Nicholas Carr
Technology Writer

From Papyrus to iPad: The Evolution of Reading

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Spaces between words were only invented around 800 or 900 AD, before which reading was a more cognitively intensive act. The advent of eReaders threatens to revive this complexity, says Carr.

Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr writes on the social, economic, and business implications of technology. He is the author of the 2008 Wall Street Journal bestseller "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google," which is "widely considered to be the most influential book so far on the cloud computing movement," according the Christian Science Monitor. His earlier book, "Does IT Matter?," published in 2004, "lays out the simple truths of the economics of information technology in a lucid way, with cogent examples and clear analysis," said The New York Times. His new book is "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains." 

Carr has also written for many periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, The Financial Times, Die Zeit, The Futurist, and Advertising Age, and has been a columnist for The Guardian and The Industry Standard. His much-discussed essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," which appeared as the cover story of the Atlantic Monthly's Ideas issue in the summer of 2008, has been collected in three popular anthologies. Carr has written a personal blog, Rough Type, since 2005. He is a member of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's editorial board of advisors and is on the steering board of the World Economic Forum's cloud computing project.

Carr holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A., in English and American literature and language, from Harvard University.


Question: How has the technology of reading evolved from papyrus to the iPad?

Nicholas Carr: One of the most important things to realize about reading is that it is a fairly new invention in human history—a couple of millennia old, only after the invention of the alphabet. And for a long time, reading was really only just a kind of adjunct to oral communication because you know, most of human history you just conversed and exchanged information through speech.

And so one of the fascinating things about early writing on slates, on papyrus, even on early handwritten books, is for instance, there were no space between the words. People just wrote in continuous script. And that’s because that’s the way we hear speech. You now, when somebody’s talking to us, they’re not putting pauses – carefully putting pauses between words. It all flows together. The problem with that though, it’s very hard to read. A lot of your mental energy goes to figuring out where does one word end and the next begin. And as a result, all reading was done in the early years out loud, there was no such thing as silent reading because you had to read out loud in order to figure out you know, where was a word ending and where is the word beginning.

And it was only in around the year 800 or 900 that we saw the introduction of word spaces. And suddenly reading became, in a sense, easier and suddenly you had to arrival of silent reading, which changed the act of reading from just transcription of speech to something that every individual did on their own. And suddenly you had this whole deal of the silent solitary reader who was improving their mind, expanding their horizons, and so forth. And when Guttenberg invented the printing press around 1450, what that served to do was take this new very attentive, very deep form of reading, which had been limited to just, you know, monasteries and universities, and by making books much cheaper and much more available, spread that way of reading out to a much larger mass of audience. And so we saw, for the last 500 years or so, one of the central facts of culture was deep solitary reading. The immersion of ourselves in books, in long articles, and so forth.

With the arrival – with the transfer now of text more and more onto screens, we see, I think, a new and in some ways more primitive way of reading. In order to take in information off a screen, when you are also being bombarded with all sort of other information and when there links in the text where you have to think even for just a fraction of a second, you know, do I click on this link or not. Suddenly reading again becomes a more cognitively intensive act, the way it was back when there were no spaces between words. And as a result, I think we begin to lose the ability to read in the deepest, most interpretive ways because were not kind of calming our mind and just focusing on the argument or the story.

Recorded November 10, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller