upon a time someone tried an experiment. they took the readers used in grades 1-4 or so, replaced all the pictures with blank white space, and gave them back to the students. Learning of reading considerably improved.

    1. From what I’ve seen, modern textbooks are too busy. It’s not just the use of pictures; it’s how they’re used and the sidebars and all the other things crammed into the layout which looks nice at a glance, but distracts from the flow of information.

      First noticed this in readers when the kids had a problem with Benet’s By the Waters of Babylon, which is pretty straight forward. Some of it was a lack of familiarity with science fiction, but a good bit was all the sidebars which drew the eye away and distracted from the story. I told them to ignore the sidebars and footnotes until after they read a story, then go back to them.

      It’s so bad that the same problem is found in a book on C++ programming. All information that’s nice to know, but it has nothing to do with learning how to code C++.

      It’s interesting to see the progression. My parent’s textbooks had no sidebars. My era’s textbooks had some, usually just a captioned photo. I pulled down a textbook, circa late 1980s, from a course I took for work, and it had more sidebars. Now, textbooks are “eat up” with them.

      1. Hmmm, come to think of it some RPG manuals I have seen have done the same thing. Early 80’s a couple sidebars, and the last couple I have purchased have sidebars on every page. Either vignettes or other stuff that kind of pertains to the main rule section.

        1. Sidebars, ugly font you can’t read, ugly page colors, ugly background illustrations that block out the font….

          No, I’m not bitter about modern rpg book design at all.

          1. ‘charging the same amount as print for a PDF of the book’
            ‘not paying any of the original artists and writers any compensation for reused work in newer editions’
            i can keep going if you like.

        2. The older versions of the Legend of the Five Rings clan and rule books used those to lovely effect (in my opinion) because they were treated as ‘flavor text’ that helped immerse the reader/player in the world setting. They weren’t on every page; and the ones that were there either helped worldbuild, or give useful ideas and tips.

      2. In some cases, the sidebars are required so that the book can be used for 1) Special Ed, 2) ESL, 3) standard classes and 4) advanced/ gifted and talented. And if you thing the student books are bad, well, there’s a reason I never, ever crack open the teacher’s edition of the one I use. Half the page is the material in the main book. The other half are the four learning-foci, which Texas Essential Elements are being met, and activities to do with each learning-focus. Even my bifocals are not enough for that.

      3. I remember most of my textbooks having the captioned photos. Sidebars or similar were related to expounding on something in slightly more detail than the main text but still very related to the subject at hand. I hate now there’s ‘sidebars and infographics’ for everything IN A TEXTBOOK now.

    2. I recall some joke (Saturday Night Live? Turkey Television? You Can’t Do That on Television? Something else?) showing a weirdly modified “TV’ as “The Swiss Army Tube.” The so-called smartphone seems to be that.

      I have one, and do use it – at times.
      It’s my phone.
      It’s my radio.
      It’s my music player.
      It’s my camera.
      It’s my flashlight.
      It’s my remote control.
      It’s my calculator.
      It’s something I can TURN OFF so…
      It’s my servant.
      It’s not my master.
      Or at least I think that so far.

      But I still keep a pen & paper around, and there’s even a slide rule in sight.

      1. Some found this a bit inconvenient during Irma, when using it as a flashlight significantly cut into battery light. I actually heard someone chortle that they were fine because they had a dedicated flashlight, and their phone held a charge much better than friends’. There’s something to be said about unbundling devices.

  4. The Japanese market has a format called the light novel, which has pictures. I read a bunch of translations over a time, and so my muse at times wants to produce in that format using those genres. But it would mean sourcing the internal art, which is a step up in complexity for a beginner.

    1. Before the paperback book become the preferred format for popular fiction, it was not uncommon for English language novels to contain one or more illustrations. Often there was only one, the frontispiece facing the title page, but some had as many as one per chapter.

    2. IIRC the writer and illustrator for most light novels are two separate people; and production art for such are usually as detailed as any other character design (for consistency, for example) as in video games, anime, and manga productions.

      Sometimes though, illustrations for some of them are just as varied depending on the illustrator/s hired…

      I like light novels. It’d be a huge thing though, to make one…

  5. our thoughts and feelings, far from being sequestered in our skulls, can be skewed by external forces we’re not even aware of.

    Haven’t people been saying this about advertising for decades?

    No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.

    Who is this “we” of which you speak? Just turn it off. If you let shiny objects distract you, you deserve what you get.

    Before you know it, our “research” has developed into what’s become known as a “Wikiwander“.

    I actually really like this. It does get out of control, sometimes. However, I’m not measuring my productivity that closely. If I were, I wouldn’t be here.

    In related news, I just discovered Cracked Productions. For whatever reason, they recently dumped a bunch of video onto Amazon. They look like the average TV series, but the episodes are about six minutes long. I believe they are catering to exactly this market. I find it incredibly annoying. It’s like the bad old days of watching TV with commercials. The shows are actually quite good, but rewatching the credits every five minutes is not my cup of tea.

    1. The problem is less with adults as it is with kids and teens. There is some evidence, not enough to be absolutely conclusive, but some fairly persuasive material that shows the reading-mind and memory are adversely affected by using smart-phones and by going to the Internet for everything. My anecdata are that students really do have shorter attention spans than they did 7 years ago, and far shorter than 15 years ago. I noticed it in grad school. We older students could read two monographs/week, several hundred pages per sitting. The younger ones just couldn’t focus for that long (age difference being late 30s-50s vs. 21-23 year old.) YMMV

      1. My little is almost two and a half. I had public health coming by to give me pointers for about a year or so and one the things they emphasised was that “screen time” should be as little as possible. Not just smartphones or tablets, but computer and television as well.

        1. I’ve long been leery of this “screen time” shorthand, as if time spent reading ebooks on a Kindle had the same effect on the brain as time spent watching television. I don’t know where to find the evidence, but I strongly suspect that reading ebooks does not have the same effect as watching television, and that the two should not be conflated under the misleading term “screen time”. I also think that watching television and playing Minecraft will have very different effects on the brain as well, and that not all video games will have the same effect as other games. (E.g., I’m convinced that designing a working factory in Minecraft will have a much more positive effect on a teen’s brain than the same amount of time playing an FPS would have.)

          I won’t say there’s no value to the “screen time” shorthand, but I think it’s more misleading than helpful.

          1. Screen time being a wonderful rule of thumb. Like most rules of thumb, it’s simple, easy, and wrong when applied to everything equally and blindly!

  6. As a writer the frequent interruptions (both live and robot phone calls, plus a newly retired husband) vie with the internet (Both social media and wikiwander) for top productivity killer.

    And I don’t even have a smart phone.

    I hadn’t considered that from the reader’s perspective. I read on a Kindle, so no calls, adverts, or alerts.

    How to keep a reader engaged with frequent interruptions? Shorter stories? Maybe shorter scenes? Straight forward story structure without elaborate flash backs or multiple threads? Fewer characters, so easier to remember who they all are?

    Or go the other direction with long series, so the readers can jump in and out easily, not have to learn new characters or work out relationships because they rarely change?

    1. Husbands can be negotiated with. I wish my darling man would close his office door when he doesn’t want to be interrupted, but he rightly pointed out that closing the door creates frequent interruption from two frustrated felines freaking out about a closed door. *scratch**scratch*”mrrrrowwwl!” not being conducive to writing either.

      Instead, I tend to get up late in the morning if we don’t have errands, so he has an hour or so extra of morning time to work uninterrupted. And if I see him typing, I try not to call out the lasts amusing thing I found.

      As far as for readers, I wonder if it’d help to take a page from thriller structure, and give a hook at the end of each chapter, so they want to keep reading instead of wandering off?

      1. Cliffhanger chapters. Hooks in every section. Can I run screaming now? I really don’t want to start writing that way. Or worse, update what I’ve already written and published.

        1. Don’t run screaming! And if you don’t want to write that way, don’t! Most especially, don’t update your older books to Fad Of The Moment ™. ABSOLUTELY don’t change the way you write because of idle moments of speculation! I have speculation, no data, no feedback, definitely nothing concrete, and I certainly don’t want you making your current readers unhappy by changing things they like while chasing a possibility of a new reader crowd.

          Think of it like an experiment: first I have to come up with the hypothesis, then I have to come up with a method of testing, and then I have to gather data. Only after that am I able to prove or disprove that specific hypothesis (although usually, the real answer isn’t “yes” or “no”, it’s “It’s more complicated than I thought; I’ll have to restate my theory & try a new hypothesis based on what I learned!”

          In this case, I’d have to find books that someone in the target market has read that they liked, that they were meh about, and that they hated, and try to see what they have in common structurally as well as plotwise.

          1. I’ve heard this advice for years. All the way up to “Take the last sentence of each chapter and move it to the start of the next.” Which would be more complicated with multiple POV stories, and have me throwing the door against the wall as the closure on one scene wouldn’t come until the writer got back to that POV a chapter or two ahead.

            I just won’t.

            1. Heh. I hadn’t heard that one. That would drive me batty, too, on multiple POV!

              The one I’ve seen that works is to leave them with a wondering thought, or memorable image, that leaves the reader looking forward to the next chapter. Cliffhanger every chapter just annoys me after a few chapters, and I quit the book/serial/comic book series when the annoyance grows greater than the enjoyment of the book. (Especially if it’s not resolved right away.)

              That said, I can’t claim to be any big authority on any style of book writing… I write blurbs. Sometimes I even write them well. But ad copy isn’t a full story, and it doesn’t pretend to be.

              Are you making your readers happy? Then you’re doing fine. 🙂

    2. I’ve read of a phenomenon where serials are making a comeback in China/Japan/Korea because of smartphone use. People like reading something while commuting, and serials are a great medium for that. Webnovels and such bank heavily on that and apparently there are Chinese authors who are MILLIONAIRES because of their readership. I’ve been very curious as to how they monatize it, as the impression I get is that it’s not through just advertisements…

      1. You apparently buy tickets, which get you access to a month’s worth of daily updates. Which may run 2000 characters, perhaps roughly cognate to 2000 words.

        Key thing I’m sure about is that the serial authors on the websites put up one or two updates of a chapter each per day.

          1. There are a fair number of translators/publishers doing the Chinese-to-English conversion.

            Issue with the other way is, at least the PRC side of the Chinese internet market is controlled by a small number of operations that go on PRC business practices. Paladin mentioned some of those many threads ago. I’ve since come to suspect it might be hairier than he described. 1) I wouldn’t recommend going into a publishing arrangement with a PRC firm. They may be worse than NY. 2) ROC might be safer, but I only know the names of some of the PRC firms. 3) It might take a fair amount of market research to be able grab audience, even if you got the translation stream going.

            For example, Chinese webnovels can go on for years and clock in thousands of chapters. A fair number of Korean ones end after around a hundred. (This may simply be an artifact of sampling.) It’s mostly my lack of writing skill, but I spent maybe a few years reading tons of the things, and I still have a very weak grasp on what the format and market need in terms of pacing, world building, character, etc…

            English language webnovels seem to go by some number of updates per week, and run on donations. (Sorta like some webcomics.) I would recommend Heretical Edge, which last I saw, updated Mon. and Fri., plus extras depending on donations. (I’m not reading it right now, because I’ve had to drop a lot of my reading for RL time needs.)

  7. I read this from phone. What was the point, again? I forgot. /Sarc

    Speaking only personally as reader, it comes down to two items that I don’t think are platform specific provided good formatting. First, competing not only for beer money but bar time as well. So there is the need to be aware of television, games, as well as everything else people do. Outside of the ‘mind easy’ background books it is a significant benefit to make the reader understand the usage you want and if he looks it up it is later. In parallel if I’m going to thesaurus every page it will burn me off it unless it makes sense (historical fiction or similar).

    The second item is that readers can both be misinformed on things by other media and can look up the necessary information. Makes suspension of disbelief a bit more fragile imo, especially because you can Google a term with a single press.

  8. The woefully inadequate translation abilities in my tablet’s Kindle app have me jumping out to Google Translate or another source when a foreign phrase stumps me. It is very distracting and I’m aggravated by the “skip it” or “jumping the translation hoops” choice.

    Same thing for the dictionary and wikipedia lookup options, when they fail and I have to use an external option I mat not come directly back to the book if other stuff is begging attention.

    I don’t know the best solution to these but hopefully something better is possible.

    1. Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series. All that Latin! When I first read them I was in High School Latin (Catholic school – and, no, I’m not _that_ old; it was an elective). It was easy then. 20 years later, not so much. I decided to just not-care.

  9. Peter Grant said: “The article raises this question. Do we need to – should we – take into account the platforms on which our readers will access our books, when we write them?”

    Something I found out the hard way in the retail sector: money spent on look-and-feel of a retail space is utterly wasted. Drop a cash register on a crappy table next to the door, put up the cheapest available crappy shelving, and that space will generate as much or more sales than if you did a fine design with nice paint and beautiful lighting. It kills me to say that, because I’m all about making it beautiful, but I have to admit it is true.

    People do not respond positively to a nice environment, for the most part, when it comes to spending their money. I have a strong suspicion (but no proof) this extends to books. How many fine, leather bound books get made anymore? Almost none. I found and bought a high-end copy of The Hobbit once, for Young Relative. Once.

    I think, based on nothing but my prejudices and a bunch of hard knocks, that catering to platform is a waste of time. People buy the story, not the typesetting.

    Peter Grant said: “Should we try to adapt the way we write, so that our work is more suited to a high-interruption-level, distracted sort of reading?”

    There has, the last decade or so, been a revolution in the magazine market. Things like Scientific American, which used to have proper science articles with proper mathematics in them, are gone. The articles are largely SJW-friendly and usually quite short. I stopped reading them 20 years ago because that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to know how it WORKED, by God, not what colour it was.

    The best example lately is Hot Rod Magazine. In Hot Rod traditionally you could learn the exact cam lobe profile that Indy racers were using to get 800 hp from their Chevy 427 big block. Long articles, well researched, smaller pictures of stuff you needed a picture of.

    Well, they had a re-design. New design appears to have been made for 13 year old males with ADHD. Pictures covering most of the page, more pictures of women (not a bad thing in and of itself, but the mag is about -cars-) a lot less text and much more truncated articles. Where before they told you how to get 800hp out of a 427, now they tell you “You can get 800 hp!” and they show you a picture of the engine with some girl holding a wrench next to it.

    I used to LOVE Hot Rod and Car Craft but no longer. They’re kiddie magazines.

    So, again I’d have to say no. There’s no point in writing for the distracted mind. That’s what everyone else is doing, and from what I can see, it isn’t working. I’d go the other way. Make them work a little for it.

  10. The article raises this question. Do we need to – should we – take into account the platforms on which our readers will access our books, when we write them?

    I think so, but not so much because of interruptions. Instead, we should pay close attention to layouts and limitations of platforms.

    I had finally gotten around to reading a particular issue of a certain literary magazine, and was surprised to find a comic book chapter. It was poorly set up for an ereader, with two comic pages to a reader page, and even enlarging it to the reader required a magnifying glass to read the dialog. It also contained two puzzles which are fine and dandy for paper, but not for ereaders of any type. All in all, I got the feeling the publisher didn’t have a clue about ereaders at all.

  11. This was helpful – I’d not heard the phrase “infodump” before, but realized that I’d put a couple into my novel. The good news – I figured out how to handle it, while moving the story forward.
    I’ll be making those changes this weekend.

  12. For, at least, the older readers of SF/Fantasy, we were used to the idea that, when we start reading a book, we are not at all sure what is happening. It might be because we don’t have the background of the universe, or the backstory of the characters, or some other information we’d need to make sense of the story. But, assuming we trust the author to play fair, we know we’ll get what we need as the story progresses. Yes — if it’s done badly, there might be a clunky infodump (and there are good ones; it just takes more skill). Or the information to understand the earlier parts will be slowly revealed through ordinary plot development. So we keep reading, and slowly watch our understanding of what we’d read before develop.

    Of course, if you’re as good a writer as Zelazny, you can structure _Lord of Light_ as a short middle of the story, followed by a long flashback, followed by the rest of the story — and the reader trusts (correctly) that the first part, where we’re thrown into the middle, will make sense eventually.

    But that book was really hard for non-genre readers to read — because they hadn’t developed the style of reading that let you keep going through a story that doesn’t seem to tell you enough to understand it, and let you defer your understanding until things are revealed later.

    I do wonder how modern readers, who, as you say, are more likely to want to understand things immediately after reading them, would react to a book like that. Certainly, reading the low-star reviews on Amazon (although, overall, it gets great reviews) indicate that there are significant numbers of readers who have trouble with the structure.

    But reading-with-deferred-understanding used to be common among SF readers, and rare among readers who found the genre hard to read. It’s going to be interesting to see how that changes.

    And, in a side note to the above, I note that again, for readers in the past, reading while walking (a book, not a smartphone/tablet) was pretty common. Most fans of my generation grew up expecting to trip over at least one fire hydrant, or walk into a telephone pole, when walking while engrossed in a book.

    1. I used to terrify teachers in public school. I mastered walking and reading at a very young age. Including navigating stairs.

  13. The smartphone is not the first thing that takes up a large portion of our attention. The original attention-drain is known as a baby. Try putting one of those suckers in a room, and watch just how many women immediately drop what they’re thinking or doing every time it makes a noise, or change in noises.

    And if they’re crawling or toddling, you cab watch most of the fathers in the room start trying to keep one eye on the exploratory toddler and only one eye on their conversation partner. Conversations start going “So the coefficient of friction when applied to… oh, I don’t think your mother wants you getting into the dessert bar, kiddo. Yep, why don’t you head toward her? Right, where was I?”

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