Digital dangers

Long, absorbing stories have been the domain of the book for centuries. Since the advent of the novel, humans have happily lost themselves in worlds created by writers. But could digital yet be the death of lengthy fiction? Not if we're careful.

A survey by Entertainment Media Research (www.entertainmentmediaresearch.com) shows that while books are some of the most emotionally engaging entertainment vehicles, e-books are some of the least. It is a strange dichotomy.

There are the tactile differences—perhaps we associate plastic gadgetry with a "cheapening" of culture? Maybe readers as a group are more defensive of tradition? But I think a much bigger factor is that digital interactivity can detract from the enjoyment of reading.

A printed book is a simple machine that requires minimal exertion to operate. Just start turning pages, and soon you stop noticing your hands moving; you are swept away on an emotional adventure.

There's something hypnotically appealing about this surrender of control; probably because modern life seems to demand our constant input. It's the same reason people visit the cinema or theatre­—for the luxury of sitting back and being entertained.

Contrastingly, digital encourages conscious participation. E-books are increasingly interactive. They often include video and audio snippets and encourage readers to click links and skip around between content. It's "added value", and it's there because it's possible. iPhone owners will soon be reading stories on their tiny touch screens. The likelihood that they will be distracted by incoming emails or the urge to check football scores seems high.
Interactivity is very useful for education and advertising, but not so great for emotional engagement. It can destroy the delicate flow of a story, and jolt you out of the trance-like state a good book induces.

Digital media will continue to develop and become more prevalent. So the worry for "traditional" readers is that publishers will begin altering their output to suit digital formats—pandering to new generations of people with minuscule attention spans. Long fiction will be slowly replaced by short, multi­media bursts and stories that must be navigated, controlled, and contributed to.

We can't put the lid back on Pandora's Box, and I'm not suggesting that e-books are evil. But if we want to save the wonder of an unhurried story, and foster the authorial dedication that leads to great literature, perhaps we should hesitate before using all the button-pushing wizardry that digital offers.