A conversation with the UX thinker and designer Stephen Farrugia about what it means for our brain to read on a screen rather than on paper, about the dehumanising aspects of the “attention economy” and about tactics to resist them.

Aude Launay: Just ten years ago, novelist and artist Douglas Coupland coined the more than famous slogan I MISS MY PRE-INTERNET BRAIN. Do you also miss your pre-internet brain?

Stephen Farrugia: I miss my pre-internet computer which was isolated from the outside world and had a world of possibilities in itself. The moment I connected my computer to the net, the life seemed to be sucked out of it. It became nothing but a window to the network.
I miss my pre-GUI brain. With the GUI (Graphical User Interface) came multitasking and when the computer can show you many things at once the burden of which thing to focus on is turned completely on you.
The pre-GUI screen was more like a book. You saw things one page at a time. The post-GUI screen is like a window to all the pages—all at once.

AL: Coupland’s idea, by then, was to create statements that would not make sense for someone twenty years before (i.e. in 1991). If you were to write such a slogan today, what would it be?

SF: “Digital media still hasn’t killed print”
Physical music and video media died but physical books live on and thrive, despite the existence of ereaders.

AL: So, Reading on the Web, in addition to being the title of this series of videos that are as many anti-tutorials as they are psychogeographic drifts through a connected screen, is the topic of some of your recent user experience research. Can you expand on this design practice and its outcomes?

SF: Firstly, I regret using the word “web” instead of “screen” in the title. The source of the text on the screen should not matter.
The idea for the experiment came from conversations with my research collaborator, Anuj Das Gupta. Anuj told me about his technique of highlighting each sentence as he is reading it and this fit in well with some ideas I had about how reading a physical book involves your hands as well as your eyes. For example, when you read a book you have to hold it up and hold it open with your hands and your hands have to be ready to turn the page. There is this constant connection between your eyes and your hands.
With screen reading your hands are less bound to what your eyes are doing. Desktop screens hold themselves up and smartphones and tablets can be held in your hands but they don’t need to be held open. You do need to click or touch to turn the page or scroll, but otherwise your hands are free.
Because Anuj has to highlight the next sentence when he finishes reading the previous one, he increases that bond between his hands and eyes. His hands are involved with each sentence he reads.
I take this idea quite far in my experiments by requiring that you hold the mouse button down on the sentence you want to read to reveal it. If you release the button the text is hidden, just like how a book will fall to the ground if you don’t hold it with your hands.
It’s an interesting experience because you can’t cheat the system. Your hand becomes locked to what you are reading and everything else on the computer screen disappears from your attention.
To reveal the next sentence you have to hide the one you are reading so you find yourself considering if you have comprehended the sentence enough to move on. The way it pulls you into the text is quite noticeable.

AL: In the first episode, we can hear you say: “you still find that you don’t read as deeply as you could be on the internet, especially when you compare it to reading books.” This made me think back of texts I wrote about the sensation of being online, that I traced back to the feeling of communion associated with live broadcasting on television—since I was musing about screens—, and in which I compared screencasting to VCR recordings1, two practices that produce, in my opinion, “zombie moving images” and turned watching the screen into an experiment much closer to reading a book and listening to a record than to thrilling in unison. Do you think the possible concomitance in reading something on the web, and by that I mean the simple fact of knowing that someone else could be reading what you are reading at the same time you are reading it, has some impact on the feeling of reading? I am not talking about social media here, but about articles or any piece of text that is available online in a more ‘static’ context I would say.

SF: This reminds me of my first experience with the Kindle ereader. When you are reading a book on it you occasionally see a highlighted passage which says something like “230 other people highlighted this passage”.
I remember my mixed feelings the first time I saw this. On the one hand, it was a sense of awareness that others are reading this at the same time, and on the other hand, it felt like a distraction from the book. How does this information help me read the book? Why show me anything that takes me out of my book? We can’t seem to resist adding features which take us out of what we are reading.

AL: This also reminds me of one of my favorite books, What We See When We Read, by the reader, writer and designer Peter Mendelsund, and especially of this couple of sentences: “When I read, I withdraw from the phenomenal world. I turn my attention ‘inward’. Paradoxically, I turn outward toward the book I am holding, and, as if the book were a mirror, I feel as though I am looking inward. […] When I read, my retirement from the phenomenal world is undertaken too quickly to notice. The world in front of me and the world ‘inside’ me are not merely adjacent, but overlapping, superimposed. A book feels like the intersection of these two domains—or like a conduit; a bridge; a passage between them”2. According to you, does a screen act the same?

SF: Our devices display whatever we need to help us withdraw from the phenomenal world whenever we need it. The experience of being absorbed, as described in that quote, is quite easy to do with a smartphone. You could replace the words “book” and “read” with “Instagram” and “scroll the feed” and it makes just as much sense.
The thing which the quote describes is most significant if you are reading, watching, or listening to something which is challenging how you see the world. These things need your full attention to get through them, remaining absorbed in something like that can be rewarding.

AL: Clearly, your ‘focused reading’ tactics can be seen as resistance to the competition for attention that drives the so-called attention economy. I say ‘so-called’ because, inspired by the critique of this term proposed by the essayist and philosopher Yves Citton3, I think it it necessary to regularly remind people that attention cannot be reduced to purely economic aspects and to plead, following him, not for an economy but for an ecology of attention. What is your position regarding this?

SF: I find the term “attention economy” dehumanising. It comes from the same world where people are “users” and their “experience” can be “designed” en masse. These terms are like grease in the wheels of the mindfulness industry which thrives on the idea that you, in your overwhelmed state, are an inferior human who needs to learn how to cope better. Don’t forget that Nir Eyal published a best-selling book about how to make tech products that get people hooked and then followed it up with another best-selling book about how people can resist those products. The drug dealer also peddles the antidote4.
I have this theory that the obvious distractions we get from our devices are not as bad as the potential a device has to distract us. For example, when we read on a Kindle we are aware of the books stored on it and the ability to buy any other book in an instant. This potential is designed to be accessed as easily as possible, without friction. This potential feeds on your lapses in focus or when you’re reading something that’s challenging to you. It’s a promise of escape that is always there if you need it.
One project I’d love to work on is an experimental ereader device which has no potential beyond being a tool for reading a book. The specifications would be something like:
It can hold one book at a time
It does not have internet connectivity
It displays a single page at a time
It has two buttons, one to go to the next page and one to go to the previous page
It requires a USB connection to a computer to swap the book with another
Could you imagine something like that in stores next to the latest Kindle or iPad? It would be a joke. I would argue, though, that there is not a single feature of those latest devices which makes them better for reading books than my experimental ereader.
But then we can start asking why digital books are just skeuomorphs of printed ones. Why isn’t there a digital native format for telling stories with text? You can ask Ted Nelson about that one. Just don’t expect a patient explanation.

Aude Launay & Stephen Farrugia, December 2021

1 Aude Launay, The Return of the Dead Moving Image, Casting Screens, 2019
2 Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read, Vintage, 2014.
3 Yves Citton, The Ecology of Attention, Polity Press, 2017, translated from the French by Barnaby Norman.
4 Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Random House, 2014, and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, BenBella Books, 2019.