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Visual media is passive, books are active?

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Barzak quotes a passage from Le Guin about watching TV being passive, and reading books being active.

(It sounds like the focus of the Le Guin essay he's quoting was not on that particular topic, but I haven't read the whole essay yet, just the bit Barzak quoted. Thus, this entry of mine is not a response to the whole essay, but rather to the specific bit Barzak quoted--and, more generally, to the many many instances of that argument that I've heard from other bibliophiles over the years.)

I've heard this argument before--visual media involves passive watching, books involve active reading--but it's never really made sense to me.

Sure, books require you to use visual and auditory imagination. But both TV and books require you to use your imagination for the other senses. And both require you to use your imagination to model the characters and the emotions.

Plenty of bad TV spells things out (and does the work for you, as Le Guin puts it) so you don't have to think so much; but then, so does plenty of bad writing.

Also, what does this argument say about audiobooks? When you're listening to an audiobook, you no longer have to move your eyes across the page, or turn pages; you no longer have to imagine the characters' voices; does that mean that listening to an audiobook is a passive activity? What about listening to someone read aloud to you? Is that really all that much more passive than reading the same story to yourself? What if the reader is really good, and the writing is mediocre, and the reader brings the work to life in a way that wouldn't happen if you were looking at the words on the page?

The best TV and movies I've seen have engaged me as fully and thoroughly, at all levels, as the best fiction I've read. I don't feel passive when I'm on the edge of my seat, tense and excited about what's going to happen next, or when I'm crying in sympathy with the characters. To paraphrase what Le Guin said about books, a TV show "won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it."

(Well, sure, some TV engages in manipulative heartstring-tugging. But so does some prose fiction.)

I'll certainly grant that reading provides some different pleasures from watching. But then, reading hard sf provides some different pleasures from reading a cookbook or a newspaper article or a blog or a romance novel. And those are all still much too monolithic categories, in terms of the kinds of pleasures they afford. I don't see the point of claiming that one of those sets of pleasures is superior to another.

Le Guin says that "reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind." So are all sorts of other things. Any artistic endeavor is a collaboration between the creator (in many cases, lots of creators, including performers) and the audience. (And sometimes the categories "creators" and "audience" break down entirely, but that's another topic.) I don't think it helps the cause of promoting reading (a cause I wholeheartedly endorse) to smugly look down our noses at people who are more interested in other media.

. . . Three addenda that occurred to me later:

  • What about reading a comic book? That gives you visuals, but still no sound (but sometimes gives visual interpretation of sound). Is that active or passive? What if a parent reads a picture book aloud to a kid? The kid is getting visuals and sound--nothing left to the imagination, even though the physical object is still a book. Active or passive?
  • Despite being a lifelong avid reader, my visual imagination has never been terribly good. A good designer and good actors can give me much more immersive and interesting visuals than my imagination usually serves up while I'm reading. If that's passivity on my part, I'm not convinced it's bad.
  • In general, if you compare the best things in one category to the worst in a similar category, it should be no surprise when you demonstrate that the good things are better than the bad things. That says nothing, however, about the relative worth of the other items in the two categories.

11 Comments

The most powerful version of that argument, to me, is that reading lousy books is more active (vaddevah dat means) than watching lousy television. My experience is that this is true, for me, mostly. So if the question is whether I am going to spend an hour watching lousy television (that is, whatever happens to be on) or reading a lousy book (that is, if you don't mind my saying so, simple YA/SF or even re-reading some old favorite), it's better for me to read. And when setting up the habits of children, reading junk is not great, but watching junk is actively harmful.

Now, there's some question whether it is ever necessary to choose between the two, but in fact I do all the time. Also, as I think I've expounded on before, with commercial television, once they found out that people will leave the thing on even if they don't think the show is any good, it made sense that they would make the shows as lousy as they possibly could (while keeping production values of the commercials up). And I think that's what happened did.

Thanks,
-V.


My partner, the Occupational Therapist, interprets this argument as discussing the degree of physical interaction with the entertainment/information object. One passively interacts with projected or audio media - one generally stays in a stable position and simply absorbs the info. One actively interacts with a book - by scanning one's eyes across the page to read rows in a systematic manner and by turning pages. By casting it as a discussion about engagement, then the distinction is greatly minimized.


It's (sometimes) much harder to get (some) kids to read books than it is to get them to watch TV, so that must be because reading books takes more effort and kids don't want to make the effort? And the average American watches two hours of TV a day but reads one book a year so, again, this must be because reading books is harder and people avoid doing anything that requires work?

If it wasn't clear (which I think it wasn't), I am not completely sold on this hypothesis. But I do think it's the sort of thing people have in mind when they talk about "active" and "passive". And I wouldn't completely dismiss it, either... you, and I, and most of the people we know, are highly fluent readers who have been reading effortlessly for many years. Heck, we sometimes read things for fun that have been deliberately written *to be hard to read*, because we enjoy the challenge! That's a really different reading experience than that of a kid who is still struggling with reading comprehension (or, I suspect, than that of adults who are less textually oriented). Kids are often still struggling to follow kid-oriented texts when they're easily able to follow kid-oriented TV, so, hey, text seems to involve some sort of cognitive work that TV doesn't.

(As a consumer of relatively sophisticated media, or so I tell myself, I think I am doing much more cognitive work trying to make sense of a TV show like Lost than I am reading most texts. But this is not what people have in mind when they talk about this sort of thing.)

I suspect that the average reader also makes more frequent decisions about whether to keep their attention focused on the book or not than the average TV watcher makes decisions about continuing to pay attention to the TV. I mean, I am very heavily prone to getting sucked in to books and not putting them down, but even then, I *do* put them down, stretch, drink water, change positions, etc, and pick them back up again, an active choice to keep reading. The TV will just keep going, and, because it's all flickery and noisy, I will find myself paying attention to it even when I *don't* want to be. I would love to see an experiment where people had to keep pressing a button to get the next time unit of TV (or whatever) vs pressing a button to get the next chunk of text, looking at how obtrusive and annoying they found this - I would predict that people would be *much* more hassled by having to frequently "reactivate" the TV, because they're just not used to having to do anything to keep TV going, while everyone is used to turning pages or hitting the space bar. By this definition, comic books are active, audiobooks are passive.


V: Interesting; I don't think most people I know choose between watching lousy TV and reading lousy books, though I could well be wrong. (I try hard to avoid doing either, but I know many people regularly do both.) My impression is that most people who watch whatever's on TV do so because they don't want to have to think at all--that is, passivity in that context is a virtue, and saying "you should do something else mindless that's more active, like read lousy books" doesn't seem to me likely to work. (Btw, I added my note about comparing good to bad after you posted your comment but before I read your comment; sorry for any resulting confusion.)

logisticslad: I do occasionally hear people specifically refer to the physical activity of reading (and Le Guin alludes to it in passing, as did I in this entry), but I don't think that's what most people are really talking about when they say reading is active and TV is passive. Your eyes still move around a lot when you're watching TV. Chances are you'll move your fingers to operate a remote, whether to turn the volume up or down, change the channel, or move forward or backward in time (if you're watching a tape or DVD, or if you have TiVo or the like). I suspect (though I have no non-anecdotal evidence for this) that people watching TV are more likely to get up and go to the bathroom during commercial breaks; books don't have commercial breaks, and people who get really immersed in them tend to lose track of the physical world around them. And for people who aren't really paying attention to the TV, or who can multitask well, they may well be doing household chores or chatting with other people or taking care of a baby while watching TV, whereas those things tend to be somewhat harder to do while reading. Also, lots of people watch TV while running on a treadmill or other exercise machine; it's rarer to read books while doing that. (Though it's common to listen to music or audiobooks; we haven't yet determined whether those activities are "active" or "passive" according to this categorization scheme.)

Also, I can set things up so that a book will appear on my computer screen and will automatically scroll past at a fixed speed so that I need do nothing but move my eyes across it (or even such that words will scroll by and I don't have to move my eyes at all); I suspect the reading-is-active people would say that's still more "active" than watching TV.

Anyway, I think this whole physical-activity part of the discussion is an interesting sidelight, but I'm pretty sure that it's not really what most people mean when they say reading is active.


Amy: You posted while I was posting; didn't mean to ignore you. Interesting hypothesis, but (again I have no evidence here) I suspect that a lot of people who don't read much don't find it hard to read, just boring. Or even just not their cup of tea; people experience different media differently. (For example, I love being read aloud to, but some other people don't like it at all; that doesn't indicate that it's hard to listen to a story read aloud, just that people have different tastes.)

TV has bright flashing lights, and sound effects, and people moving around. By and large, watching TV is much more like the experience of interacting with real people than reading books is. You're seeing and hearing people who (by and large) look and sound and move more or less like real people; I can see how that might appeal to people in a way that interpreting a written story might not, without it indicating that the reading is significantly harder per se to do than the watching.

...Which does seem to support the reading-involves-a-cognitive-load-that-TV-doesn't part of your comment, so yeah, I guess I'd go along with that part. But somehow words like "harder" make me wary, because then it's only a short step to saying (as Le Guin does) things like "No wonder not everybody is up to it," which sounds incredibly elitist and smug and offputting to me.

And I do agree with you about things like following Lost; you treat that as a side point, but for me it's a big part of the main point. For that matter, I bet there are plenty of people who don't read much (and plenty of others who read nothing but romance novels, which I suspect is similarly looked-down-upon by a certain class of literature-lovers) who could tell you in detail five years' worth of incredibly twisty and complicated soap-opera plots; that's quite a cognitive load.

So I think (though I'm talking through my hat here) that the difficulty of reading that you're talking about--the cognitive issues involved in interpreting words on a page--are at a different level of cognition than the ease or difficulty of interpreting plots and character actions and emotions. And people who say that reading is active are usually, as far as I can tell, talking specifically about how much more reading engages the imagination than TV does, which seems to me to be more at that plot-and-character level than at that squiggles-of-ink level.

Interesting thoughts about decisions to stay focused. My experience of reading, when I'm really immersed in something, is that I'm making a pretty passive choice to keep reading--in theory I could stop and put the book down, but that's analogous for me to saying in theory I could turn off the TV. In practice, I'm pretty likely to stay hunched or curled into an uncomfortable physical position for hours while I'm reading something, with very little regard to anything in the world around me, and without consciously noticing that I'm turning pages. But I agree that your "reactivate the TV" experiment is a fascinating one.


Well, my off-the-cuff response is that there's a remarkable amount of consistency amongst research on television watching vs. activities such as reading. The one I always remember, potentially anecdotal but oft-repeated, is that one burns more calories sleeping than watching TV. I'd guess, however, that in terms of pure caloric burn you're going to lose about as much reading as watching TV - both are pretty stationary activities.

But let's look at other data, too. Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, or optimal experience consistently shows that television watching tends to leave people with negative affect and little sense of achievement.

There's more stuff out there where people have looked at affect, and people tend to be much happier when they're reading than when they're watching TV, but I can't dig up a good link for it.

Nothing's conclusive - I think there are vast difference between nationwide studies of television watching vs. reading, because there's a tremendous selection bias - the vast majority of television watchers are people who view from 3.5 to 4 hours (or close) a day, and at those levels, unless they're netflixing or tivoing like mad, they're likely channel-surfing (and thus watching crap). Making a vast generalization, I'm guessing that there's a chunk of the population that hates reading, and that they also likely spend a lot of time watching vapid TV. In turn, also generalizing, I expect there's a smaller chunk of the population that loves reading, and probably selects TV (and engages with what they do select) that's at a more intellectual level - they probably also watch less of it. This self-selection is going to do damage to any national-level correlational study of the effects of television vs. reading.

But personally?

Personally I still think reading's more active, and here's why. Both TV and books are media used to get stories into our brains. We have five senses with which to take in stories - taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound. The first three have, for all intents and purposes, never proved to be fertile areas for story intake.

This leaves sight and sound. On the latter sense, books are full of fail. On the former, they aren't so stunning either - just full of little symbols we've learned through rote memorization mean certain things.

But TV? There's sound - we hear the characters speak, so we do not have to imagine their voices. We hear the soundtrack, so we know if the people on screen are happy or in danger or fighting!evil. And boy oh boy is there sight - we see how they look, so we don't have to sketch them out in our heads. We see them interact, so we don't have to assume how one is responding to another's statements. We see their environments, so do not have to extrapolate from the details a book would give us.

In short, television does more for us. There are far fewer gaps, and very little we need to queue up from our brains in order to imagine what's happening. When I read:

Alex walked to the ancient door.

- my brain does all kind of things. I'm modeling what Alex looks like, whether from a previous description of the character or one of my own that I've used to overwrite the author's description. I'm calling up the idea of walking, and if there hasn't been much description of that door I'm probably pulling up my favorite mental file on weird ancient doors and popping it in there. Books make the brain work, because they give us skeletons we flesh with our imagination.

Television gives the whole beast, set with colorful stones and plastic, and our brains don't have to do much but examine it.


Wow. Check out my username subtitle getting used for my signature name. Sorry about that! That's me just above.


I think people underestimate how much our brain is filling in when we watch TV. When we watch alex walk to the ancient door, our brains are actually doing a lot of the kinds of work Tacithydra is talking about—we're looking at Alex walking, and interpreting whether he is fearful, eager or oblivious; we are looking at the ancient door and interpreting whether it is ancient and alien, ancient and Egyptian, or ancient and Gothic; we're listening to the music and interpreting whether it is ominous, triumphant or comic. Which is not to say that we're doing more of that then whilst reading; I suspect we really are doing less, although I don't have any idea how to measure it. But just as in real life, our brains do an awful lot of work interpreting what we see and hear. That's leaving aside television that, to refer to Amy's post, was deliberately filmed to be difficult to follow. It should take a fair amount of imaginative work to follow Lost (I'm told) or The Singing Detective or Memento (because presumably watching would include film).

As for the choice of lousy books v. lousy tv, I have not only made that choice myself fairly frequently (when tired or sick, or when the television was on with some crap someone else wanted to watch, and when there wasn't anything good to read lying around) but made that choice for my child as well. I wonder if it's common for a parent to say to himself why doesn't that kid give those Droon books a rest and watch some Dragonball Z or something?

Anyway, going back to Tacithydra's comment, and again going by limited anecdotal evidence, the people who are watching 3 or 4 hours of television a day are, realistically, going to be reading magazines if they are reading. And not Dissent or the New York Review of Books, either. What's around the living room is Woman's World or People or even Newsweek; if reading is more active (vaddevah dat means), then reading those magazines is more active, but it's hard to see it.

Thanks,
-V.


other things while listening to the radio, including dancing. What do people do while watching TV (other than eat)?

If you were to block a child's ear so that no sound could get through until between the ages of one and two, that child would be permanently deaf. This is not because you have damaged the parts of the ear itself, but because the neural connections between the ear and the brain would have never formed, and after a certain age (I believe it is roughly 2.5 years old) it is too late and those connections will never form. That is why toddlers with chronic ear infections have to have surgerical intubation to prevent permanent partial or complete hearing loss.

Television is relentless. It goes on at its own frenetic pace and doesn't stop to let you think, absorb, or ponder. In that sense, television, radio, and yes audio books are enforce a certain passivity. You can't stop them, and they don't respond to you. I tell people who use the television as a baby sitter, "Would you hire a baby sitter for your child who talks incessantly, models behavior you don't approve of, and never hears or responds to your child?"

Admittedly, books don't respond either (which I think is the core of Jed's suggestion that they aren't any less passive than television) but you can see the words and interpret them, put the book down, pick it up, finger the pages, smell the ink, look up a word in the dictionary, read it out loud to a friend, argue with the author or the characters in your heard, and do all these things at your own pace. There are degrees of activity and passivity in books, and it depends on the both the quality of the writing, the personality of the reader, and the mesh between them.

Which brings me to one of my favorite passages in Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson:


"I love reading novels," the Doctor excalimed. "You can understand them without thinking too much."

"But I thought your were a philosopher," Eliza said, apparently having waxed close enough to him now that she could get away with teasing and pouting maneuvers.

"But when philosophizing, one's mind follows its natural inclinations - gaining profit along with pleasure - whereas following another philospher's meditations is like stumbling through a mine dug by others - hard work in a cold dark place, and painful if you want to zig where they decided to zag. But this-" holding up the book "-you can read without stopping."

By the way, I just read that next year, all television stations by law must broadcast digital signals only, and all analog television sets will be obsolete. This is one of those events that mostly affects lower and middle income people who cannot afford to replace their televisions. I expect we will see a temporary surge in the school test scores when this happens.


Here's the scientific argument, as I understand it:

The American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations for Parents On Media Consumption include absolutely no media (television, video, internet, etc.) for children under two years old, and then no more than 1-2 hours of quality media a day for anyone else - and you should monitor your children's television watching, or better yet watch it with them, and talk about it with them. In other words, make it as (inter)active as possible.

At the same time, they recommend that you should read to your children daily as soon as they are born.

Why the difference? Because the growing brain of preschoolers require interactive stimulus to form neural connections. This is how children learn. Think of it as the equivalent of junk food versus a healthy diet, only for your brain.

Here's the scientific argument, as I understand it:

The American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations for Parents On Media Consumption include absolutely no media (television, video, internet, etc.) for children under two years old, and then no more than 1-2 hours of quality media a day for anyone else - and you should monitor your children's television watching, or better yet watch it with them, and talk about it with them. In other words, make it as (inter)active as possible.

At the same time, they recommend that you should read to your children daily as soon as they are born.

Why the difference? Because the growing brain of preschoolers require interactive stimulus to form neural connections. This is how children learn. Think of it as the equivalent of junk food versus a healthy diet, only for your brain.

Research has fairly well established the fact that the more senses you engage in any activity, the more learning takes place. Believe it or not, holding a book and smelling the pages engages your senses and contributes to active learning. Television and radio by their nature support passivity, because they only engage one or two sense at a time. In this sense, book reading is more active/less passive than audio books which are more active/less passive than radio which is more more active/less passive than TV. I put radio ahead of TV because even though it engages one sense as opposed to two, most people engage their other senses doing other things while listening to the radio, including dancing. What do people do while watching TV (other than eat)?

If you were to block a child's ear so that no sound could get through until between the ages of one and two, that child would be permanently deaf. This is not because you have damaged the parts of the ear itself, but because the neural connections between the ear and the brain would have never formed, and after a certain age (I believe it is roughly 2.5 years old) it is too late and those connections will never form. That is why toddlers with chronic ear infections have to have surgerical intubation to prevent permanent partial or complete hearing loss.

Television is relentless. It goes on at its own frenetic pace and doesn't stop to let you think, absorb, or ponder. In that sense, television, radio, and yes audio books are enforce a certain passivity. You can't stop them, and they don't respond to you. I tell people who use the television as a baby sitter, "Would you hire a baby sitter for your child who talks incessantly, models behavior you don't approve of, and never hears or responds to your child?"

Admittedly, books don't respond either (which I think is the core of Jed's suggestion that they aren't any less passive than television) but you can see the words and interpret them, put the book down, pick it up, finger the pages, smell the ink, look up a word in the dictionary, read it out loud to a friend, argue with the author or the characters in your heard, and do all these things at your own pace. There are degrees of activity and passivity in books, and it depends on the both the quality of the writing, the personality of the reader, and the mesh between them.

Which brings me to one of my favorite passages in Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson:


"I love reading novels," the Doctor excalimed. "You can understand them without thinking too much."

"But I thought your were a philosopher," Eliza said, apparently having waxed close enough to him now that she could get away with teasing and pouting maneuvers.

"But when philosophizing, one's mind follows its natural inclinations - gaining profit along with pleasure - whereas following another philospher's meditations is like stumbling through a mine dug by others - hard work in a cold dark place, and painful if you want to zig where they decided to zag. But this-" holding up the book "-you can read without stopping."

By the way, I just read that next year, all television stations by law must broadcast digital signals only, and all analog television sets will be obsolete. This is one of those events that mostly affects lower and middle income people who cannot afford to replace their televisions. I expect we will see a temporary surge in the school test scores when this happens.


Wow, that was an incoherent comment. My original draft of this comment had scare-quotes and sarcastic italics, and I seem to have taken them out of what I actually posted. Reading "must" be harder was, uh, meant to be undermined in the following paragraph, but I got sidetracked onto the kids thing.

To try again: I think two things are getting mixed up when people talk about reading vs TV, the experience for "fluent" readers/watchers and for "struggling" readers/watchers. For fluent consumers, I definitely agree with you that saying that one or the other kind of media is inherently "harder" is smug and elitist and offputting and false. It does seem to me though that fluency in TV is attained earlier or more easily than fluency in reading and so there is this population of consumers who are struggling with reading while they're fluent in TV, and for those people it is true that reading is harder. As Matthew mentions with the Pediatrics Recommendations it's considered very culturally important that kids develop reading fluency, so the idea about active/passive is out there as part of the push to make kids do the work of developing reading fluency, and then this gets *mistakenly* applied to the already-fluent as a statement about the general properties of the activity.

Since fluency is not actually a binary, add some sort of caveat here about needing to exercise a capacity in order to retain it, and if reading is actually a harder skill to acquire, does it then also need more exercise to maintain.

Oh, and here's my next proposal for an experiment: I've been thinking mostly about kids, as my population of people who might not be fluent in both TV and reading, but my experiences watching TV and movies with my elderly grandparents suggest that TV fluency may be lost earlier than reading fluency. I can't say from observation how much of that is just due to mechanical factors like hearing loss, but they seemed to have a lot of difficulty following the plot, characters, dialogue etc of modern movies, while my grandfather at least was still an avid reader of modern mystery novels . Although obviously I did not subject him to a reading comprehension test. I think it would be very interesting to look at happiness, "flow", and brain activity, and specifically whether reading or TV had a greater impact on retention of general cognitive skills, to see whether perhaps in elderly people TV *is* more "active" and demanding than reading. What's true for the developing brain may be very different than what's true for the aging brain!


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