In my mind, the feasibility of such an app would only increase the already overwhelming social and cultural expectations that books need to go digital. While I think that this rush to digitize is not being approached in a systematic and thoughtful way, I also felt that there was no way to really offset the massive social pressure to go digital, and maybe I could help offset the dangers and losses that would happen by blindly pursuing digitization. Well, this study from Japan has added some scholarly weight to the idea that digitization offers more than print can. The study used a methodology and goal that had a narrow focus: literacy as measured by interpretation and accurate understanding of words and their meaning. The ebook highlighted the script for each word being read aloud, which resulted in an expected boost in literacy. The control subjects having the same book in print format read by their mothers did not experience the same growth.
Well, that is just great, but as the study notes this is the "first experimental evidence for a positive effect of exposure to digital books upon any aspects of child development." All the other evidence to date is negative. Unfortunately, this will not slow down the general direction of publishing, and will probably be used as more evidence of the superiority of digital to print. Anecdotally, I can add that as the parent of a toddler and a preschooler, my wife and I are the only parents among our peers who filter and limit access to technology for our children. Every other family we know uses the "virtual babysitter" in every imaginable situation. Even waiting in line at the market we see parents handing their child a phone to "keep them busy".
There is no way of really knowing what this is doing to children, but we can acknowledge that it means future generations of library patrons will be radically different from current patrons. Friends' and neighbors' children already note how different our house is from theirs, because there is no TV, and because there are books "everywhere". Ironically, our kids are far more literate in a traditional sense than their peers. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether this is good or bad for them, as I have no idea what kind of skills and "literacy" they will need in 20 years. How should the future library be planned and modeled? I have no idea, I just know that we need to stay nimble, aware, and flexible if we want to serve these future patrons. Because the pressure to digitize is extremely powerful, and as we have seen in the past, technological innovation develops a life of its own and begins to move regardless of the original intent. We are still dealing with the unintended and probably unforeseen ecological damage from industrialization and urbanization. We will probably see similar ecological strain and damage in the information ecosystem.