It is telling that parents in Silicon Valley, who would know, are restricting and even banning screen time for their children. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has just released a new set of guidelines on how much time parents should allow young children to spend with screens: Kids younger than 1 year old should have none, while kids ages 2 to 4 should have a maximum of an hour a day in front of a screen.

While the guidelines emphasized the health consequences of a sedentary life over the possible negative consequences of staring at a screen, there is also the question of whether the digital revolution is changing the way we learn and read.

In Germany, where Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, some advocate in favor of reading in print versus reading in digital. One of them is Sandra Richter, director of the prestigious German Literature Archive in Marbach and author of this piece for the Munich-based media Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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MARBACH AM NECKAR — Politically, the future is programmed for digitality. This year, the Digital Pact, a 5-billion-euro digitalization program by the German Education Ministry, will bring the latest technologies into the classroom. Great promises flank this political and educational effort: Students will become digitally literate, preparing them for the job market and the democratic society of tomorrow. Digital tools and materials are expected to show us the way.

But a group of 200 European scholars, including scientists specialized in reading, have recently dampened the enthusiasm for digital learning and reading with a new study. They found that when we read digitally, especially under pressure for time, we're overconfident with our comprehension of the text. We read more superficially digitally than in print. Does this mean the new digital policy program will lead to the opposite of their intended goal? Does digital literacy eat up reading skills? In order to answer these questions, we first have to agree on what digital media can and cannot achieve.

First, digitality engenders participation. The use of digital technology facilitates access to texts and works of art wherever WiFi can be found. Second, digital media promote individualized learning. Preprogrammed, easily accessible and controllable computer exercises emancipate teachers and students, regardless of whether the tasks at hand are mathematical or grammatical. Third, digitality complements analysis techniques. In the humanities, for example, computers help to determine word frequencies in texts, to zoom in on image details, or to compare audio data.

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Young child browses computer and learns how to use a mouse. — Photo: Miika Silfverberg.

At the same time, however, reading and interpretation get more complicated as long-forgotten texts and artifacts emerge in digital catalogs. Today we have access to more documents than we did 30 years ago and must ask if our canon still holds against these finds.

When we read just for the pleasure of the story, then e-books are enough. If we only want to skim research articles, a digitized version is enough. After all, the electronic form accelerates communication while saving costs in chemicals, wood, and transport. However, according to a study by the Institute for Applied Ecology in Freiburg, this only applies after the tenth e-book.

Computers are terrible teachers.

If we're not just reading for fun or to get quick information, but to develop and preserve the cultural technique of interpretation, things are different. Given today's amount of data and social controversies, we rely more than ever on our techniques of interpretation, which are rightly considered an art form. Neither digital media nor digital analysis can cultivate such techniques.

Computers cannot yet deliver textual interpretations at the push of a button. Perhaps interpretation — the conversation between author, text, and reader — is a uniquely human gift. Computers are indifferent to sense and meaning. Machines cannot generate meaningful and historically informed interpretations of texts, nor interpersonal experiences and balanced judgments. Algorithms used for classification, aesthetic sense, and text-sensitive interpretation are not on the table. Computers are terrible teachers, role models, and master interpreters.

If you want to understand something, read it thoroughly. If you want to learn to read as a student, you will need to write with the pen, turn the pages from back to front, put texts next to one another and write something out. For the time being, reading print books guarantees good reading practices and text comprehension. If used correctly, digitality can create conditions that expand our analog reading in the long term. We should give the machines the chance to support us — but nothing more.


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