The invention of the printing press was as significant a technological development in its day as the computer has been in our own. While the Chinese were the first to think of it, it was Gutenberg in Germany in about 1440 who developed the printing press in such a way that it changed the direction of civilisation, not just in Europe, but globally. Gutenberg’s presses came just in time for the Protestant Reformation and made possible the widespread dissemination of radical and revolutionary ideas.
It also made it possible for the ordinary person to have access to books. Previously such access had been limited to clergy, scholars, and the rich who could afford the expense and time it took to produce books by hand. Of course, it’s no good giving people books to read unless you also teach them how to read, so another consequence of the printing press was the growth in literacy.
We have become so accustomed to advances in technology that we see them as always being a good and positive thing. It is important, then, to remember that along with the gains that technological advance brings, there is always a loss. So, for example, the arrival of the printing press meant that the artistic skills and abilities of the scribes who copied books by hand, acquired over centuries, were lost overnight. This may not have been too great a loss compared to the gain, but it was a loss, nevertheless.
The advent of digital technology has resulted in social and cultural change at least as great as that brought by the printing press. And again, doubtless there are many benefits, but this time, the losses threaten to be far greater. Ironically, what we are now in danger of losing are the very things that the printing press made possible: reading and the spreading of ideas.
At one level, it seems as if we are reading more than ever. We are swamped with emails, WhatsApp messages, and phone notifications, all of which have to be read. But the sort of reading we are doing is changing. We are losing the ability to ‘deep read’. Reading on our phones or other digital devices encourages us to skim read, and our desire to be able to access messages quickly, anywhere any time, encourages short single-thought communications. The result is that we find it hard to concentrate and read extended prose.
We will all have had the experience of missing information sent to us in an email. At school, a parent will often ask me a question the answer to which was in a notice that has already been sent to them. Their response when they realise this is usually, ‘Oh, I didn’t see it.’ Screens encourage us to look not to read!
What is often the case for us as adults is even more so for our children. They may be learning to recognise individual words and short groupings of words, but not to read, if by reading we mean sitting down and concentrating for an extended period of time on several pages of sentences and paragraphs.
Why should they? There is no incentive for them to do so. They see their parents constantly looking at their phones, but rarely see them sitting down reading a book. When they have any spare time, their parents immediately put a screen in front of them. It is no surprise, then, when they are unable to concentrate or to think for themselves. Not only that, they also increasingly struggle to imagine things for themselves. Why would they bother when they have Disney to do it for them?
Naomi Baron’s book, How We Read Now, points to the effectiveness of print when it comes to reading irrespective of what other media may be used as well. The need for the skill of being able to deep read is not going to disappear in the 21st century in the way the copyist’s skill did in the 16th century. Detailed documents, extended reports, and investigative articles will still be needed, as will people who can read and understand them.
More importantly, deep reading and the benefits it brings, apart from providing enjoyment and satisfaction that you can’t get from TikTok, fosters creativity, imagination, and independent thought. In George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother, in order to control people, promotes the use of screens and limits people’s ability to read. The irony of the present ubiquity of screens is that we are in danger of returning to the time before the printing press when reading and power were confined to a privileged elite.
This is not meant to be an anti-technology rant. It is, however, a plea for us to adopt a sustainable approach to reading and literacy in our schools. Such an approach, while not rejecting the benefits of technology, would promote deep reading and would encourage children to think rather than simply to absorb.
Baron N. (2021). How we read now: Strategic choices for print, screen, and audio. Oxford University Press.
Orwell G. (2021). Nineteen eighty-four. William Collins. (Original work published 1949)
Winnie went to school at DGS and a boarding school in England before studying law at the London School of Economics. She then studied for a master’s degree in law at New York University. After qualifying as a lawyer, she worked as a tax attorney in New York.
She qualified as a teacher at HKU and has been an early childhood teacher for over twenty years. She has also obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Early Childhood Education, again from HKU, and several qualifications in music and education.
She is currently the Principal of Christ Church Kindergarten.