Is reading online worse than reading print?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Previously: Does internet use improve or impair academic performance? Does it decrease the amount of time spent reading? Today: Is it more efficient to learn by reading print, by reading online, or by watching video?

  • When surveyed, medical students and business school say that they prefer to print out reading materials rather than read them onscreen. But an experimental test of 114 Scandinavian doctors found no significant difference in comprehension and retention of a short article between those who read it on paper and those who read it online, despite the doctors’ overwhelming preference for reading on paper. [Carrie Spencer, “Research on Learners’ Preferences for Reading from a Printed Text or from a Computer Screen,” Journal of Distance Education, 2006. Linda A. Martin and Mark W. Platt, “Printing and Screen Reading in the Medical School Curriculum: Guttenberg vs. the Cathode Ray Tube,” {link to citation only} Behaviour & Information Technology 2001. Pal Gulbrandsen, Torben V. Schroeder, Josef Milerad, and Magne Nylenna, “Paper or Screen, Mother Tongue or English: Which Is Better? A Randomized Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 2002.]
  • In a 2007 study, 132 college students in Alabama were shown a PowerPoint slide presentation on the country of Mali in one of three formats: text only, text with audio commentary, and text with an audiovisual commentary. The commentary was by a presenter who read the material on the slides almost word for word. When quizzed about the presentation, those shown the version with audiovisual commentary scored significantly lower than those shown the text-only version. The scores of those shown the version with audio commentary fell in between. Those shown the text-only version were more likely to agree with the statement “The presentation was interesting,” and those shown the text with audiovisual commentary were more likely to agree with the statement “I did not learn anything from this presentation.” [Steven C. Rockwell and Loy A. Singleton, “The Effect of the Modality of Presentation of Streaming Multimedia on Information Acquisition,” {link to citation only} Media Psychology 2007.]
  • In a number of studies led by Barrie Gunter and Adrian Furnham in the late 1980s, adults and children proved better able to recall information conveyed to them in print than by audio or television, “even where exposure time is equated across viewers, listeners, or readers.” (In fact, equal exposure time gives an advantage to readers; not only can readers set their own pace, slowing down when they reach a difficult passage and speeding through an easy one, but readers are often able to read a transcript silently more than once in the time it takes for the same material to be performed or read aloud.) Gunter and Furnham proved that print was superior whether the subject matter was television news, party political broadcasts, television advertisements, or scientific information. A 2002 study, however, found that when children and adults were quizzed about a children’s news program that they had either watched or read in transcript, children had better recall when they watched, especially if they were not proficient readers; adult recall was the same for both modalities. [Adrian Furnham, Barrie Gunter, and Andrew Green, “Remembering Science: The Recall of Factual Information as a Function of the Presentation Mode,” {link to citation only} Applied Cognitive Psychology 1990. Adrian Furnham, Samantha de Siena, and Barrie Gunter, “Children’s and Adults’ Recall of Children’s News Stories in both Print and Audio-visual Presentation Modalities,” {link to citation only} Applied Cognitive Psychology 2002.]

The end! This is the last installment of an online annotated bibliography for my review-essay “Twilight of the Books”.

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Are you aware how fast your vehicle was going, sir?

If you have read, over at Paul Collins’s Weekend Stubble, that in 1903 the speed of thirty miles per hour earned a car the epithet “scorcher” in the New York Times, and that the speed limit in Long Branch, New Jersey, was in that year six miles per hour, you may have wondered how, in the time before radar, such laws were enforced.

As it happens, that question was still novel enough in 1926 for Upton Sinclair to put the answer in the opening pages of his novel Oil!. It is 1912, and the hero, Bunny Ross, age thirteen, is being driven through southern California by his father, who is going fifty miles per hour in a thirty-mile-per-hour zone. Suddenly they fall into “A speed-trap!”:

Oho! An adventure to make a boy’s heart jump! . . . It must be a dreadful thing to be a “speed-cop”, and have the whole human race for your enemy! To stoop to disreputable actions—hiding yourself in bushes, holding a stop-watch in hand, and with a confederate at a certain measured distance down the road, also holding a stop-watch, and with a telephone line connecting the two of them, so they could keep tab on motorists who passed! They had even invented a device of mirrors, which could be set up by the roadside, so that one man could get the flash of a car as it passed, and keep the time. This was a trouble the motorist had to keep incessant watch for; at the slightest sign of anything suspicious, he must slow up quickly—and yet not too quickly—no, just a natural slowing, such as any man would employ if he should discover that he had accidentally, for the briefest moment, exceeded ever so slightly the limits of complete safety in driving.

The technology of speed traps may have changed, but it seems that the psychology of the driver suddenly aware that he is under surveillance is one of the eternal and unchanging verities of the universe.

Step into my landau, baby

There’s a consensus that sometime this century, the flow of oil out of the ground will peak. Some think it has already peaked; others that the peak is yet to come. What will happen when supplies of oil start to dwindle? People have started to wonder, including a writer named James Howard Kunstler in a book titled The Long Emergency. I haven’t read it, but his prognosis appears to be dire and includes something called a “die-off,” which doesn’t sound pleasant. Yesterday, in a bid for reassurance, I read a dismissive review of Kunstler’s book that I found through Arts and Letters Daily. I wasn’t reassured, however. The reviewer claimed that Kunstler’s “concern with oil depletion is overblown” because

the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) recent assessment in the World Energy Outlook 2005 finds that the world has sufficient oil to carry on at its present rate of growth at least out until 2030 (although the agency believes that this would be unsustainable on other environmental grounds).

I don’t feel altogether certain that I’ll be dead by 2030, so this wasn’t quite the warm blanket of denial that I was craving. Also, I wasn’t confident that the reviewer understood thermodynamics any better than I did, which is not very well, especially when he insisted that “total entropy on the Earth is not increasing . . . [b]ecause excess entropy is carried off by radiation into outer space.” Outer space? What about the greenhouse effect—does it trap entropy as well as heat? Don’t systems gain in entropy as heat is added to them, and isn’t that the net effect of the greenhouse gases, in preventing the release from Earth of heat?

Best to march quickly past the real physics, and get to the heart of the matter: dollars per gallon. Naturally, as my anxious mind contemplated the fate of a world in which fuel increased indefinitely in price, I wondered: How expensive would gas have to be for people to decide they’d rather take a horse-and-buggy than an automobile?

At first I thought that I would do this by adding up all the costs associated with keeping a horse—hay, blacksmithing, saddles, stableboys, much higher frequency of street cleaning—and compare them to those of keeping a car. In the former Soviet Union, there used to be whole academic departments devoted to making an inventory of all the society-wide costs and benefits of an item, in order to set, by fiat, its price. We are all Hayekians now, though, and believe that the best way to process all the raw data of abundance, scarcity, damage, benefit, consumer whim, and real convenience is by seeing what people actually pay.

As it happens, in New York today, it is possible to hire for a brief trip either a horse and buggy or an automobile. They aren’t exactly comparable; the buggy is a luxury item, and I suspect that it dawdles to seem more leisurely. Nonetheless both the buggy-owners and the cabbies must take the measure of a much wider range of expenses than I ever could, even with the assistance of the internet. I thought I’d start with their numbers, making a few adjustments along the way.

If you want to take a horse and buggy ride in Central Park today, it costs $34, and in twenty minutes you go one mile. Three miles an hour seems awfully slow—improbably slow. The websites of various companies that cart brides and grooms to and from church promise speeds no higher than four to seven miles per hour, and they seem to be offering their slowness as a selling point. In today’s world, the hirer of a buggy is probably paying mostly for the twenty minutes—for a share of the horse and buggy’s day—rather than the one mile. In a post-gasoline world, buggies would presumably go as fast as was financially and legally prudent. I’m guessing that I can safely double the speed advertised and say that a horse and buggy in Central Park could go six miles an hour without increasing its underlying costs. So I’m jiggering with the data, and guessing that for the same $34, you could get a horse and buggy to go two miles in twenty minutes.

To go two miles in Manhattan by taxi costs you $2.50 plus 40 cents for every one-fifth of a mile—in total, $6.50. (For ease of math, I’m leaving tips out of both sides of the equation.) Let’s estimate that cabbies get about 24 miles per gallon, and that they go about 20 miles an hour in the city. That means the trip consumes about one-twelfth of a gallon of gasoline and takes about six minutes.

Horse & buggy Car
$34 $6.50
20 min. 6 min.
Hay 0.0833 gal. gasoline

There’s one more arbitrary number to come up with. How valuable are the fourteen minutes you’d lose by taking the buggy? That’s hard to figure; it probably depends on how valuable your time is. People with a low hourly wage will probably walk rather than hire either vehicle, so let’s say $20/hour. The value of those 14 minutes will therefore be 14 min./60 min. times $20/hour, or $4.66.

Let x equal an increase in price per gallon of gasoline. Then as gas becomes more expensive, the price of the automobile taxi will be $6.50 + 0.0833 x. The price of the buggy will be $34 plus the loss of time, valued at $4.66. A person would just as soon hire a hire a cab powered by a horse as one powered by an internal combustion engine when the total prices are equal, i.e.,

$6.50 + x/12 = $34 + $4.66

x = (34 + 4.66 – 6.5) 12

x = 385.92

When gas costs $385.93 more per gallon than it does today, then, you’ll probably start taking the curricle.