[Editor’s note: This is the twenty-second of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. We will be looking at the major developments and forces that shaped the written languages we use today. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]
The Gutenberg printing press greatly advanced the simplification and the standardization of written language and promoted the spread of literacy. In much the same way, the current Digital Age, with all its technological advances, has changed the writing and reading landscapes dramatically. Twitter and texting, with their strict character limitations, have led to a large number of abbreviations that have made it into mainstream text (e.g. BTW, IMHO, FWIW, etc.). The enforcers of spelling norms – educational systems and publishers – have been able to hold on to the current orthographic standards in printed documents, but it may just be a matter of time before they will be forced to change. Given that writing has become so democratized through these technologies, and given that the use of non-standard spellings (not just abbreviations) is increasingly widespread, spelling norms will become increasingly harder to enforce.
The publishing industry, one of the major forces of orthographic standardization, is under attack by the increasing volume of unedited electronic publications now available on the internet; what happens to the industry, along with the democratization of technology, will no doubt affect how quickly new orthographic norms are adopted.
Amazon introduced its first eReader about a decade ago, and at that time, publishers panicked that digital books would take over the industry, leaving print publishers floundering. For a while, that fear seemed totally justified, as, early on, the eBook growth trajectory was more than 1,200 percent. Print sales, while not diminishing to zero, lagged far behind electronic sales, forcing many bookstores to shutter their spaces. eBooks also made self-publishing easier. Now it was not only more likely that the average writer could get their work into print, but it was also no longer necessary – at least according to some – to spend so much time and money on the editing process, as getting the work out there became the goal. This led to a glut in the number of spelling and grammatical errors contained in these works, causing a semi-breakdown of what was considered “acceptable” for written norms.
In the last couple of years, though, print sales have been holding steady – even increasing – and eBook sales have started to slide. One possible reason is that eBook prices have increased, sometimes to the point where they’re more expensive than paperback versions. Another reason is called “digital fatigue.” People spend so much time in front of screens at work and at school that they want to be offline when they sit down to read for pleasure. A third theory is that some eBook readers have switched to audiobooks, which are easy to play on your smartphone while you’re multitasking. Audiobooks have become the fastest-growing format in the industry. And, yes, listening to an unabridged book is still considered reading (see blog post here).
Social media, too, has had an enormous impact on publishing. It has become a new way for readers to connect with authors and to discover both new and classic books – in fact, most publishers won’t consider an author’s work unless she comes to them with a large, already established social media platform. Spending so much time on social media, though, can cut into the time that people spend reading, so it really is a mixed bag. We are still in the early days of this digital revolution, so we’ll have to wait to see how all of these factors, both alone and combined, affect our written language norms.
The Digital Age has affected not just the publishing industry, but also the process of reading itself. Reading is a multi-sensory experience, and, according to research, the brain uses not just the sense of sight, but also the sense of touch in gathering information from the page. “The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.” It doesn’t appear that swiping a screen is good enough for advanced comprehension.
The author of the text (both fiction and non-fiction works) spends a great deal of time creating a logical story or a line of reasoning to guide the reader. When the reader looks at a printed book, she follows the narrative from beginning to end, pondering on the material as she goes. eBooks, though, are full of hypertexts, and hypertexts can sink an author-driven line of reasoning. They allow the reader to jump out of the material to follow up on a related point – or perhaps a tangent – and then jump from that point to another point and then another, losing the narrative in the process and rarely ending up back at the starting point. The average web page holds a reader for only 18 seconds. Shallow reading (or skimming) becomes the norm; critical thinking and deep comprehension are lost in the process.
Dailydot.com says, “We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them. We forget what’s available all the time because we live in an age of hyperabundant textuality. Now, when we’re lost, we’re just one click away from the answer. Even the line separating what we know and what we don’t know is blurry.”
Aside from hypertexts, is there a difference in reading effectiveness between eBooks and print books? See our blog post on the topic here.
What are some additional advances that modern printing has lent to the physicality of text? Read our blog on tactile fonts here and our blog on letter spacing here.
Next up: Music’s Later Developments
 Kemmer, Suzanne. (2009). “The History of English.” Rice University. Retrieved from http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html
 Alter, Alexandra. (January 17, 2018). How Technology Is (and Isn’t) Changing Our Reading Habits. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/technology/personaltech/how-technology-is-and-isnt-changing-our-reading-habits.html
 Carr (2011) in Kutscher, M.D., Martin L. (January 15, 2017). “The Effects of Digital Technology on Reading: Does reading on a screen interfere with in-depth learning? Yes!” Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-childs-brain-and-behavior/201701/the-effects-digital-technology-reading
 Kutscher, M.D., Martin L. (January 15, 2017). “The Effects of Digital Technology on Reading: Does reading on a screen interfere with in-depth learning? Yes!” Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-childs-brain-and-behavior/201701/the-effects-digital-technology-reading
 Bliss, Jackson. (January 4, 2016). “How the Internet Changed the Way We Read.” Retrieved from https://www.dailydot.com/via/how-internet-changed-way-we-read/
To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.
To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.
To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.
To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.
To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.
To read Part 5 (Chinese writing), click here.
To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.
To read Part 7 (Olmecs), click here.
To read Part 8 (Mayans), click here.
To read Part 9 (Aztecs/Nahuatl), click here.
To read Part 10 (Etruscans), click here.
To read Part 11 (Meroïtic), click here.
To read Part 12 (Runes and Futhark), click here.
To read Part 13 (Musical Notation), click here.
To read Part 14 (Printing, Part 1), click here.
To read Part 15 (Printing, Part 2), click here.
To read Part 16 (Printing, Part 3), click here.
To read Part 17 (Origins of English, Part 1), click here.
To read Part 18 (Origins of English, Part 2), click here.
To read Part 19 (Origins of English part 3), click here.
To read Part 20 (Origins of English, Part 4), click here.