On the Edge web site, Steven Pinker offers a scientific dissection of “writing in the 21st century.” Toward the end of his analysis, he slips in the following obligatory warning:
“Another intellectual error we must be suspicious of is the ever-present tendency to demonize the younger generation and the direction in which culture and society are going. In every era there are commentators who say that the kids today are dumbing down the culture and taking human values with them. Today the accusations are often directed at anything having to do with the Web and other electronic technologies—as if the difference between being printed on dead trees and displayed as pixels on a screen is going to determine the content of ideas. We're always being told that young people suck: that they are illiterate and unreflective and un-thoughtful, all of which ignores the fact that every generation had that said about them by the older generation. Yet somehow civilization persists.”
As I have noted earlier, someone could have made the same observation in Rome circa 400 A.D., and smirked at the Cassandra’s who fail to see the obvious truth. But the paper-vs.-pixels debate is worth revisiting, too.
There is, incidentally, some research indicating that we tend to have a stronger emotional reaction to the “real thing.” Neuroscientists have also observed that “meaning” is largely a matter of affective and visceral response, as opposed to the algorithmic analysis of information/ideas. If we put these two observations together, we could reach a different conclusion: perhaps a text read off a physical page would, indeed, have a slightly different meaning as compared to the screen-mediated version – particularly if processing the latter is interrupted by scrolling, the need to pay attention to moving images or hyperlinks, alerts, etc. Of course, this would apply on average – so someone as bent on cool analysis as Pinker could perhaps be excluded. He could also be excused for finding no difference between experiences which for some people are worlds apart, and for having so much difficulty worrying about the future – after all, we all tend to extrapolate from our own neurosomatic tendencies which we take as the human norm.