A leap into the future of (digital) reading

On the past event Showcases Digital Publishing Toolkit I read the following text:

The Canadian mediatheorist Marshall McLuhan said in his famous Playboy interview in 1969: ‘Most people, as I indicated, still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world.’

The next ten to twelves minutes I’d like to talk about the way readers and designers (who are also readers) relate to books, now that books are becoming digital (a lot of them not all them). As you can see in the title of my talk the page is my point of convergence. The main question is: are we ready for a different kind of page or it is impossible to see it. As McLuhan predicted. Are we indeed trapped in a rearview-mirror view of our world?

My name is Harold Konickx and I work as a researcher and teacher at a school for interactive media, Communication and Multimedia Design, which is part of the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. My talk is not free of some nostalgia, a bit of frustration, but will be mainly good spirited and hopeful.

The KickOff for my research on the relation reader/designer/book, about a year ago, was the work of Willem de Kooning graduate Megan Hoogenboom. She is a graphic designer who specializes in Epub design. Hoogenboom made a transformation of Paul van Ostayens Boem Paukeslag for epub. Working with this kind of poetry in epub seems like an impossible task as is relies on ‘witruimte’, visuality en different fonts. What you see here is not easy to transfer to epub so Hoogenboom had to read the poem carefully and interprete it. In doing so she invented a book that is ‘digitally born’; she uses epub to reinvent the original page and she didn’t limit herself but overcame the so called boundaries of epub. If you would like to hear more of Hoogenboom and her ideas on digital publishing you can find an interview with her right here.

To me she touched on the true core of the ebook. What is that core if a book is not a collection of physical pages – the page as you know it – anymore but an epub which is actually html which is the DNA of the World Wide Web. I decided to interview experts and professionals in the the field of digital media: (interaction)designers, publishers, developers and even a writer of modern fiction. I asked them about the future of the book, about ‘a spotify for books’ (or should I say ‘Blendle’) and I tried to fish their idea out of them what will happen to the page as we know it. Just like a did with Hoogenboom. Some of these interviews are on video and are also to be found on the vimeopage of the Institute of Networkcultures. I’ve picked some interesting quotes for my talk.

She or he who wants to make a leap into the future of the (e-)book needs to look at the past of the book. Doing so I discovered how strongly intertwined form and the content of the traditional book are. In his A history of reading, first published in 1996, Alberto Manguel explains that the origins of the book as we know it lie in the 4th AC with the invention of parchment. Parchment made it possible to collect pages in a codex which had big consequences on the user experience of the reader. I quote Manguel: ‘The codex gave readers the opportunity to leaf through pages almost directly; doing so they kept an idea from the text as a whole –an idea intensified by the fact that the complete text rested in the lap of the reader.’ So as a reader you keep the whole world in your hands. Judith Stoop, Paulien Kreutzer and Joost Kircz researched changing reading habits among students and found out students prefer to print the subject matter they have to acquire. By the way: this a clear argument against going all digital with our schoollibraries. In one interview Miriam Rasch said: ‘What I don’t like about a digital book is that It doesn’t give me a good idea of where I am in the book.’

So reading a physical book can be a such meaningful and for me also a pleasant experience because of a form and a substance working together. This is the nostalgic part of my talk I guess. Manguel forgives me for that. I quote: ‘It’s interesting how technological developments – the invention of the printing press for instance  – often support the things they seem to chase away. Technological developments make us even more aware of old fashioned qualities we otherwise would have overlooked and would have dismissed as irrelevant.’ Only have a look at the revival of vinyl in the music industry to see a lot of truth in this quote. Designer Frank Kloos, articulates the qualities of the physical book like this: ‘I might be a Romantic but I would have trouble with the disappearing of the physical book. A book is quite a casual thing you carry around easily. ‘A book is a thing with character where a tablet [or another reading device] is a dead artefact.’ Kloos somewhat appologizes for his opinion. We don’t want to be held backward or old fashioned. And this talk promised to give us an idea on what a digital book can be instead of putting the physical book on a pedestal. So let’s move to the digital world …

I can’t help wondering what Marshall McLuhan would have thought of some of today’s popular practices in the field of digital publishing. What would he for instance have thought of Apples Ibooks software as it is displayed on an Ipad, mimicing the leafing of pages. This is the frustration part of my talk. McLuhan surely would have brought the horseless carriage syndrom to our minds: the first cars looked like horse carriages. It helped users to get familiar with this new technology. The writer of the blog who presents this image says there’s also a positive side to that.

But still… Technically an ebook is nothing but a book, the technology behind it could offer us a user experience that is really different from the reading experience we know from the physical book. In the main stream of things at the moment ebooks may offer us accessibility, ease of use and convenience. But I would dare to say that a significant lot of readers, just like Frank Kloos, secretly still prefer the old fashioned book, despite the weight, and even despite the risk of being held as old fashioned.

It might have a lot to do with this quality of keeping the whole world in your hands.

I started my talk with Megan Hoogenboom who didn’t want to make a horseless carriage. She asked yourself the question: how can I keep the poetry of this remarkable poet from the twenties by using the unique features of the electronic book. I figured out I wanted more examples of this. What is it that makes the digital book stand for his own I asked myself. The beginning of an answer I found in Between Page and screen; remaking literature through cinema and cyberspace, a collection of essay’s edited by the Utrechtse Hoogleraar Kiene Brillenburg and published by Fordham University Press in 2012.

For now I’d like to focus on the essay ‘Intermediation’, written by critic/scholar N. Katherine Hayles. In all of her body of work she makes a point of showing how closely humans and computers are related. ‘Literature in the twenty-first century is computational’, she says. In her essay Hayles focusses on digital literature, work that is ‘digitally born’ (I used this term before as you might remember). I said the reading experience of a digital book can contrast with the reading experience of the physical book and in Hayles view that’s because of the constant flux of words and images. They change as a results of our deeds: ‘Recombinant flux, as the aesthetic of such works is called, gives a much stronger impression of agency than does a book. […] Because the computer’s real agency, as well as the illusion of its agency, is much stronger than with the book, the computer can function as a partner in creating intermediating dynamics in ways that a book cannot.’ (p. 108-109)

The computer can function as a partner in creating intermediating dynamics in ways that a book cannot … Hayles therefore consequently speaks of a player instead of a reader. In Hayles view a player has another kind of control over the work he or she is involved with. One of the examples she gives is an online work by Judd Morrissey, The Jew’s Daughter. Hovering over the page – although I shouldn’t use that word – the letters change giving the reader/player a sense of interaction. I quote Hayles again: ‘[digital literature] is possessing a fluidity and mutability that ink durably impressed on paper can never achieve, it stimulates the illusion of a coherent stream-of-conciousness narrative (and by implication, a coherent self producing the narrative).’ (p.123)

I would like to leave you with this idea that an electronic book can posses ‘a fluidity and mutability that ink durably impressed on paper can never achieve’. Please keep in mind that a digital page is not a page. It might be ok to use your ereader for reading novels as most people seem to do but there’s really more to it. Physical books have irreplaceable qualities, but electronic books have an interactive potential I at least am looking forward to discover, by experimenting and research through designing and prototyping.

Harold Konickx