Ray Siemens @ The Unbound Book Conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
Ray Siemens held a lecture during the theme 'The Ascent of E-readers'. His speech was called 'Sturm und Drang? E-Reading Essentials in a Time of Change and unFixity'. Siemens works with the INKE Research Initiative with his colleagues, mapping the challenges in the digital reading landscape.
E-Reading, an uncertain and challenging future
Siemens reflected on the themes that had been discussed during the morning session, when the lecturers discussed what perspectives on the future of reading they believed in. At the start of his lecture, Siemens voiced his opinion about an overarching question concerning the challenges that digital reading encounters have brought about. He spoke out both in favour of and against e-books, as he explained he was conflicted between the chances and threats that the future of publishing and reading holds in store. "Modelling the book in electronic form is not easy", Siemens remarked. The 'fuss', was about the lack of fixity of digital text, their unstable form and the non zoned-off reading experience. Siemens is all for enhanced reading, augmenting what the e-book has started.
He also said it was important to understand exactly what we are doing as we move forward, as it is uncertain where e-reader technology is going. Siemens continued by providing some examples of which devices we have before us when reading. These range from the traditional physical book to many smartphone-like devices, tablets and laptop pc's - which are not solely dedicated to e-reading. Some very ingenious ones never quite caught on, like this one (Image located through James Bridle's Twitter account) Siemens is looking beyond what the mass-market has for sale and he is researching the dedicated e-reader experience from an academic perspective.
He explained that his research field was at the intersection of several fields, ranging from humanities to computer sciences, and thereby integrating disciplines like usability design, robotics and philosophy. He went on to explain that our digital climate holds an exciting future for e-books in store, it is just the present that is inconvenient. Digital reading is not yet up to the standard of quality, content and functionality that half a millennium of print publication has brought us, to paraphrase Siemens. The disconnect between theoreticians and developers, he argued, has been the cause of an approach that was not pragmatic enough. In this context, Siemens also noted that the reading device itself is just one part of the ecosystem in which reading and communication find themselves.
The reading experience
Siemens argued that more attention should be paid to the sensory experience of reading. Modelling after the book and the page is an approach which is doomed to fail. Taking away the uncertainty means researching the ways in which reading and writing have technologically and socioculturally evolved. It requires, as Siemens put it, an analysis of the mechanics and strategies of reading, as well as textual- and reader studies, researching interface design and information management. Siemens asks himself: "Has the way we read and experience information changed since the rise of the internet?" A change in the engagement of text and context leads us to formulate new practices in interface design, with perhaps more focus on the process of reading, making the interfaces more dynamic.
One point that came forward from the public discussion was that an important difference between the digital reading and print reading experience was the added social aspect. As Siemens said, we are able to respond quickly to the current book revolution, enabling us to model the social practice, evolve its features, change its direction and mashup rudimentary features prominent in the Gutenberg age. He said that the research team he is a part of will be simulating computation, social reading, and then scaling that experience towards a greater whole.
Siemens also discussed, in reaction to a remark by Bob Stein, that we know very little about what we are doing. We have little experience so the value lies in augmenting our current practices. He sees an important start-off point in visualizing and viewing information more dynamically.
The core of Siemens' lecture was the way in which technological progress relating to our reading methods and platforms disrupt our traditional thinking about what constitutes our reading experience and the way in which this disruption may allow us to gain insight into the essentials of this reading experience. Siemens does not take anything for granted and questions all the facets of the evolving reading experience that he encounters with his research team, while not being sceptical. This critical approach seems to be the right one to uncover both the possibilities and the threats that e-reading holds in store for our society.
Ray Siemens is Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing and Professor of English at the University of Victoria with cross appointment in Computer Science. He is associated with several projects connecting the Humanities to digital culture. For a complete biography, visit his personal website
One of the important projects Siemens has been involved with, the HCI-Book, can be found here
Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayS6
PDF of presentation available here: Ray Siemens: Unbound Book