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Digital Media: A Revolution in Reading Practices?

Investigating Avid Readers
Le numérique : une révolution dans les pratiques de lecture ? Une enquête sur les grand·e·s lecteur·rice·s
Lo digital: ¿una revolución de las prácticas de lectura? Una investigación sobre los grandes lectores
Gérard Mauger
Traduction de Alba Simaku
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le numérique : une révolution dans les pratiques de lecture ? [fr]

Résumés

La « révolution numérique » a-t-elle bouleversé les pratiques de lecture ? Telle était la question qui sous-tendait une enquête collective sur des pratiquant·e·s intensif·ve·s de la lecture numérique. Elle montre, en fait, que les « manières de lire » dépendent du genre de texte lu et du type d’usage associé à cette lecture. La lecture de romans sur liseuse reste une « lecture dense » et ne donne lieu qu’à un inventaire prosaïque des agréments et inconvénients du texte numérique. En revanche, la lecture d’informations sur internet (à commencer par celle de la presse) incite à une « lecture segmentée » de sources diversifiées. Et, si le foisonnement des sollicitations peut provoquer des formes d’addiction, il ne semble pas induire de véritable désorientation. La conclusion s’interroge sur la consolidation de la « révolution audiovisuelle » par la « révolution numérique » : préfigure-t-elle le retour à la « culture orale » du plus grand nombre ?

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Fig. 1. From books to e-books

Fig. 1. From books to e-books

Source: Flickr, picture by Pen Waggener

  • 1 This article takes up the main concluding remarks in the cited text, written on Xaver Zunigo’s requ (...)

1Donald F. McKenzie (1991) urged against separating “the historical understanding of written works from the morphological description of the objects that carry them,” thereby illustrating how the meaning of a text is dependent upon its material form. Roger Chartier (2008: 18) followed suit, suggesting that “the roles attributed to writing, writing forms, and mediums, and the various methods of reading should always be associated in one analysis.” This precept naturally leads us to question the impact of the “digital revolution” on reading practices. According to Chartier (2008: 20), “[the revolution] obliges a radical review of the gestures and notions that we associate with the written word, since it breaks the link between text and object, discourse and its materiality.” What follows are the main conclusions from a survey on avid digital readers who responded to a request from the Georges Pompidou’s Bibliothèque publique d’information (BPI) (Gaudric, Mauger, Zunigo 2015)1.

  • 2 Whether this upheaval is deemed celebratory or is deplored, predictions all seem to agree on its im (...)
  • 3 Indeed, it seems that the “technological revolutions” in media terms are a particularly conducive g (...)
  • 4 “In some respects, the codex is superior to the computer”, he writes. “You can leaf through it, ann (...)
  • 5 See Chartier (1997: 9) and Eisenstein (1979).
  • 6 According to Roger Chartier (2008: 56), the concept of appropriation “designates intellectual and a (...)

2Like all similar phenomena, the “digital revolution” is as equally celebrated as it is deplored (see “digital revolution myths” chart)2. It is therefore necessary to guard against the pitfalls that threaten an investigation of this type. To escape this fate and the “myths” that accompany it3, twenty-five years after the birth of the internet, we must try to identify changes in “a revolution,” both in terms of discontinuities and continuities. Regarding the latter, Robert Darnton (2011: 16) reminds us of the surprising lasting power of books4. Similarly, Chartier (2008: 19) noted that the invention of the printing press has not modified the fundamental structures of books (the codex) and that there is a strong continuity between the manuscript and printing press cultures5. We could go as far as saying that the “digital revolution” can be compared to Gutenberg’s revolution, in which case, the continuities must be identified and ruptures circumscribed, instead of announcing a total break between the printing press and digital culture (whether celebrated or deplored). As for the considerable changes to written texts induced by the digital revolution, we differentiate between those that affect production, reproduction, distribution and conservation of texts (writing), from those that concern their appropriation (reading)6.

Fig. 2. Mythology of the “digital revolution”

Fig. 2. Mythology of the “digital revolution”

© Gérard Mauger

1. Is Reading on the Rise?

3In Pierre Bergounioux’s (2019: 42, 44) long-term perspective, “thought” (associated with writing) seemed eternally bound to remain prisoner of paper: “material, like all of its antecedents, it had a volume, a weight, a price and it was localised,” he writes. Yet with the digital revolution, “meaning has freed itself from the material anchoring upon which it was dependent since its appearance around the fourth millennium in Mesopotamia” (ibid.: 16). “Signs, in the digital age, have been off-loaded from their material base, disembodied. They now circulate in binary form, at the speed of light” (ibid.: 44, 46), in such a way that information is now available anywhere at all times: “neither roads nor days stand between the most far-out communes and the immense treasure of accumulated, archived and ordered signs” (ibid.: 58). However, we may question whether this radical transformation of conditions to access “culture”—linked to an increasingly dematerialized system, the spread of high-speed internet (“all-purpose media” as Olivier Donnat, 2009, calls it) and the considerable improvement of home IT equipment (computers, tablets, e-readers)—has also disturbed cultural practices and, more specifically, reading habits.

  • 7 More recently, according to the IPSOS-CNL survey (Vincent & Gérard Poncet 2019), 40% of French citi (...)
  • 8 At the same time, the gap between social classes has tended to widen. This is due to the uncoupling (...)

4Yet, while it is true that digital reading has ceased to be in the sole control of a handful of “technophiles,” it turns out that “when it comes to reading printed texts, the two main tendencies at work since the 1980s have continued into the last decade: daily reading of (paid) newspapers continues to decline, as well as the number of books read outside of any scholarly or professional constraint.” Over the last few decades, each new generation of adults possesses an inferior level of reading newspapers or books compared with the generation before. In 2008, 53% of those surveyed impulsively revealed that they read very few or no books at all (Donnat 2009)7. The current availability of texts does not seem to be altogether widespread8. However, it is difficult to attribute the downturn to accessibility, as far as this tendential decline in reading habits predates the digital revolution.

  • 9 According to Layla Ricroch and Benoît Roumier (2011), “the time that French people spend reading bo (...)
  • 10 According to Claire Bélisle (2011), for example, the decline of the novel seems to give way to deve (...)
  • 11 Generally speaking, we are no doubt also witnessing a revival of letter writing.
  • 12 On the digital reading practices of “digital natives,” see October (2014).

5It is in fact possible that denouncing “declining reading rates” (Mauger 19929)—which has long since replaced the fear of widespread out-of-control reading and an increase in uncontrollable readers (Chartier & Hébrard 2000)—leads to a disregard of the plurality of reading types, specifically regarding on-screen reading. If books continue to occupy an elevated position in the hierarchy of cultural goods, and if reading remains a culturally distinguished and highly valued practice, we may instead be witnessing an evolution in reading practices, rather than a decline in reading10. The digital revolution can even be said to be boosting reading practices. According to Chartier, “never has a society read so much, never have so many books been published (even though fewer are usually printed), never has there been this much written material available in kiosks and newsagents, and never have we read this much, due to the presence of screens” (Chartier 2013). The issue of quantitative variations in reading habits brings up the question of which texts are included in such reading practices. As a general rule, “those who are designated as non-readers nonetheless read, but the texts are not considered legitimate according to the literary canon”: “Various types of texts are read by those who declare that they never read”, Chartier concludes (1997: 103-104). He refers to the “infinite, disseminated, multiple practices that seize multiple printed and written materials, during a single day or a whole existence.” Yet the widespread use of technology has led to a standardization of “poor quality” texts (from emails to tweets11), and therefore also of “wild reading” (not included) which is bound up with the lack of cultural legitimacy in these texts. An expansion of reading practices induced by the digital revolution also leads us to question their potential “democratisation.” A sociology of digital readers (excluded from the present survey) should not only measure quantitative changes, but also study their distribution in social space according to class division, gender cleavages, shorter or longer periods of schooling, the general mastery of written culture, and should also include generations defined by a relatively early learning process of digital technology (Donnat 2009)12.

2. The Survey

  • 13 It should be possible to account for this failure: it can be explained by constraints and/or the in (...)
  • 14 From this perspective (Bélisle 2011), digital technology would favour another relationship to writt (...)
  • 15 I.e., reading for entertainment, reading for learning or personal development purposes. Aesthetic u (...)

6The survey aimed to determine the extent of reading habits amongst avid digital readers, all texts included, despite its inability to accurately measure reading practices. This was done by asking participants to make a log of all texts they read (articles, notes, documents and books read on digital and paper mediums) for two weeks (along the lines of INSEE timetable surveys). This measure turned out to be ineffective: very few participants played along13. However, the survey mainly aimed to bring out “new reading forms” induced by the digital revolution, despite the difficulty of highlighting the appearance of “hyper-reading” (Bélisle 2011)14. Selecting a well-constructed sample of diverse categories of “avid digital reader” seemed the most favourable means of highlighting changes in reading practices to support this hypothesis. The survey was carried out in 2013 and relied on around forty semi-prescriptive interviews with participants who had acquired real experience in digital reading through their professional activity and/or cultural practices. These “technophiles” and “digital natives” are all between thirty and forty years old, have obtained university-level degrees and are now researchers, consultants, or media professionals (either journalists or in the book trade). The questions aimed to determine the effects of new technologies on their reading practices—distinguishing reading for information in the wider sense (daily press, professional or scientific documentation) from purely literary reading. More precisely, the aim was to determine potential evolutions in the social uses of reading identified in a previous survey: entertainment uses—(“escapist”) on the one hand; and educational or ethical on the other (Mauger & Poliak 1998)15. One of the biases found in this ethnographic survey was the echo created by the discourse on the digital revolution and technological modernism amongst participants. The preconceived interpretation of their practices indeed allowed them to depict themselves as a sort of “scientific-cultural avant-garde” which could potentially mask the everyday occurrence of a relatively banal practice, often very close to the former habits of reading for entertainment, educational, or ethical purposes.

  • 16 Above all, its continuity/discontinuity (“sequential reading”/”segmented reading”) (Chartier 2008: (...)

7The survey confirmed that reading practice methods16 depend more on the genre of text and the type of reading associated with it than on the medium used. We will thus clarify the main conclusions (and compare them to available studies) by studying the impact of the digital revolution on reading for entertainment, followed by educational or ethical purposes. We will then conclude with a reflection on the potential decline of written culture in favour of audiovisual media.

3. The “Digital Revolution” and Reading for Entertainment

8The revolution of literary reading habits predicted by the most ardent exegetes does not seem to have taken place. The survey results amongst avid novel readers show that reading for “entertainment” associated with novels does not lend itself, regardless of the medium, to discontinuous reading behaviour. “Segmented reading” has not superseded “dense reading.” For the most part, the effects of the digital revolution regarding reading novels amount to an understanding of technical and practical possibilities offered by new technology (e-readers).

3.1. Dense/Segmented Reading

  • 17 Cited by Armando Petrucci (1997: 423).
  • 18 From the same perspective, according to Raffele Simone (2012: 25, 172), “in the media sphere, flitt (...)
  • 19 Although digital books “contain ‘extras’ compared with the printed version, such as hypertext links (...)
  • 20 Just as when the paperback appeared, we can reflect upon the impact of the digital-related decrease (...)

9What happens to the “dense reading” associated with texts for entertainment (or escapist) purposes on paper? Hans Magnus Enzenberger converted to “segmented reading” before the “digital revolution.” He asserted “the right to skim read the book from beginning to end, to skip whole passages, to read sentences askew, to deform and recompose them, to interlace and improve them with all sorts of associations, to conclude that which the text ignores, to get mad and rejoice while reading, to forget, plagiarize and even to throw the book in a corner17.” According to Armando Petrucci (1997: 417-418), this “postmodern reading” is “anarchic, egotistical, egocentric,” and rests on a single imperative: “I read what I want” asserts the right to not be a “snob” to legitimately reject all conditioning, all exterior recommendations, the aim of “pure entertainment,” and a perception of books as “objects for immediate use, to be consumed and lost, even thrown away, barely read18.” Faced with this kind of iconoclasm, the survey mainly highlights the continuity of which methods are preferred, regardless of medium. This could be precisely because digital books are, as Françoise Benhamou (2009) reminds us, “authentic books, digital versions of works that are usually edited and distributed in printed form19.” This is also why the e-reader, which emerged in the 1990s, is the preferred medium (besides paper) for reading long texts and above all literary works20. Its other potential functions (internet browsing, for instance) remain secondary and are rarely mentioned by the survey participants. Due to its mono-task nature, the e-reader substitutes other digital devices: its limited functionality enables the break necessary for intensive reading.

“I like using e-readers because I like cutting off from the internet and all that. That’s why I mainly read my novels on e-readers. Even if I want to stop reading, I won’t be tempted to surf the net.” (Alban W., 22 years old, student, owns an e-reader.)

10It goes without saying that whether “intensive” or “extensive,” “fast” or “dense,” reading habits obviously depend on the reader, the text, and its expected use (these different means of reading are moreover likely to manifest in the same reader, regardless of medium).

3.2. Advantages and Disadvantages of Digital Writing

11In fact, the survey mainly enables us to establish a prosaic inventory of the advantages and disadvantages that avid readers ascribe to digital texts.

12The digitalisation of texts enables their instant acquisition (and in some cases, free access):

“It’s practical because you can buy a book the same minute you think of buying it, and instantly have it at home.” (Jacqueline O., 65 years old, retired doctor, owns an e-reader.)

13E-readers also have unlimited storage (and transport) capacity: a new form of objectified cultural capital, the “digital library” does not take up any more space than the screen itself.

“I now live in a flat that is quite small, so… I can’t keep piling books up infinitely. So, this is a blessing…” (Jacqueline O., 65 years old, retired doctor, owns an e-reader.)

“It’s very light; it doesn’t take up much space. And since I move around a lot, especially around Paris for work… you just slip it in your pocket, and there is so much choice…” (Pierre W., 32 years old, teacher, owns an e-reader.)

“It’s also a fact that you can have hundreds of books on a very small thing… From a transport point of view, it’s unbeatable! Since the books are electronic, they aren’t even on the machine, you can have them on the internet.” (Claude, 65 years old, retired engineer, owns an e-reader.)

14E-readers also allow readers to adapt the font size to their eyesight:

“The other thing that I appreciated is that our eyes get tired when we grow older, and the simple fact of being able to adjust to a more convenient font size so as not to tire my eyes out is a real selling point for me. If I had to say why I prefer e-books to paper books, it’s because I can adjust the font size. I think that towards the end of my life, I will end up only reading e-books.” (Claude D., 65 years old, retired engineer, owns an e-reader.)

15Finally, given the books that are already in the public domain, promotions by distributors of electronic readers, self-published books and “hacked” digital books, the literature available that is free or almost-free has become unlimited, thus opening up the possibility of collecting them without necessarily hoarding cultural goods. Many avid readers have thus started to download many thousands of books onto their e-readers:

“I have a digital library with more than 10,000 books in it. I wondered whether this is a kind of hoarding, an unresolved obsession I know that I will never read 10,000 books, but I truly have the option of reading a book that always corresponds exactly to my mood, a Science Fiction book, a Nordic book, a classic… I also made a “to read” folder, but everyone has that. And now I’ve downloaded things I wouldn’t usually read, but which looked really good, so from time to time I have a look.” (Charles S., 62 years old, retired social scientist, owns an e-reader.)

“At first sight it seems wonderful, even a bit too much, one could drown in it—I can’t possibly read all of that. But it’s good to know that I have all of this at my disposal, for free, it’s extraordinary.” (Arlette H., 70 years old, retired administration executive, owns an e-reader.)

16Thus, owning an e-reader and the possibility of easily downloading all public domain books for free allows for a kind of “cultural catching up.”

“I am happy to have a lot of classics: I have all of Anatole France, all of Dumas, I have Colette, Balzac. Even though I haven’t read Balzac, I’ve read a tiny bit and I like it. I’m still happy to have them. I am a bit compulsive. I like to have them. Even if I haven’t read them. I am happy to be able to tell myself that I may read them one day.” (Melissa A., 40 years old, computer scientist, owns a tablet and an e-reader.)

“I downloaded all the classics that I had always regretted not having read or at least looked into. This is the time to get back to it, so I got Proust, Zola, Dostoevsky, I can’t remember what else… […] I haven’t re-read anything yet; I started reading Proust again, well actually I started it, I hadn’t read much before.” (Arlette H., 70 years old, retired administration executive, owns an e-reader.)

17Faced with the immediate lack of bearings compared with a printed book, digital reading raises the fact that “size was a factor of literary works” (Bon 2011: 26) (which, for instance, allowed the reader to implicitly evaluate the “distance” separating the passage being read from the ending). Yet digital libraries, however large, hardly lend themselves to being on display and to a synoptic visioning of accumulated cultural capital in its objectified form. In fact, it seems that digital writing will never have the value bestowed upon printed texts displayed at home (and the habitus):

“You can even have so many more, because the books are dematerialized. However, it doesn’t have that decorative touch that a full, alphabetically ordered bookshelf has…” (Claude D., 65 years old, retired engineer, owns an e-reader.)

“I have a small library. Anyway, I’ve always kept my favourites, I’ve already culled them. Sometimes I had the paper book and I bought the digital version so as to not have to carry the book around. I say that because it is on show at home, with the cover page in front. Other books are also on show, like my travel guides, all from the same collection. There are towns I have been to, DVD collections that I should sell or give away. But I find it difficult to get rid of it all.” (Anna L., 28 years old, consultant, owns an e-reader.)

4. The “Digital Revolution” and Educational or Ethical Readings

  • 21 Political news is generally read on the internet by younger generations (“digital natives”) and by (...)

18Although the television remains far ahead of the printed press and radio as the number one information source for 50% of all French citizens, mass high-speed internet has changed how information is disseminated and obtained. Between 1973 and 2008, the number of readers of daily newspapers went from 55% to 29%, irregular readers went from 22% to 40%, and “non-readers” increased from 23% to 29%. In 2012, 20.6 million French people consulted the digital press on their phone or tablet (Le Floch & Sonnac 2013), especially under-35 years old for whom it constitutes the second most used source of information (Donnat 2009)21. In the context of the survey, very few admitted to buying daily papers, and nearly all of those interviewed read the press on the internet every day. They use the internet to get information and diversify their sources (Granjon & Le Foulgoc 2010). Unlike the reading of literature, reading newspapers and practical guides (Defrance 1996) for “educational” and/or “ethical” purposes allows for “segmented reading” (hereafter referred to as “zapping”), and may even encourage it.

4.1. Segmented Reading?

  • 22 In the same vein, Raffaele Simone (2012: 60) writes: “Toward the end of the 20th Century, we have g (...)

19According to Armando Petrucci (1997: 420), “audio-visual culture” inculcated “zapping” practices: “Zapping is an entirely new individual consumerist and creative audio-visual device. Through it, the media culture consumer has gotten used to receiving a message composed of non-homogenous fragments, devoid of ‘meaning.’ […] This ever-more current media habit is exactly the opposite of reading, understood in the traditional sense—i.e. linear and progressive. It is much closer to transversal, nonchalant, interrupted, oscillating between slow and fast reading, which is a style found amongst uncultured readers. […] Zapping habits and television series that have been going on for years have created potential readers who not only are deprived of a ‘canon’ and ‘reading order’, but have also not acquired the book-readers’ traditional respect of a book’s order, which has a beginning and an end and must thus be read in a precise sequence pre-established by others22.”

20Similarly, according to Maryanne Wolf (2008), a psychologist and neurologist, “in the digital dimension, we scan, browse, bounce off things, bookmark. We tend to move and click around and that reduces our deep attention, our capacity to be concentrated while reading. We tend to focus more on images. We internalize knowledge less and depend on exterior sources more.” These fears are all the more acute in that they contrast an idealized vision of reading on paper with digital reading (Mauger 1992). Furthermore, they implicitly compare reading different kinds of text.

21When they evoked their reading habits of online news, the participants of the survey indeed mentioned “scanning articles quickly,” “skim reading,” and “glancing over headlines.”

“You don’t read in the same way, you read diagonally, surfing and browsing from one topic to the next. You read something that interests you, but a word flashes and we tend to go towards flashing words! We’re attracted to that. I maybe need the paper version to feel like I’m really reading in-depth articles, whereas on the net I tend to surf without in-depth reading.” (Vanessa H., 40 years old, graphic designer, owns a tablet and an e-reader.)

22But the survey mainly demonstrates that the digital medium leads to multiple information sources:

  • 23 These are some of the main daily French newspapers.

“Throughout the course of a day, I regularly go onto all media websites. I have this ritual, I arrive in the morning, I open up my work mailbox, my personal mailbox, I take a quick look at Facebook and then I go onto: Libé, Le Figaro, Le Parisien, Le Monde, Le Nouvel Obs’, Rue 89, 20 Minutes, Métro, in that order23.” (Julien N., 38 years old, political advisor, owns a tablet and a professional e-reader for his work.)

“I am a bit of an information junkie. I read the press every morning, I read at least three daily papers, if not more. I read the title, the RSS feeds and I read diagonally, I flit from one thing to the next. I like getting a general view. I have a series of RSS feeds on various levels on my iPhone and my Mac.” (Benjamin W., 56 years old, software developer, owns a tablet, self-proclaimed technophile.)

23Diversification, sorting, information source selection and opinion and viewpoint cross-checking in order to “form one’s own opinion” as independently of the media as possible is arguably a practice specific to those with high cultural capital. If so, we can suppose that internet use, with its novel possibility of free, fast, and sometimes involuntary access (through hypertext links) to a large number of titles, has trivialized this practice and consolidated it amongst older practitioners. The survey demonstrates that free access to a vast repository of national and foreign press enables on-screen readers to improvise their own press review and, in doing so, cultivate the illusion of “on-hand objectivity”:

“I think that transversal online reading makes sense and allows for a more panoramic and personal vision, we kind of choose our information sources and sort through them. Online subscription systems are bloody stupid, I think we have to find something else. […] I used to have subscriptions for Le Monde and L’Huma. I think that subscriptions encourage a polarizing of information sources which doesn’t make much sense today. On the contrary, I think that nowadays we need to expand our [information] sources.” (Benjamin W., 56 years old, software developer, owns a tablet.)

“People buy Le Figaro because they’re right wing; their ideas are affirmed but they don’t really learn anything new. They don’t talk to anyone. The internet, on the other hand, is more varied. I get to make my own editorial line.” (Maxime H., 28 years old, information engineer, does not own a tablet or e-reader.)

  • 24 These are some of the main newspapers or websites of the French “critical left.”

“Let’s say there are two types of newspaper. There are those I read because I need to know what the enemy is saying and there are those I read because I find them interesting. So, the enemy, for me, is Le Monde, Libé, the mainstream press. I need to know what people are saying and why. I’m really interested in Le Monde diplo, Acrimed, CADTM… basically, left-wing newspapers! 24” (Thierry H., 32 years old, tax officer, does not own a tablet or e-reader.)

  • 25 Nonetheless, digital reading does not immediately perceive “the limits and coherence of the corpus (...)

24Must we then consider this “segmented,” discontinuous reading—which is more attached to the fragment than its totality and that Michel de Certeau (1984) likens to “poaching”—as marking a rupture with reading habits before the digital revolution? According to Chartier (2008: 21), “it is hard to see how it is necessarily distinguished from codex reading” which, he notes, “invites the reader to leaf through texts […], compare passages […], extract and copy citations and sentences25.” In fact, “segmented reading” in information terms (educational purposes), supposedly specific to digital “zapping”, can be better described as the renewal (and maybe extension) of a previous rather than an unprecedented practice. At the start of the modern era, when reading and writing were inseparable and quotation collections reached their height at the end of the Renaissance (Darnton 2011: 21-45), the English “read erratically and jumped from one book to the next,” “unlike modern readers, who follow a story from beginning to end (except for those born in the digital world, who click through text on machines).”

25Likewise, concerning the exclusively educational use of scientific texts, it seems that the digital form encourages, rather than invents, reading on many levels that Darnton (2011: 175) associates with “hypertexts.” He writes that it “incites us towards a new type of reading, some readers are content with quickly browsing the story, others wish to read vertically and follow through certain themes in depth with further literature and essays. A third group of readers browse in unexpected directions, looking for connections that respond to their own interests or reshape the material to organize it in their own way. […] Computer screens are thus used to select and search for information, while intensive and long reading resorts to the conventional codex.” However, we can once again question whether this kind of reading that is encouraged by the digital revolution is really that new. The three reading levels distinguished by Darnton in fact cover three common practices: the first is used for reading a text, the second for reading notes and annexes, and the third for bibliographies… As for searching for guidelines (whether this be recipes, DIY tips, or child education), in the past as well as nowadays, it often goes hand in hand with “zappingand collecting quotations from chosen texts. Quotation collections in the Renaissance were neither made for “entertainment” (escapism) nor “educational” purposes; they were about finding landmarks in tumultuous times, about “reading to act” (“ethical” use) (Darnton 2011: 41).

4.2. Disoriented Reading?

  • 26 Chartier (2007: 7) notes that: “Just as the fear of eradication obsessed early modern European soci (...)

26Textual proliferation existed before the digital revolution, but it is now reinforced: “Our library is larger than our memory. That was already the case for the books that we physically own, and it’s become a maze for our electronic books” (Bon 2011: 51). This proliferation can thus become an obstacle to knowledge: to master it we need methods for sorting, classifying, and ranking26.

27The abundance of temptations characteristic of the digital world and the disruption that they provoke lead intensive users to reflect on various forms of “lazy addiction” and the time-consuming nature of the internet.

“It’s awful. I waste an incredible amount of time over it ... it accentuates inherent weaknesses; I don’t know, sometimes I want to just shut down my computer! What’s more, if I really want to work, I can’t leave it in front of me because otherwise, pouf! I want to have a look, check the latest news on Le Figaro at 4:15 pm, then at 4:20 pm … It’s ridiculous!” (Michèle Q., 65 years old, retired social science researcher, owns a tablet.)

“What scares me is that there are many more ways of wasting our time, compared with reading, that’s what’s terrible. For me, I can tell that very few things that I read are part of a kind of reading plan, where I would have said to myself: ‘So, I’m going to read these five books because I will learn something.’” (Damien H., software developer, 35 years old, owns a tablet, technophile.)

“One of the reasons I stopped using Facebook was that it took up my reading time because I had to read what everyone else was writing, it made me read too much crap. I read interesting things, but also so much bullshit… It’s normal for this kind of unfiltered medium, but it wasn’t possible anymore.” (Laurence C., 38 years old, literature researcher, owns an e-reader.)

“I think we’re dealing with infobesity here. Infobesity is when you have more answers than questions. So before reading something online, I have trained myself to write down the question I was asking, and to think to myself: ‘I won’t read it if it doesn’t answer my question.’ There are different kinds of curiosity. Ninety per cent of online curiosity is useless. You have to ask yourself: ‘Why should I check out this page?’. I’m always trying to tell myself: ‘What do I expect to learn on this page?’ (Damien H., 35 years old, software developer, owns a tablet, technophile.)

28Some participants also mention the risk of uncontrolled “digressions” in the search for information:

“Instead of switching on the television, I can switch on my computer and get carried away by anything, that’s what they call surfing.” (Guy W., 65 years old, retired linguistics researcher, owns a tablet.)

“When you surf the internet, you’re not always very reactive, you tend to drift a lot. That’s how I work, I read an article and then often get referred to something else, and so on. You bounce off other things quite easily, it’s the empire of digressions. You wanted to read one thing and you end up reading fifty others.” (Jerome G., 32 years old, ICT project manager, owns a tablet.)

  • 27 On the contrary, Raffaele Simone (2012: 234) notes that “if the information age had replaced experi (...)

29If we admit that “the continuity of digital textuality on the screen’s surface [is] less immediately perceptible than the hierarchical world of prints, the unequal credibility of discourse” (Chartier 2008: 60), we can reflect upon how to protect ourselves from misinformation and/or the allodoxia typical of ill-advised readers. In fact, it seems that books “printed on paper or kept on servers […] incarnate knowledge, and [that] their authority flows from something else than the technology that goes into their making” (Darnton 2011: 18), starting with that of the author or editor, who need to be trusted more than ever by overwhelmed readers confronted with a plethora of choices. The digitization of texts excludes neither editors nor authors, nor press publications (online newspapers were created by dedicated journalists), so the fear of editorial and authorial levelling seems unfounded. News items more specifically are “freed from their conventional anchoring,” which thus opens up world-scale misinformation possibilities: “Must we believe that our era gives us unprecedented access to information, but that it is less and less reliable?” (Darnton 2011: 74). We must without doubt consider that today, just like yesterday, “news isn’t what happened; it’s a story about what happened” (Darnton 2011: 75); “online” media is no more a simple “transparent window” open onto the world than the print press, but rather a “collection of stories written by professionals according to the conventions of their trade.” If one can say that the press, independently of its medium, informs us about “the way that events were interpreted at the time” and that it is merely “reliable knowledge of those same events” (Darnton 2011: 77), then online press is neither more nor less credible than the print press. The belief that is bestowed upon both is worth the same as the author’s or newspaper’s accumulated symbolic capital. From this point of view, the survey leads us to suppose that the trivialization of the more or less systematic practice of press reviews, which is authorized by the online press, consolidates the “field effect” and leads to a kind of mutual control27.

4.3. The Decline of Written Culture in Favour of Audiovisual Media?

30Ultimately, the survey shows that the “visible” effects of the digital revolution on reading habits are very limited: when it comes to the reading of literature, continuity prevails, and the changes in reading for information accentuates pre-existing methods. The revolution in reading habits that was announced everywhere does not seem to be happening.

31We can conclude by taking Bergounioux’s (2019) long-term perspective and questioning the effects linked to the increasing presence of audiovisual media on the internet. The “theory of media convergence” (Nora & Minc 1978), linked to the development of information technology, is not recent. It is supported by the spread of connected digital mediums which allow access to images, text, sound etc. on one single medium. Armando Petrucci (1997: 418-419) writes: “Nowadays, reading isn’t the main acculturation device available to modern man anymore; its role in mass culture has been undermined by television, whose use has quickly spread over the last thirty years. […] We can assert that, nowadays, throughout the world, the formation and information on a mass scale—vested in print for years, and thus to the act of reading—has mutated to audiovisual means, to hearing and sight, as its name indicates.”

  • 28 Similarly, according to Olivier Donnat (2012: 47), “internet distribution happened all the faster a (...)
  • 29 But also, to audiovisual culture.
  • 30 Michel Melot (2007: 88-89) reminds us that “the press was late in integrating images, which were le (...)
  • 31 On this topic, Bernard Lahire (2012: 63) notes that “cinema contributed to [the] marginalization [o (...)

32By including sound and images in the text, the digital revolution can now associate “listening” and “seeing” with reading. Pierre Bergounioux (2019) remarks with wonder: “I see children in front of a screen, where explanatory texts and predicted thumbnails appear instantly. Everything is literal, coloured, perfect. It is not even lacklustre, since you also find moving images and films.” This digital offer is met by an audience that is ready to play along, predisposed by the “audiovisual revolution.” “For the first time ever, books and other printed products are confronted with a real and potential audience that is being fed with other information techniques and has acquired other acculturation methods, from audiovisual media, and gotten used to reading messages produced by electronic means” (Petrucci 1997: 419) 28. Computer screens differ from cinema or television screens in that they also display text. “We used to contrast books, writing, and reading with screens and images, but now a new situation has arisen which offers a new medium for written culture29” (Chartier 2007b: 249). There is no rupture here either, since the “paper” book had long been able to include illustrations30. We can thus suppose that, if there has been such a “cultural revolution,” it happened before the digital revolution, and that we are attributing the digital revolution and the opposition it may have engendered between “screen” reading and “paper” reading with the effects of the “audiovisual revolution31.”

  • 32 According to Emmanuel Durand (2004: 23-24), “video content has become abundantly predominant in glo (...)
  • 33 Raffaele Simone (2012: 34-35, 36) reminds us that “we owe what we know to the fact of having read, (...)
  • 34 See Goody (1979). In the same vein, Raffaele Simone (2012: 72-73, 97-99) contrasts the “self-guided (...)

33But as far as the digital revolution relays the “audiovisual revolution,32” we can suppose that it contributes towards discouraging reading, and thus favours a kind of return to “oral culture” on a mass scale33. Here, we can question whether the digital revolution necessarily constitutes “progress,” and reflect upon the “negative effects of progress,” as Jacques Bouveresse urges us to do. He notes that often, a step forward simultaneously represents a step back. In this vein, it seems to me that few technologies compare with the digital in their ability to create “a euphoric vision of progress without really knowing what it is, or why we should rejoice about it” (Bouveresse 2017: 19). Thus we can reflect on what the possible effects of an ebb in “written culture” would be, along with the loss of what marks it apart from “oral culture”: the objectification of discourse, a more acute consciousness of syntactic and semantic language structures, and a sharper perception of internal inconsistencies and contradictions, the development of reflexive inspection, of the spirit of critique and the art of commentary, of the modes of thinking associated with tables, lists and formula (i.e. to “graphic reasoning”) 34. Moving towards oral culture on a wider scale would expand the gap between basic and sophisticated linguistic codes, between vernacular and scholarly discourse, and thus between social classes, strengthening the control of well-read individuals over written culture, regardless of the medium.

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Notes

1 This article takes up the main concluding remarks in the cited text, written on Xaver Zunigo’s request. I retained parts that concerned reading habits and with added empirical data from the survey.

2 Whether this upheaval is deemed celebratory or is deplored, predictions all seem to agree on its importance. For instance, François Bon, who ascertains the “opacity of the books” digital mutation’ (2011: 112), writes: “a transformation is occurring. It is irreversible and it is taking with it the very best part of ourselves,” “it is just as all-encompassing and irreversible as the writing evolutions that preceded, in the uses and forms of reading that each initiated” (2011: 7).

3 Indeed, it seems that the “technological revolutions” in media terms are a particularly conducive ground for prophetic discourse, which oscillate “between the indemonstrable and the not-even-wrong,” shirking from any subversive down-to-earth questions. The survey leads to a more modest evaluation of the phenomenon and its nuances and limits, that the predictions tend to ignore (Bourdieu & Passeron 1963).

4 “In some respects, the codex is superior to the computer”, he writes. “You can leaf through it, annotate it, take it to bed with you and easily put it away on a bookshelf” (2011: 177). In the same perspective, see the Spanish video “New Technological Revolution! Book”.

5 See Chartier (1997: 9) and Eisenstein (1979).

6 According to Roger Chartier (2008: 56), the concept of appropriation “designates intellectual and aesthetic categories for different kinds of audience, as well as the gestures, habits and conventions that rule their relationship to the written word.”

7 More recently, according to the IPSOS-CNL survey (Vincent & Gérard Poncet 2019), 40% of French citizens described themselves as “non-readers or rare readers” (but with classification criteria that differed to that of the PCF survey).

8 At the same time, the gap between social classes has tended to widen. This is due to the uncoupling of a section of the working classes (workers), as well as the divide between men and women: 62% of men said they read very little or not at all, compared with 46% of women (Donnat 2009).

9 According to Layla Ricroch and Benoît Roumier (2011), “the time that French people spend reading books and newspapers (including online) has decreased by a third since 1986, down to eighteen minutes per day on average in 2010. As a general rule, we can account for the decline in reading literature by the space taken up by mathematics in defining school success and audiovisual media (cinema, television, videos, video games) in the quest for ‘entertainment’”. On the notion of “entertainment”, see Mauger & Poliak (1998).

10 According to Claire Bélisle (2011), for example, the decline of the novel seems to give way to developing reading for information and opinion.

11 Generally speaking, we are no doubt also witnessing a revival of letter writing.

12 On the digital reading practices of “digital natives,” see October (2014).

13 It should be possible to account for this failure: it can be explained by constraints and/or the intrusive nature of this measure which might indicate an overly obvious disparity between proclaimed and real practices.

14 From this perspective (Bélisle 2011), digital technology would favour another relationship to written texts, inviting the reader to navigate information using “hyperlinks,” contrary to the linear character of reading on paper. Reading would thus become a form of “hyper-reading,” calling forth associations, stimulating “cognitive flexibility” and creativity in a shared space in which interpretative dimensions proliferate. Digital reading could thus be likened to a conversation: reading would no longer be a solitary activity but rather an “interactive activity,” in which “personal room for manœuvre” and “dialogue with the other” would cohabit.

15 I.e., reading for entertainment, reading for learning or personal development purposes. Aesthetic uses (reading for pleasure, “reading for readings’ sake”) were excluded from the field of investigation.

16 Above all, its continuity/discontinuity (“sequential reading”/”segmented reading”) (Chartier 2008: 44). Françoise Benhamou (2014: 49) evokes a “nomadic reading, centred on consultation, sequential, fractioned, predatory, cosmopolitan, exploratory.”

17 Cited by Armando Petrucci (1997: 423).

18 From the same perspective, according to Raffele Simone (2012: 25, 172), “in the media sphere, flitting from one thing to the next prevails over concentration, fragmentation over continuity” and “online browsing—unless firmly guided by a specific aim—is solely a way of getting lost in cyberspace”.

19 Although digital books “contain ‘extras’ compared with the printed version, such as hypertext links or embedded videos, [they] nonetheless remain books, with a beginning and an ending (despite a still very rare amount of hypertextual literature), in any case they are coherent and finished works by an author or author collective and the result of thorough editorial work, in terms of content as well as form” (Benhamou 2009).

20 Just as when the paperback appeared, we can reflect upon the impact of the digital-related decrease in prices (to the point of books sometimes becoming free) on reading habits. Nevertheless, while reading on digital files reached 27% in the United States in 2013 and 17% in Great Britain, it only reached 2% in France (Mollier 2014). According to Françoise Benhamou (2014: 19), digital books represent 3% of sales revenue in Italy and France, and 4-5% of copy sales. According to Hervé Bienvault (2012), “the readers of mass-market paperbacks are the ones who started to use the Kindle, a clientele of avid readers who did not necessarily want to keep the books they read. Romance novels, science fiction, fantasy, crime, and thrillers are the sectors of the market that are concerned the most and have the most ardent support from the digital world.”

21 Political news is generally read on the internet by younger generations (“digital natives”) and by more educated groups who combine multiple media forms: newspapers, internet, radio, etc. (Le Hay, Vedel, Chanvril 2011).

22 In the same vein, Raffaele Simone (2012: 60) writes: “Toward the end of the 20th Century, we have gradually gone from a situation where knowledge is complex and could only be gained through books and writing (i.e. through the eye and alphabetical vision, or sequential intelligence) to a situation where we can also acquire knowledge—for some almost entirely—through hearing (i.e. using auditory faculties) or non alphabetical vision (a faculty specific to the eye).”

23 These are some of the main daily French newspapers.

24 These are some of the main newspapers or websites of the French “critical left.”

25 Nonetheless, digital reading does not immediately perceive “the limits and coherence of the corpus from which these sentences are extracted”(Chartier 2008: 21-22).

26 Chartier (2007: 7) notes that: “Just as the fear of eradication obsessed early modern European societies,” the “digital revolution” amplifies the danger of an uncontrollable textual proliferation: “A discourse without order or limits,” “an excess of writings that multiplies useless texts and smothers thought under accumulated discourse.”

27 On the contrary, Raffaele Simone (2012: 234) notes that “if the information age had replaced experience with news and narrative temporality with the eternal present,” the “real time” of digital press (continuous news) “has killed explanation.”

28 Similarly, according to Olivier Donnat (2012: 47), “internet distribution happened all the faster and its effects were all the greater because the ground had been prepared by the regular increasing power of audiovisual use since the 1960s. Younger generations that grew up with television have an imagination that is necessarily structured by images and sounds, which may make them less sensitive to forms of expression such as literature, which calls upon one’s own imagination through written words.”

29 But also, to audiovisual culture.

30 Michel Melot (2007: 88-89) reminds us that “the press was late in integrating images, which were lengthy and expensive to reproduce. It was only in 1789 that an illustrated journal, Le Cabinet des modes, was published in Amsterdam. It included hand-coloured etchings in its little booklets every two weeks. It was only with the invention of lithography in 1796 that illustrated newspapers were born.”

31 On this topic, Bernard Lahire (2012: 63) notes that “cinema contributed to [the] marginalization [of literary culture] because it proposes an experience in a limited time frame, that a novel could offer over a few days or a few weeks. Nowadays, someone looking to escape or enter worlds of fiction and adventure tends to go to the cinema, which has changed everything.”

32 According to Emmanuel Durand (2004: 23-24), “video content has become abundantly predominant in global internet traffic: in the United States, in mid-2014, Netflix and YouTube alone represented more than half of internet traffic” and “the percentage of YouTube mobile consumption went from 6% in 2011 to 40% in the world, a mere two years later.” In parallel, “television still makes up the core of audiovisual content use. Early 2014 saw consumption amongst French people over fifteen reach a daily average of three hours and fifty-two minutes (though eight minutes less than the same period in 2013).”

33 Raffaele Simone (2012: 34-35, 36) reminds us that “we owe what we know to the fact of having read, seen or heard it.” From this point of view, we would thus have gone “from orality to writing, then from reading to vision and hearing.”

34 See Goody (1979). In the same vein, Raffaele Simone (2012: 72-73, 97-99) contrasts the “self-guided” rhythm of reading (that can thus be corrected) with the “hetero-guided” rhythm of seeing or hearing (which is incidentally difficult to “cite”), “deictic conversion,” and the possibility to correct oneself that the passage from orality to writing implies.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. From books to e-books
Crédits Source: Flickr, picture by Pen Waggener
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Fichier image/jpeg, 75k
Titre Fig. 2. Mythology of the “digital revolution”
Crédits © Gérard Mauger
URL http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/docannexe/image/481/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 433k
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Référence électronique

Gérard Mauger, « Digital Media: A Revolution in Reading Practices? »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 7 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2020, consulté le 24 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/481 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/bssg.481

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Gérard Mauger

Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique-Centre de sociologie européenne (Cessp-CSE)

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