Ereaders and ebooks: An Interview with Mike Sugimoto

Should your family purchase an ereader or ipad?  What about your kids–should they be allowed to read book apps or ebooks?  Tablets or ereaders are fast becoming a mainstay in American book publishing, but is there any compelling evidence that ereaders or ebooks could be damaging to kids?

Earlier in the year, we addressed ereader negatives like eye-strain and access to dangerous internet sites, both of which can be mediated with proper attention.  (Click here to find out software that can help guard your kids on ereaders….) But what of the way ereaders and digital books shape our thinking?  Today, we toss that topic to Mike Sugimoto, a professor at Pepperdine University with a Ph.d. from Cornell in Modern Japanese Literature and Auethetic Philosophy…and who happens to have been a personal friend of Francis Schaeffer.   If that weren’t enough to pique my interest, I also found out that he is a dad who has worked hard to keep ereaders out of his children’s school curriculum.

1. Tell me a little about your background and how you came to have an interest in ereaders.

I am a professor in film studies at Pepperdine University, after working at the Swiss L’Abri for five years.  Throughout my graduate years, when most of the theoretical work was done, I tried to critique modernity and faith.  On mostly philosophical levels, I have been interested in the question of technology and its relationship to faith, as well as to changing social dynamics as a result of technology’s mainstreaming into contemporary life.  As a professor, I have also dealt with related questions of the place of technology in classroom instruction, specifically in language pedagogy.

However, I am also the father of two boys (9 and 6) who are in a Classical Christian school in its third year – of which I’m a board member – so ereaders are a question we’ve looked at.  Other schools have switched to Kindles to deliver books; some for economic reasons, others for wanting to be “state of the art.”

2.  We all know the positives of ereaders.  They make buying books cheaper and they’re much easier to carry than a bookshelf!  But what are the disadvantages?

Friends consider me tech-literate and I am the sort that likes gadgets as much as the next guy. I have an Ipad 2, Ipods, IMAC, and a Macair, so that’s my credentials!  That is, I’m not opposed to technology per se.

The research I’ve uncovered – and there is quite a bit now – is actually fairly strong against ereaders and computers, in general, specifically in terms of developing a childhood love of reading.  Even journalists and scholars who read for a living have been commenting on how the way they read has changed from in depth to skimming, because the technology of the screen promotes decontextualizing and immediacy, rather than prolonged sustaining of mental constructs that the book represents in the modern period.  In a nutshell, I think that once you have developed a love of books and of reading, then it is theoretically possible to use these devices for their conveniences, but I don’t believe they get you there.  They’re not intended to get you there, despite the initial hype of mimicking the book in format.  Steve Jobs was quite blunt in criticizing the Kindle, saying that “people don’t read anymore.”  And new evolutions of the Kindle clearly indicate that these devices are intended to distract, entertain, gain web access, gaming, etc – not promote literacy.

I am assuming that we want to preserve the tradition of the book as we’ve come to know it, rather than, say, the act of reading webpages, blogs, etc.  But reading books (as opposed to reading websites) is an entirely different literary act, one that requires focus, and – for the purposes of critical thinking – needs a certain level of detachment from one’s immediate surroundings in order to situate oneself and the particular image being communicated through words. Ereaders are all about what is in front of you; thus, while theoretically the entire work of a book is there in digital form, the reality in practice is that you tend to only accept the jpeg fragment illumined momentarily.

This is particularly hard for children who would largely rather be entertained and distracted.  The payoff of reading or conceptual thought is not  readily preferred to the tactile pleasure of touching screens and magically manipulating them.  Reading books in material form creates a different relationship with the eye, body, and brain, thus placing the page at hand in a larger framework.  But you have to sit still and concentrate.  Electronic devices deliver all kinds of bells and whistles to prevent that. We have all had the experience of wasting hours in front of a computer surfing and feeling like a master of information, but it’s hard to say what we’ve gained at the end of it.

Basically, I believe all the senses need to be at work in learning to read: holding covers, bindings, feeling weight, turning pages, etc.  This isn’t just romantic, but has to do with the tactile physicality of an act that helps anchor the images and concepts.  There’s a lot of interesting research dealing with the way that children in low-stimulation environments, such as some orphanages, are hindered by sense deprivation from advancing.  There’s something about the way we are wired that requires as many senses as possible in order to promote the theoretical stuff we tend to think of as education.  Ereaders are supposedly only about more efficiently delivering content.  But we don’t see that the delivery system alters the content.

There are loads of other studies comparing the use of books vs. broadband computer access with disadvantaged youth that substantiate these concerns. I think the short of it is that children who have lots of computer time get really good at using computers, but don’t necessarily advance in any subject, such as mathematics.  We tend to throw money at a problem, but in reality its the social aspects of human communication for children, conversation, and the environment we grow-up in that much determines our facility with reading, knowledge, education, etc. Some intriguing research shows that children who grow up in homes where books simply are displayed for use – even at a preliterate stage – will go farther in their education than children in homes with few or  books.  Something about connecting those books on shelves with the subjective connection that this is my world seems to have a lot to do with a certain wiring and attitude that gets formed within us.

3.  Do you see any difference between ebooks and book apps?  Is an electronic book any less problematic?

Unfortunately, the book is now largely an app and electronic books have so many of the features that undermine reading.  Of course, reducing access to those additional entertaining apps can be helpful.  But the central problem is the device and how the technology transforms what we call books. We tend to simplistically think in terms of content – being stuck in a form vs content binary – so books and e-devices are seen as only being similar delivery systems, rather than actually being different forms of content.

Our school decided against adoption of Kindles, even though it’s cheaper in the long run, because it’s just not pedagogically right.

I hope Dr. Sugimoto has gotten you thinking as he has me! I’m also really interested in what you guys think on this one.  Should/do ereaders or ipads play a role in your child’s schooling?  If they do, have you noticed any advantages or drawbacks?

For more on this topic, you can listen to Dr. Sugimoto discuss these issues in a lecture on the L’Abri site.  Or see our Interview with Dr. Gene E. Veith, as well as Janie’s post Brave Little Digital World.    And don’t forget our Bible-related Gifts for Kids post this week, as well as other gift suggestions coming up in the next two weeks!

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5 Comments

  1. Brandy @ Afterthoughts on November 30, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Fascinating!

    We just recently bought our first Kindle (as a Christmas gift for our 9yo who reads voraciously–obviously, he doesn’t have it yet), and I have to admit it has taken me years to get comfortable with the technology. I totally agree that it is not appropriate for school and probably not even for deep reading–how can we easily flip back and forth between two pages to make comparisons, for instance? How do we know how far along we are in our books, even?

    With that said, what really caused us to make this decision is that we have no library near us, and we wanted something that would allow our son to read more broadly…something we could afford. A used Kindle was the answer. I like the e-ink because it is easy on the eyes.

    We plan to have him keep a commonplace journal so as to connect his reading back to paper, and we also plan to have him tell us which titles he thinks would be worth adding (physically) to our family library.

    • emily on November 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      Brandy, Sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought! Your idea of using a journal to connect your son’s thoughts back to paper is really interesting. I like that a lot. My guess is that most people will eventually make a place for digital books in their lives. The question is what should that place be… and how can we use them wisely. I’m not sure I have the answer at this point, but I really appreciate the thoughtful approach you’ve laid out here.

  2. Tonya Roth on December 1, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Thank you for the interesting and timely article!

  3. George S. Whitten on December 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    I think the points made by Dr. Sugimoto in this interview are excellent. The e-reader is one more technological device that edges us into being a visual as opposed to a verbal society.

    I have used the Kindle since the second iteration. As …far as I can see, its practical advantages are portability for large books, and the ability to take several books on trips away from home. The practical disadvantages are lack of easy access to all parts of a book. There are no indexes (this may change now that Amazon has enabled page numbers), and maps, tables, etc. are relatively inaccessible. Thumbing back to find something is practically impossible. Theoretically this can be done by word searches, but I have found this impractical. So, just on practical grounds, I find the traditional book superior, but the problems Dr. Sugimoto poses are of far greater significance in the long run.

    My advice is to keep your kids away from video, video games, computers, and e-readers, until their little brains have matured, and until they have arrived at the stage in their reading where they are avid readers of real books with significant content.

  4. Janie on December 2, 2011 at 5:51 am

    I agree with George. Electronic devices are fine servants but poor masters. Ideally they should be kept out of the hands of children until they’re at least in their early teens. I’ve written about this a lot for WORLD, and on this site, too. Computers, and particularly the internet, have changed the way we read.

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