Thoughts on Distracted Reading

I hate being distracted when I read. Online ads in articles, pop-up notifications from email/Facebook/text message/etc … sometimes it all feels rather draining when you just want to get through a bit of solitary reading, doesn’t it?

But distracted reading is a reality we’re having to live with more and more, unfortunately. The New York Times takes a look at this problem and rather unsurprisingly finds that iPads and Kindle Fires are not helping: “Finding Your Book Interrupted … By the Tablet You Read It On” —

“People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks. …

That adds up to a reading experience that is more like a 21st-century cacophony than a traditional solitary activity. And some of the millions of consumers who have bought tablets and sampled e-books on apps from Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble have come away with a conclusion: It’s harder than ever to sit down and focus on reading.”

Are multi-function tablets going to be the future of reading? I would say it’s still possible, but far from inevitable. Melville House (“Are Tablet E-Reader Apps Too Distracting?”) shares some of the changing feelings from publishers —

“The popularity of tablets in the industry is in decline as well–the Times cites a survey by Forrester Research that shows that only 31 percent of publishers believe devices like the iPad are the ideal medium for reading e-books, compared to 46 percent last year. But James McQuivey, who led the survey for Forrester, says that dedicated e-readers are still likely to be phased out in favor of multifunctional devices”

Engadget (“Switched On: E-readers drive to digital distraction”) draws a rather interesting parallel between tablets/reading devices and the recent history of digital cameras.

“As these the less versatile generation of displays fades away, so too may the idea of a product focused purely on reading. Returning to the digital camera market, advanced amateurs and pros long snubbed the video capture capabilities in point-and-shoot digital cameras in the name of a pure and undistracted experience of capturing superior still images …

Just as these extra features have not made for worse images, do-it-all e-readers haven’t — and won’t — mean the end of a pure reading experience. Limited technology, though, may no longer help one focus. Just as for the passionate pro photographer who must now decide when to capture a still versus video, the exercise of electronic book reading will require the exercise of self-discipline.”

Sure, it’s easy enough to talk about self-discipline. But doesn’t human nature prefer the path of least resistance? Better to have a device in front of you that doesn’t have the option of more (oops, just checked Facebook and Twitter and PinInterest and Gmail again) distractions.

Personally, I do prefer the single-purpose reading device. But when I think about why, a large part of that preference still comes down to the E-Ink screen technology as a better reading experience. If an-iPad, multi-function device had that screen technology, it would give even Kindle zealots something to think about.

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If you are really worried about your attention span, go see someone about it. Or, just take the Attention Span Test Online from Psychology Today.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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