This is the text of my relation at : “Going digital”, Nobel Symposium, 147 Session 3, Applications 1: Adding value for everyone Thursday 25 june 2009.

 First I must apologize for my english that is not so good you could expect and not bad enough to be completely incomprehensible. This median state is often irritating.

A few words to present you my entries on the digital questions. I have been the Computer and Information Technologies Director of the «TGB», Very Large Library, almost twenty years ago, and had to produce the design of the information system, and also of the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which is known to day as Gallica. Furtherly, as the adviser of the minister of Culture for the society of information, I helped her about digitization of cultural heritage, and also about these new cultural practices. And when the french Prime minister asked me to organize something for the reduction of the digital gap, I was confronted with the question of digital literacy.

Three years ago, I have decided to give a more theoretical turn to my activities. And I am now director of the Scientific Group ” Digital Culture&Medias” Project. So I am much honoured by the invitation of the organizers of this Symposium, and much grateful to hear and meet so brilliant contributors.

My work is in general about digital culture and digitization of culture. More precisely it is about reading, future of reading, becoming of reading. In 2007, the ministry of culture has asked me a study about reading as a digital cultural practice. The main points of this study are presented in a book written with the philosopher Bernard Stiegler and Christian Fauré, published on last may, under the title «Des lectures industrielles», «About industrial readings».

To day, I shall focus on two points. First point is a proposal of a diagnosis or a balance, if you prefer this metaphor, of «digital reading». Second point is about the notion of «industrial readings» I advance. Industrial readings not only indicate the economical environment of digital reading as a cultural practice. It is also the main explanation why the technology of digital reading and the associated practice are what they are and not something else.

Digital reading

This approach looks at reading as a practice, not a simple consequence of digital text, digital medium, or computerization devices for reading.

Though we are mostly concerned here by the dilemmas of digitization in the field of humanities, scholarship and research, one must not forget that, under familiar and sometimes bombarding forms, digital reading is a public question, a question of the public. Peoples, parents, teachers ask: will the screen (the computer, the web) substitute to the book? Is digital reading a true reading? Will it succeed to the «classical» one? Children will they continue to read, to read like their parents, like the school tries to teach them? And if they read differently, how literacy and literature will be transmitted?

Digital reading is reading

So we may begin by this very simple and elementary question: is digital reading at less a certain form of reading?

I think the answer is yes. Digital reading is reading.

There is an important qualitative difference between reading before the web and reading on the web. So I propose to speak of «reading on a screen» for the first one, and «digital reading» for the second one.

Before the web, in the practice of reading on a screen, the text is not the objective of the reader. Rather is it a control reading, a certain way to decipher and survey the informations and operations of the computer. And reading is submitted to another activity that is the real goal. Credit card, word processor, phototypesetting are examples of such a «reading on a screen». Umberto Eco has said «word processor e una machina molto spirituale» but reading functionalities of word processor are not spirituals at all.

Reading on a screen has become a reality, a social practice with the invention of the personal computer, it means when computer has become a medium. It has become easier, more «user-friendly» according to the marketing jargon, but staid more difficult than reading on paper that was still its reference, as the “Wysiwyg” formula, “What You See Is What You Get” shows. Basically, text was lacking to this first form of reading with computer: a certain quantity, and if possible a certain quality of texts to create a true environment of reading.

The web has done it. HTML, the language of the web, has made digital texts exist on the basis of the internet. The web produces conditions of a textual environment on the screen consistent enough to arouse a regular and massive practice of reading. This point seems evident.

Less evident is the fact that digital reading is not only a consequence of digital texts, but also a condition of development of the web, and the basis of the emergence of a reading technology. There are a lot of examples, as the uses of hyperlinks by research motors. I like also to quote the origin of the word «blog» from “web-log”, reading log on the web, to “we-blog”.

Digital reading is reading; I shall not be longer on this first point, the other ones being more complex.

Technology of digital reading is a technology «by default»

Traditional technology of reading is human. It may be a method for the reader, as in the Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor (XII cent), or it may be applied to the text itself or to the medium, as it is the case, for example, with the separated writing in the British Islands in the VII cent., studied by Paul Saenger precisely as a new way of reading.

In comparison, technology of digital reading is paradoxical. If you ask a request to Google on the word «reader» you will find a lot of machines, software, languages. It seems more difficult to find a reader man or woman. And really, browsers, «readers», e-books, research motors themselves – the robot of Google is a reading machine, there are a lot of techniques of reading.

But, on the other hand, there is no global technology of digital reading. The paradox is everywhere. We can have a medium whose the text is more and more visible, approaching the printed page. We can have a medium with all the potential of digital text, this sort of self-equipment and self-knowledge of the text. But we cannot have the two together in a simple way, I mean in a current activity of reading. We can have access to a great number of texts on the web. We can annotate, create personal paths of reading. But we cannot practice this sort of active reading on the whole web.

Only on the functional level, technology of digital reading lacks of unification, fullness, and integration. The digital reading act is complicate and difficult. Difficulties, underlined notably by the psychologists cogniticians are everywhere: visibility of the screen, typography and layout, up to the absence of unity, which prevents the reader to project his model of understanding of the text red. The reader has a certain idea of the text. He must replace it on each manipulation, but the launching and the execution of this new operation tends to make him forget the first version, the first idea of the text. Path of reading, le “fil de lecture”, is cut. The heaviness, the difficulty of manipulation creates a supplementary problem of attention. Cognitive overflow syndrome does not come only from the overloading of information in the text or about the text; fundamentally it is an operative overflow.

What I try to resume with this idea of a technology “by default” is simply the fact that digital reading technology is mostly oriented “reading machine” and not “reading man”.

Digital reading and reflexion

The most important point in the balance of digital reading is the type of effective reading it allows. And there is no way here to avoid the comparison with classical reading and reference to the history and philosophy of reading. The general meaning of reading practices is the key for their evaluation and critic as cultural practice.

I present my hypothesis with caution. It seems there is a risk, and sometimes more than a risk, of a convergence of the achievement of the act of reading, the sort of attention of the reader, the content of reading.

About the practice of browsing, we may speak of pre-reading, a notion that comes from Romans as praelectio. There are a lot of reasons that make necessary the preparation of reading: think about the difficulty to read a papyrus roll, or an unseparate word text. Browsing is this activity that produces the text to be red, and is a sort of digital prelectio. More generally, the act of digital reading seems in a state of unachievement as if different manipulations were to prepare a reading that doesn’t come.

Many commentators of digital practices insist about the question of attention. Katherine Hayles has opposed the hyper-attention, an attention that needs to be frequently activated, to deep attention, she sees as characteristic of the classic reading. Even if we do not agree with the idea of different generational cognitive styles, it seems quite reasonable to recognize that digital reading environment is not in favor of deep attention, and that it multiplies the occasions to lose one’s concentration.Difference is not between continuity and discontinuity, but between different types of continuity, and different types of discontinuity.

An american researcher, Ziming Liu has tried to explain the frequent junctions from screen to paper. He underlines the difficulty, with digital reading, to go further than a scanning reading towards a sustained reading, that is the difficulty to pass from an information reading to a studying reading.

Now studying reading has been constructed, in Western Culture, after silent reading, and around the link, imagined by Augustine, and systematically established by Hugh of Saint Victor, between reading and reflexion, lectio and meditatio. Studying reading, which implies deep attention, complete and sustained reading, is this one that prepares reflexion either on the text, or from the text, or from the subjective situation of the reader. This reading, I call here studying reading, is not more or less intensive, more or less active, more or less serious than the information reading. It has other finality. And here must be mentioned the conceptions of Michel Foucault on reading as «technology of the self», and of Brian Stock on reading as intellectual or spiritual exercise, askèsis.

It seems that convergence of hyper-attention rather than deep attention, pre-reading rather than complete reading, information reading rather than studying reading may create a situation where the link between reading and reflection, lectio and meditatio is no more established.

Reading and simulation of reading

Last point is about simulation. We have seen that technology of digital reading was mostly oriented machine. But this machine comes from the functionnalities of human activity. For example, if someone uses an automatic translator, he simulates the activity of a professional translating texts, through the software. But simulation is not knowledge transfert. If you use a research motor, you need, to qualify the results, three different skills: knowledge about the subject in general, knowledge about the subject as it is digitized, knowledge about the research motor. Of course the competence is not total – why you adress a request. But if the competences are not enough, the simulation is reversed – it becomes a simulacre- a pretense. At the end, it is the whole activity of reading that may be simulated in this way.

Industrial readings

Now I introduce the second part of the talk by this formula: What is becoming reading? An industry.

The notion of industrial readings is of course economical; but it is also political, as part of the question of the new public space what Robert Darnton has called «digital republic»; and it is also cultural, particularly about the know-to-read, the literacy. And it has appeared to me that this notion was an answer to two different questions: how improve the technology? and how the public of readers can manage with this situation?

Reading industries

Reading industries are a true novelty. History knows reading technologies, mostly human technologies, and if they where outside the man, they were inscribed in the medium as a part of the text. History knows also literary industries, the name Tocqueville gave to the book publishers in «Democracy in America». And Adorno in its essay on Kulturindustry describes Beethoven throwing away a book of Walter Scott and saying «this bloke writes for money». But we did not know until now reading industries.

A characteristic of the digital era is what Jeremy Rifkin has called the «access economy», and the place of access industries rather that content – a word I don’t like too much- industries. From this point of view, reading industries are access industries, and publishing industries are content industries.

Reading industries, whose Google is the most remarkable and brilliant example, appears on the crossing of information industry, cultural industry, and marketing industry.

They have three activities or three sectors of activities. First one is computerization of the means of reading, software, hardware, and also digitizing texts as an access activity and not a publisher activity. For example, the robot of Google is a reading machine: crawling is automatic reading, and indexation is a traditional activity of reading. An other activity is the production of reading acts and reading texts: that is exactly what does Google after a request. A reading text is a meta text, a text that has no signification if separated from a first one. It was the case for glosses that became a separated text after the production of a glossary. A Google result is such a context of reading. The third activity is the basis of the business model of most of the reading industries. It is trading of readings and trading of readers for marketing.

Reading industries transform the relationship between reader and text in what Edward Bernays, the inventor of marketing and nephew of Sigmund Freud, has called a public relation. The word «publicity» has here the two meanings: principle of publicity of the text, and publicity, language of economy through the marketing. Reading is decentered in a public space, a commercial public space and readers become consumers.

Statistic, calculation become the obsession of the actors of the web. Each reading act becomes a «hit». The association of statistical information to the recording of reading operations is at the heart of reading industries. I call its products: industrial readings.

Digital readers as a public

The space of industrial readings differs deeply from the anterior combination of public and private space as evocated for example by Kant around the principle of publicity, «Offenlichkeit». To be effective, the space of Kant, or the public space of Habermas, in our epoch, needs a public of readers; it needs school, transmission of literacy and, in the modern states, it has been one of the major realizations of public powers. But these public powers almost everywhere have disinterested themselves of their responsibilities on digital literacy, and digital reading knowledge.

So the space of industrial readings looks like a face-to-face of the reading industries with the public of readers. And this public of digital readers assumes a lot of big responsibilities, and, I should say, unusual responsibilities.

Responsibility on technology, to make this technology by default become effective and get a sort of provisional consistency.

Responsibility about the text: la «clôture du texte», the closure of text. The reader closes the text after browsing, assuming the traditional work of author and publisher.

Responsibility on his reading: how to pass to studying reading, and very simply, when decide to read out of the screen.

Responsibility about its own training and about the formation of a public, what is known as «social networks».


So, to conclude, one of the main problems of digital reading and industrial readings, which is also a general problem of the so-called information society or knowledge society, is: are the different readers prepared to such responsibilities?

The readers of the classical literacy have no problem individually if they agree to use a computer. They do not confound information reading and studying reading; they know how to associate reading and reflexion; if necessary, they turn to the paper; they don’t have the “Google-and-copy-and-paste syndrome”.

The situation is very different with young persons who are called «digital natives». The competition between book and other medias among the youth is not a new thing. In this room, I think that almost everybody has known something of this competition. But even to be a simple consumer, one has to know how to read, and, until now, classical reading, reading of the book was the reference. Today medias that compete with book and writing – the generationnal media- can find a relay in an other technology, an other practice, an other space of reading. And it is made at an age of the individual life when the link between reading and reflexion is not yet constructed.

I am not pessimistic. I do not believe in a cultural apocalypsis. But the scenario of a gap between the two types of reading -let us say to come back to the title of this symposium: the evolutionary type and the revolutionary type- is the most plausible.

Evolutionary type: a unified way of reading on book and digital text and medium; a new technology of digital reading; the preservation of the link between reading and reflexion. Revolutionary type: an opposition of digital reading to classic reading; no link between reading and reflexion; and all sorts of things we will see on/from young peoples who are now five to ten aged, before ours societies shake themselves out their torpor.

It’s time to debate.


Michel FOUCAULT, L’Herméneutique du sujet, Hautes Études, Gallimard Seuil, 2001.

Brian STOCK, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation, Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Alain GIFFARD, “Des lectures industrielles”, p 115-216, in Bernard STIEGLER, Alain GIFFARD et Christian FAURÉ, “Ars Industrialis”, Pour en finir avec la mécroissance, Flammarion, 2009.

Alain GIFFARD, “La lecture numérique à la Bibliothèque de France”, in Aurèle CRASSON (dir), L’Édition du manuscrit, Academia Bruylant, 2008.

Katherine HAYLES, “Hyper and deep-attention: the generational divide in cognitive modes”,, 2007.

Ziming LIU, “Reading behavior in the digital environment”, Journal of Documentation, vol.LXI, n°6, 2006.

MIALL and DOBSON, “Reading hypertext and the experience of literature”, Journal of Digital Information, 2-1, 2001.

Bernard STIEGLER, “Machines à écrire et matières à penser”, Genesis, Revue internationale de critique génétique, n°5, 1994.

Jacques VIRBEL, “Reading and managing texts on the BnF station”, in The Digital Word, P.Delany, G.Landow (eds), The MIT Press, 1993.