Screen Text
Julia Lesage / University of Oregon


The impact of the iPad?

In a series of columns encouraging Flow readers to examine, indeed document, their own media use and how it relates to their research and writing, I here detail some of the impact the iPad has had on my intellectual and recreational life, most of which centers around reading. By reflecting upon my ideolect of computer use, I also see more clearly the ways I am tied into the institutional and commercial entities that make screen text available.

First of all, using the iPad has led me to reconsider the trajectory of how I have done traditional academic research and the often invisible ways in which changes in library structure have preceded the changes in my personal research strategies. For example, the computer was supposed to give us the “paperless office,” but throughout most of my scholarly life, photocopied essays filled my file cabinets at home and in my office, overflowing into numerous cardboard boxes. These documents seemed easier to read than onscreen text on the monitor, and could be annotated. Then (was it ten years ago?) the University of Oregon library changed its homepage, online search engine so that an entry immediately gave you access to both its own collection and to a “find text” button leading to scholarly journals, from which PDFs could be downloaded. Suddenly I was amassing many more PDFs, saved via a Firefox add-on Zotero, and only about 10% of these got printed out. Now, with an iPad my use of PDFs has changed once again. I print out very few since they seem so much easier to read on an iPad, where the app GoodReader allows for organizing PDFs in folders, and the iPad screen lets me enlarge the text to a more readable font size. I could even annotate the files if I wanted to, but I still prefer to do that by hand. The social downside to this kind of research is that my institutional access, even as retired faculty, represents an elite privilege to freely use academic library resources that most users of the Internet do not have.

Instapaper application

Apps like Instapaper make on-screen reading efficient and approachable.

In an even more dramatic shift in my onscreen reading, I read much more online news than ever before. I had subscribed to some RSS readers over the years through Bloglines and Google, but it always seemed a chore to plow through them, not comfortable and without flow. Now, with the iPad, I use a newsreader that looks like a newspaper to accompany my morning coffee. In addition, Instapaper—an app synced to Safari on both my Mac and iPad—reformats any web article as text with resizable fonts, so I use this app to collect most web material that I will want to read later. The reformatted text seems so more readable. The problem with RSS readers, however, is like the problem of using Pandora or for music listening. You program it with your preferences and then it gets boring not to have surprises; we all need new information different from what we might expect.

Most dramatic, however, is the impact of the iPad on my reading of fiction. As indicated, I love to be able to change font sizes, which is especially useful when working out on the treadmill or the stationary bike at the gym. But screen reading of fiction brings any iPad user up against corporate and institutional restraints and competition. For example, iBooks, the Apple product, will not accept all ebook file types, while Amazon’s Kindle app will allow you to add any kind of book file. Furthermore, I want to use Oregon’s municipal-library-consortium’s ebook lending program, which utilizes an Adobe application, Adobe Digital Editions, that resides on my Mac. Because of the feud between Apple and Adobe, getting the public library books onto my iPad requires a computer workaround and yet another iPad reader app, Bluefire. (Adobe is the mother of draconian digital rights management. In this vein, Digital Editions is similar to Adobe’s DRM media software that currently enables independent distributors such as New Day Films to stream their films to colleges and households.)

Adobe Digital Editions Beta

Libraries using Adobe Digital Editions are often incompatible with Apple products.

I’ve used the public library since I was a small child. I want fiction to be plentiful and free, or at least available at used bookstore prices. The iPad has changed my reading habits as I search the Internet for free fiction. First of all, I have a renewed appreciation for Project Gutenberg, which has been putting public domain books online for free since 1971, long before the Internet ever existed. In fact, I often buy collected versions of Gutenberg texts from Borders or Amazon to save the effort of collecting them (the collected works of Balzac, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Gaskell, Virginia Woolf). I have even found some pop authors who delight me there (Edna Ferber, John Buchan). But Project Gutenberg’s greater effect is to turn me back to authors I always wanted to read or delight in rereading. Interestingly, Project Gutenberg owes much of its impact to the lifelong devotion of one man to the project, Michael Hart, who has joined with others in legal efforts to keep the Internet “free.”

Beyond Project Gutenberg, I have found that the Internet abounds with free short stories, often well-curated in monthly ejournals. My own interest runs to science fiction and alternate universe stories, and I have found hundreds of such stories on the Internet. By using Instapaper to pick up these stories from the Internet, I can make little ebook collections of about fifteen stories each to put on the iPad. Never before a short story fan, I have become a convert, especially since I can finish two or three whole narratives in a session. For a change of pace, sometimes I even buy books from Borders or Amazon.

Amazon Kindle

Ebook readers, like the Amazon Kindle, facilitate profitable ebook sales.

At this moment in media history, the ebook is comparable to the music file. Luckily for us, Project Gutenberg got a head start and has kept much of our literary heritage available for free. And we have a strong public library tradition to counterbalance the megabook chains, which have shrunken down to Barnes and Noble and Amazon. Ebooks are profitable, as Amazon’s sales have proven. We can expect more sophisticated institutional and legal moves to control and increase those profits. As David Harvey put it in The Condition of Postmodernity, international capital seeks to encapsulate and monetize ever small and smaller units of previously uncodified space. In the realm of onscreen reading, for example, Google’s ebook reader seeks to control profits by sending out only a small bit of text at a time, to keep the ebook from ever being on the computer all at one time. In spite of such silly efforts, ebook piracy will surely increase. Media scholars should consider screen text at many levels, far beyond the issue of whether or not ebooks will replace paper texts. Struggles over new platforms, like the Kindle or iPad, represent just one chapter in the institutional effort to control and monetize information, a struggle in the electronic realm which the popularity of ebooks and ereaders has just intensified.

Image Credits:

1. The impact of the iPad?
2. Apps like Instapaper make on-screen reading efficient and approachable.
3. Libraries using Adobe Digital Editions are often incompatible with Apple products.
4. Ebook readers, like the Amazon Kindle, facilitate profitable ebook sales.

Please feel free to comment.


  • Truly important things to be thinking about, especially for graduate students sorting out their teaching strategies. This also makes me wonder how relationships among academic disciplines invested in media technology for pedagogical purposes (Information Technology and Media Studies, for example) will shift, work together, or diverge.

  • First off, I was one of the skeptics when I heard about Apple’s plan to release a tablet computer. Like many other critics, I viewed the iPad as simply an iTouch on steroids. Both of them basically run on the same operating system instead of the Mac OS X. So it was difficult for Steve Jobs to convince me that the iPad is more of a “computer” tablet than simply a highly luxurious version of an iTouch. No way in hell would I fork out at least $500 for one of those gadgets. However, one lucky night, I actually won one playing a game called Barber Cut Lite, which took $9 out of my pockets. Not a bad investment I must say. So if I’m a bit enthusiastic about my iPad then I guess this is part of the reason for it.

    My initial usage for the iPad was more as another system of entertainment consumption. Because it was only 8GB, I could not load it with too many songs and movies even though I already have an iTouch to serve that purpose. I treaded lightly with games considering such apps cost way too much. One of my favorite apps though was the Marvel Comics one, where I could download beautifully lush comic books all into a single gadget. Tired of having another tool for doing the same things, I decided to venture out. This is when I truly found my iPad to be useful. Like Julia Lesage, it has truly altered the manner in which I work in the academic field. No longer am I bringing pages and pages of readings into class like before. My QuickOffice app allows me to save readings my professors give to us online into a PDF file. I can arrange my courses into folders and then have folders within them for each week. My entire college education resides in those files in this iPad. Albeit it might be a bit of a hassle since I can’t download the files straight from my iPad but through a computer. Nonetheless, it is worth it when you can have a “paperless office” in the palm of your hands.

    What this has done for me is that it has created a fresh way to experience my college education. Though what I have just said still pales in comparison to what a laptop can do, the iPad does redefine the mobile screen. The iPad did not invent the computer tablet but it certainly made it cool and easy to use. The screen is big enough where it does offer a good movie and reading experience. Smaller than a laptop, holding an iPad is the closest way of feeling like James Bond for me. Along with these other eReaders, the iPad has not only made reading and owning books more efficient but it has eliminated the manner of shopping and purchasing for books. If there is a book I want to read, I could easily go to any of the apps and buy it right then and there – if they have it of course. My iPad has even altered my experience with Amazon for shopping has never been so easy. However, I believe the iPad can truly impact the platform of eReaders just like the way MP3 players, iPod, and Napster did with music. As Lesage mentions with Project Gutenburg, it has been putting public domain books for free online. Of course, institutions are trying to monetize such opportunities and I seriously pray for the day where I don’t have to pay $50-$100 for text-books. It is absurd that as platforms are opening up more ways in which to access information, books, movies, music, newspaper, etc., institutions are complicating it with their capitalist ways.

    Finally, I am also irked by Apple’s seeming shift for the iPad’s usage. The substitution of the orientation lock for a mute button has radically altered my experience with my iPad. No longer am I able to read comfortably on my bed without it suddenly changing orientation on me. It has lead me to think whether or not Apple is pushing the iPad away from a more academic tool to a more entertainment-friendly mechanism. It’s no longer like a computer but more like an iTouch, which was what I feared about in the first place.

  • I was very surprised to read an article about the ipad which did not focus on the media convergence potential of this all encompassing doodad. At times it seems as if the ipad was design jointly by Henry Jenkins and Steve Jobs as the device that would bring transmedia and media convergence into our homes, classrooms, dogparks, etc.

    Anywho, the idea of a paperless world has been bandied about for years. Like jetpacks and flying cars, a world without paper or even paper money has been “just over that ridge” in pop culture for a long time but there are a few hurdles that stymie the proliferation of devices like the ipad (which would need to be ubiquitous to reach a paperless world). One of the major hurdles, that seems to be lowering, was addressed in this article. How do you go paperless when it is so damn hard/irritating/ineffecient/bad for your eyes, to read on a nine by seven inch lcd screen. The read only, nature of pdfs and the draconian digital rights management tactics of some companies (adobe was called out but is not alone) have long been barriers that point out the inherent superiority to simple products like pen and paper. Not too long ago if you were reading a scholarly article (similar to this one) on a pdf on your laptop at the library you would have to open a word document to jot down notes and then hope to re-align those notes later – which never happens for most college students. But, finally it appears as if the ipad has gained enough momentum that it can finally influence, if not work around, the text consumption problems that kept most people away from consuming text (particularly academic text) digitally.

    The ipad, and most of it’s sleek mac cousins, is all about ease of use and interactivity. The ability to enlarge text to a comfortable reading size and font seems like a no-brainer. Scanned newspapers, journals, and microfilms are all of the sudden readable on a single device that might not even require you to visit the dusty archives in the basement of you local college library. Lesage’s commentary on the social change brought about by the proliferation of ipad usage has been commented on time and again, but rarely in the context of academia. The incorporation of the digital library search engine as noted was the first major shift. Reference cards that required you to manually search through a dewey decimal classification system were replaced with a computerized version. This was monumental in eliminating one step of human interaction (using a librarian or physically searching through the cards – which presumably other people would also be doing). The ipad’s all-in-one abilities allows users to eliminate the other step – going to the library. If I really wanted to I could never touch another actual book and still consider myself a fairly educated man.

    Lesage delves into her reading of fiction in this article, but the main difference and the biggest hurdle that digital text consumption of fiction faces has little to do with the social and almost entirely to do with the legal. Lesage’s comparison of the ebook to the digital music file is an interesting one, but time and the ease of consumption are the biggest factors seperating the two. The music file circa 2003 was consumed the exact same way a song was consumed circa 1973 – speakers, headphones, jukebox, etc. The procuring of this product was what changed – to a revolutionary effect. The consumption of digital text (for pleasure especially) faces the legal hurdle of capitalism. How will people continue to make money of their digital text? How will it be protected while still being easily consumable? Additionally, the consumption of digital text faces the hurdle of changing consumption forms. Headphones hooked up to a record player, walkman, discman, or ipod are all pretty darn similar. Reading an actual book, magazine, journal, etc. is really different than reading an ebook on your laptop, desktop, or ipod. The further evolution of the changes discussed in this article will have a huge affect on whether the proliferation of digital text for fiction ever reaches the ubiquity that digital consumption of audio has. Here’s hoping. Now, where is that Jetpack I’ve been promised.

  • Mikhail Skoptsov

    Lesage’s article raises a lot of interesting points regarding the effects of new screen text technologies on reading practices, as well as academic studying. I believe it is very helpful as it encourages one to document one’s own use of media. At the same time, the article documents a relatively limited personal perspective.

    Up until the final paragraph, there is no attempt on the author’s part to discuss the wider implications of her individual account of the influence of media on one’s reading habits. Because of the limitations of Lesange’s viewpoint, the final paragraph, which attempts to stretch beyond the personal and make several claims about the future of reading in the digital era, comes off as unconvincing and lacking in evidence.

    I find this a missed opportunity, as a number of scholars and students alike are undergoing similar issues in regards to the I-Pad and other new media technologies.

    Lesage’s predilection for hard paper copies of scholarly documents for instance is quite familiar to me. I often find that a good deal of my critical studies classmates read their documents in .pdf format off their portable computers.

    But I belong to the group of people who harbor a preference for paper. Not only is it “…easier to read than onscreen text on the monitor”, its physicality allows me to bring it to class and utilize my written notes at the right time, having annotated and underlined important passages in it with pencil, pen or marker. In a manner similar to Lesange, I have over the course of my academic life, accumulated numerous cardboard boxes filled with document printouts and study books that now reside within a storage space.

    By contrast, the reading habits of my family have undergone significant changes in the past five years, especially thanks to the developments of the Amazon Kindle and the I-Pad. While I eventually got onboard with the Kindle, my parents have quickly embraced the I-Pad, now using it to read books, papers and other types of text documents. They now continuously encourage me to enter the I-Pad bandwagon, something that I for some reason still feel reluctant to do.

    By comparing and contrasting multiple accounts of people’s reading and studying habits in the digital age, Lesange could’ve very well strengthened the ideas she ultimately expresses. Her analysis of her personal reading habits is found, yet it doesn’t connect that well to the conclusions she attempts to draw from them. Nonetheless, I do agree with the notion that “Media scholars should consider screen text at many levels, far beyond the issue of whether or not ebooks will replace paper texts”.

  • I really enjoyed reading this article, especially because I haven’t yet jumped on the iPad boat. I’m interested to see how my computer habits shift once I do get a tablet computer, but for now I do everything on my MacBook Pro. Like the author, I can’t decry the ease of finding, downloading, and sorting academic articles on pdf. For the first two semesters of my Masters I insisted on printing out all my required reading, but at some point I had to quit the practice because my folders of articles became unruly. They’re hard to sort and find and they’re bulky and take up far too much room than is practical. I switched to using pdf whenever I could, and it was a good choice.

    However, I must contend with the assertions in the final paragraph. Again, I don’t have a Kindle and I don’t have an iPad, and I know many people who have both who swear by them. However, I don’t think it’s entirely correct to say that “at this moment in media history, the ebook is comparable to the music file.” I just don’t believe the two are quite as comparable as many would like to think, and this is why I also don’t think books will suffer the same fate that CDs have and increasingly DVDs will. The difference is tangibility. The reasons that music has made such a seamless transition to the digital file is that tangibility does not factor into our enjoyment of music. It is something we hear, and whether or not it’s on vinyl, CD, radio, or the iPod, we hear it basically the same. Once it is playing, the method by which it is playing is very secondary. The same basically goes for movies, and which is why I think DVDs are also on the outs. Whether or not we are watching it on DVD or an Instant Stream really doesn’t matter. It’s true that the quality of the instant streams are not yet quite yet on par with DVD, but it’s inarguable that they shortly will be. For music and movies, tangibility does not really factor into our enjoyment of the medium.

    I don’t think the same is quite true of the book. Where I think the Kindle and iPad really succeed are with their newspaper apps. For this type of information, which is inherently temporary and ever-changing, I think that like music and movies, the method by which is consumed matters much less. For one, I know I’m grateful that I no longer have the clutter of old newspapers filling every crevice of my home. For books, however, I think the tangibility and how we consume books plays some part in our enjoyment of the medium. I know I’m slightly old fashioned here, but there is something different (and we can leave this to the psychologists) to having a book in front of you. What these new digital technologies promote is an impermanence, and part of the joy of books is the feeling of permanence to the words we’re reading. When we flip a page we know the words we read remain on the previous page, and are not lost to some digital file. We can see the words, feel the words, feel the history of that book, and smell the history of that book. And I’d argue that all these factors contribute to our enjoyment of books.

    This isn’t to say that I’ll never get a Kindle or similar device and use it with some regularity, because I’d be lying to myself to think that won’t happen. But I don’t think that ebooks and music files are on the same level, and I don’t believe that books will suffer the same fate as music. The market for physical CDs has almost completely disappeared, but the market for physical books has not. As ereaders get cheaper I imagine we’ll see some correlative decline in physical book sales, but I think at some point this will plateau, because people who read books have more invested in the method by which they read than people do for how they consume other medias.

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