Giles: “Ms. Calendar, I’m sure your Computer Science class is fascinating, but I happen to believe that one can survive in modern society without being a slave to the idiot box.”
Jenny: “That’s TV. The idiot box is TV. This [the computer] is the good box.”
Giles: “I still prefer a good book.”
Fritz: “The printed page is obsolete. Information isn’t bound up anymore. It’s an entity. The only reality is virtual. If you’re not jacked in, you’re not alive.”
Jenny: “Thank you, Fritz, for making us all sound like crazy people.”
Buffy – The Vampire Slayer – 1.8 I Robot, You Jane

I got an interesting question via eMail about the “aversion” some people have to reading and writing digitally. It seems that working with paper is much more comfortable — they feel that they can concentrate better, remember more, and work more creatively.

Is there anything to it?

Actually, that’s a good question and as a psychologist with a tendency to focus on real-world problems, I would love to examine it. But, unfortunately, I do not have the time to hit the literature. Personally, I don’t think that it is necessarily a technophobic reaction to prefer paper — nor do I think that you can speak of “advantages of paper” or “advantages of digital”, because it is really not paper vs. digital. It’s the affordances of paper vs. those of digital media that matter.

For example, I have read books on a CRT monitor, on a matchbook size cellphone screen (don’t ask), on Notebook screens, and on tablets — and there are major differences between these ways of digital reading.

Let’s look at what really differs here:

Possible differences when it comes to reading/writing on paper vs. digital

  • Unchangeable position of words: On paper, each sentence has a specific position on the page, it’s not like an ePub file that reads like one endless scroll. However, it’s the same with PDFs.
  • Writing speed: You write slower on paper (if you know machine writing), thus you also read slower if you make notes per hand. However, your writing speed might match the speed on paper if you write on a tablet or use a pen with a tablet.
  • Possible Distractions: There is less distraction with paper — e.g., you cannot visit facebook on paper and few people play tic tac toe in the margins. You’d need a tablet without any other apps and no Internet connection. Difficult.
  • Reading position: With paper and tablets, your body is in a position that is closer to the text and more relaxed, esp. compared to notebooks.
  • Sharpness: With paper and some high-end displays, the text is really sharp and it does not flicker.
  • Accuracy: With paper, you are more accurate and flexible if you want to make notes — even with a high-end tablet writing is still inconvenient, drawing and making notes are usually two different modi and there is a lag when drawing.
  • Arousal: With paper, it might feel safer (e.g., paper cannot crash, even when you drop it it cannot break).
  • Interaction speed: With paper, interaction feels faster (e.g., turning the pages depends on your speed, not on the processing power of the device).
  • Amount of information you can see with one glace: With paper, you can put different pages next to each other, independent of screen size. In contrast, few apps allow you to even look at all pages at once (e.g., scale up and down).

There are probably other differences, but I wonder which (if any) of those makes a difference for reading/writing on paper vs. digitally.

Personally, digital reading became fun (and effective) once I switched to a tablet (iPad). It does not matter that much for me for fictional literature, but for scientific texts, I found it difficult to read them digitally until I used a tablet. Then the ability to highlight text and export it via eMail became invaluable for me. However, I still capture some ideas on paper (esp. in situations where a phone is not recommended, e.g., high humidity, sensitive environments) and sketch on paper (e.g., MagicCharts to develop ideas, quick and dirty sketches to illustrate ideas).

But that’s my way of working — what do you think? Did you make a switch from paper to digital? And what are your experiences? I’d love to hear about them.


  1. WRITING: This is particularly regarding your “Possible Distractions” — I’m writing a series of novels now, and there is such a good piece of software for that (Scrivener) that I spend most of my organizing time there and YES I do get distracted too much, mainly to Facebook. But once I’m doing the actual writing, I often use a device called the Neo, or Alphasmart Neo, or Neo2. The company has stopped making them but you can get them at ebay or other such places. They are not connected to the internet… they are keyboards with a very small LED screen, so you can write away and then later send it to your computer via usb. These were designed for use in schools, but many writers have discovered them. I use mine at home in a comfy chair or at a local coffee house.

    READING: I do most of my digital reading on my ipad. When I am buying a book, I decide whether I want a paperback, which is mostly true for gardening or other books I’d use for reference.

  2. Hoi,

    thank you for the comment — that Neo … device … looks interesting. It wouldn’t work for me, because I would want to use Scrivener, but it might be something for others. Thank you.

    All the best


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