Interview with Monika Parrinder – Limited Language

Monika Parrinder is a lecturer and writer who specialises in the history of design and visual communication. She teaches at the RCA and at the London College of Communication. She has recently co-authored Limited Language: Rewriting Design – Responding to a Feedback Culture (Birkhäuser, 2010).

Monika Parrinder is co-founder, with Colin Davies, of Limited Language. This is a web-platform for the generation of writing and discussion about visual and sonic culture. This writing is manifest across both web and print media: on the web, through, Twitter and Facebook; and in print, in magazine articles for Eye, Blueprint, Print, ID etc. and in the recent book, Limited Language: Rewriting Design – Responding to a Feedback Culture. This book explores how a book might provide a cross-platform, feedback loop.

Limited Language is interested in the way in which processes from within visual culture – a culture of recycling, ‘mash-ups’, collaborative and hybrid media practices – can inform writing on design. Also, how one can engage with digital technology as a creative catalyst.

This interview was made by Skype on the 11th of December.

Institute of Network Cultures: Can you introduce yourself and your work?
Can you tell me something about “Limited Language”?

Monika Parrinder: I’m Monika Parrinder; I’m a writer and lecturer in design history, theory and visual communication. In 2004, Colin Davies and I co-founded a collaborative writing project called Limited Language.

Limited Language is a platform for generating discussion and writing about design and visual communication, we are interested in capturing the processes of design culture and using them to inform the way that we write about design.

So a key part of what we do is writing across hybrid media platforms and in collaboration with others – which allows for instant feedback between users practices. We call this writing in a feedback culture. This process informed our 2010 book, “Limited Language: Rewriting Design – Responding to a Feedback Culture”. The idea there was to look at how a book could provide a feedback loop between different media cultures and platforms. If I was to summarize our driving interest, it is in ‘process’, technology as a creative catalyst and the role of community.

INC: What is the main difference between a book and an e-book?
What about other digital editorial products (iPad applications, digital magazines, devices for reading on the web etc.)? Would you call all these products “reading experiences”?

MP: For us the main difference between a book and an e-book is that the traditional book is a ‘bounded’ object and, whilst the e-book, and other digital/editorial products, are ‘unbound’. What I mean by that is that the e-book is part of a networked environment – with an ecology of readers, texts and other authors. In this sense the e-book is a process – a work in progress.

The writer Annamaria Carusi refers to all these formats as having opened up new “reading spaces” – which includes thinking about the different reading experiences people have when engaging with each. It’s something that Limited Language try to explore in our work, but also in terms of different “writing spaces” and experiences.

INC: Can we consider a blog something like a book?

MP: Texting or writing for blogs, unlike the traditional book, is a temporal process. It’s a space where ideas can gain momentum, often in encounters with other readers: this is something very different to the traditional book. Most blogs, of course, are used as means of personal record, and so on, and do not necessarily constitute a paradigm shift. But, in the sense that they are ‘relational’ – in dialogue with other readers, texts and technologies – they always have the potential to become something other…

Using the language of technology, the book is a one-way medium of mass communication, so we can say that it’s one-to-many, whereas the blog is part of the Web 2.0 many-to-many revolution.

INC: Once we had books, then we had blogs, now we have e-books, which add some tactility to the digital, and we still have and use all of them.
Do you see digital books as a way to mediate between blogs and paper? Could they be something different?
What could e-books add to the reading experience and what could they take away from it?

MP: Both e-book readers and the new gesture interfaces certainly add some kind of tactility to the digital realm.

One way to think about this could be that the iPad, the smartphone and the e-book make a physical connection between the digital world and the ‘real’ world that simple blogging didn’t really do. Computers have been taken off the desktop and released into various environments, so we now engage with these things when we are queuing, when we are traveling and in the lunch break.

But you ask if they are creating a new reading experience? I think both yes and no. The e-reader – Kindle, iPad etc. – are simple physical transcriptions of the traditional book. On these devices the reading experience often changes very little. However, some influence on the cultural practices of reading. I don’t know if it’s the same in Holland but, in Britain, E. L. James’ novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a good example of what I mean here, where distribution started via the Kindle, but then became a publishing phenomenon in the physical book as well. The consumption of porn and sex books has increased because of the anonymity of e-books, which have no cover and no semiotic trace.

I should say that what we find really interesting is that e-books have opened up new metaphors for what a book could be – as mentioned earlier, as an experience or as a process. Maybe with a more intuitive interface – eye tracking or gesture, which so far involves swiping, pinching, tapping and so on – we could be on the edge of a new reading experience; one that is immersive both physically and psychologically.

INC: So are you positive with this?

MP: Yes – as we are interested in technology as a creative catalyst, we enjoy seeing what people actually do with things. The use of something might well be very different from what companies intend their products for. In our writing, we’ve referred to this as “a practice of possibilities”.

INC: What is the state of digital publishing at the moment? Why do we still prefer reading on paper?
What would transferring the content of a blog on paper imply?

MP: Digital publishing is interesting because its being pushed forward on all fronts. But, of course, most experiments are simply that – experiential journeys, not total re-imaginings. But, the mixture of new metaphors and cognitive experiences are a huge leap forward.

In terms of why some prefer paper… If I look at how I use things, I often download and print out text files in order to reflect on the content. People talk a lot about tactile materiality and also about the mobility of the traditional book, but as a reading space, it really represents a breathing space – this is how we see it. Limited Language are interested in how we might move between the connected and immersive digital world and the bound world of paper, which still seems like the proper space for reflection and longevity: which is something it seems important not to lose.

INC: Do you think we are risking an overload of information in publishing, especially in online and digital publishing?

MP: Certainly information is ever-changing and very fragmented. But the first blogs that came out were an attempt to navigate and make sense of the links on the Internet. The digital theorist Lev Manovich talks about the Internet being ‘anti-narrative’. We aren’t interested in repeating the cut and paste culture of the Internet, but in trying to understand how we can weave it back into a framework for thinking. I would say that this is about situating information and revealing its assumptions, and it’s also about situating ourselves in the world of information. This is really important in countering the overload – it is about how we engage, holistically, as human beings.

INC: In your work you have been talking about texts and images on the Internet.
Are we moving towards an environment dominated more by images or more by texts?

MP: At the moment the dominant narrative is that we are in a culture of images but actually there is a surprising amount of writing – the word is everywhere. For us, it’s the balance that is interesting: images obviously are more ‘sexy’ – they are moving, sometimes speaking and they play better on the high-res screen. Words tend to be reduced to the sound-byte to compete – think of scrolling news and so on… But recently there is renewed interest in how to engage with long-form writing in the digital context.

This is the realm that Limited Language operate in, I guess. We’re not interested in competing with the culture of images, but in thinking about how writing might provide this breathing space I’ve been talking about. Something that works with image culture, but something that might linger, soak in – for reflection.

INC: The relationship between text and image has always been one of the core matters in visual communication. How has this changed in the digital environment? Do you think this relationship could become something different in digital publishing, and how?

MP: In terms of writing we now have to think about the ‘word-image’, the ‘word-environment’, the ‘word-event’ and also things like ‘type-animation’, ‘type-sculpture’, and all the things these new hybrid forms open-up. I think that, within them, there is a huge potential for different kinds of engagement.

INC: What about the relationship between content and structure in the laying out of a book (indexes, hyperlinks, different ways of data visualization etc.)? How does it change with the digital? What about it in digital publishing?

MP: The index and hyperlinks… if you think of the Encyclopedia, all of these concepts have been around in the traditional book form for hundreds of years, but they have been of secondary importance: so we have the content pages at the front of the book, while the index is at the back. In digital culture these become primary, because it’s the linking between texts and the searchability of texts that becomes dominant.

One of the main problems is that content can get lost, when you’re always focusing on the links (moving from one text to another) and when the ‘Google search’ becomes an obsession. There’s a lot of content – but, as we know, quality is often the problem. The challenge is to supply the quality of content.

INC: What about interactivity and media convergence? How do they change with the digital? What about it in digital publishing?

MP: Henry Jenkins talks about media convergence as a flow of content of cross multiple platforms and also about the migratory behaviour of individuals. He emphasises the slipperiness of convergence culture.

Limited Language are interested in this point of convergence but, thinking in terms of a feedback culture, asking what kind of encounters you can have – between media, people and contexts, images and texts, readers and writers, etc. The most exciting thing for us is that these encounters are not necessarily pre-determined: they can have unexpected outcomes and they can engage previously unimagined communities of people.

INC: How do you think all these aspects can be combined in relation to the tactility of the digital book?

MP: We are focused on two aspects of innovation here. One is about using these different encounters to catalyse new digital tools, cultural developments and communities of ideas. The other one is about new metaphors and cognitive experiences. If we imagine how these might come together in digital publishing projects, they will certainly create interesting opportunities for writers, designers and other practices.

INC: Has the traditional book changed? Can we talk about a sort of  “paper reaction” to the digital shift in publishing? What do you think about the increase of self-publishing, both on paper and digitally?

MP: I think that book-culture has changed. Certainly, we are re-engaging with the book as a process – perhaps an art form, but certainly as an art form-in-context. By that I mean that people are becoming much more overtly interested in its materiality and use.

These aspects have always been present, but implicit – now we are engaging with them explicitly, it’s going to create a whole new set of book practices.

For instance in literary studies, Thomas Keymer, a Prof. of English at the University of Toronto, is rethinking the history of the novel in relation to the materiality of the book, by looking at 17th and18th Century novels in terms of both the writing and material changes happening in book design at that time. This work will appear in an edited volume called ‘New Directions in the History of the Novel’, which will be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan. The materiality of books has never been played up in the history of literature and unimagined outcomes, through the blurring of different areas of practice and theory, will emerge in the next few years

Overall, self-publishing is liberating. Although we are not so interested in self-publishing simply being about self-promotion; but as an attempt to re-engage the public sphere.

INC: What do you think about open source culture? What economic models do we have now in publishing and which do you think will take over in the future?

MP: Feedback culture is predicated on a many-to-many culture and, as such, it overlaps with the entire open source concept.

Web 2.0 and open-source are an opportunity to open up to un-expected voices and ideas. But, as we know there is tension in the emerging interests generated by all these changes and existing economic models. Lawrence Lessig talks about a hybrid economy of art and commerce. Definitely real work needs to be done here. Typography is a practice making some headway. The computer drop-down menu has made people more type-literate and exploitation of the commercial value and intellectual property of type design is nothing new. Platforms like are doing what I would call ‘bridge work’ – bringing together diverse sectors, to advocate for typefaces as creative works.

INC: In LL you have been talking about collaborative practices in creating content, openness of texts and the organic, decentralized and instantaneous nature of the web. Do you think it’s the same for digital publishing? Towards which direction are we moving?

MP: The big shift has been from one-way, top down models of communication and publishing to the idea that information is collaborative. But in our work, we’ve had to face up to some practical issues. For instance, in Limited Language, we realized that while collaborative practices are great for generating discussion, we decided to write the book because we wanted to reflect on how these ideas had coalesced, for the longer term. But we also realized that we needed to take a position – to ‘draw a line in the sand’ as it were – so this involved a more traditional, solitary role of writing. But we used printed hyperlinks to our blog so that this could always feedback into discussion in an on-going process.

I feel I should mention Jodi Dean’s recent writing on ‘communicative capitalism’, which is a kind of wake-up call for those who are euphoric about technology – which would obviously include digital publishing. In chapters like ‘the death of blogging’, she emphasises not just feedback, but the way information – and ourselves – are ‘captured’ in circuits of repetition.

But for us, technologies are only means to an end, not ends in them selves. Take App development as one example, where what could be called small explosions of creative thinking, we also can also see the materialisation of new publishing formats.

INC: What do you think about the obsolescence of the digital medium? Is putting the content back onto paper the only choice that we have to overtake this obsolescence? Do you think we could find other solutions?

MP: There’s that famous phrase that really is suitable here: something like “the only constant is change”. What we might have build into our design/writing/thinking practices, are long time strategies that allow for change.

INC: We are living in the era of the dissemination of information. Do you think we are lacking of concentration?
Do you think that dissemination and concentration can coexist or do we have to choose between one of them?

MP: I’m sure every era has thought of itself as an era of dissemination of information, but in a 24 hour, always-on culture it’s much harder to stay concentrated. But we move between different forms of reading – we scan-read, we deep-read, we speed-read, etc. Of course, these are things that we have always done. Katherine N. Hayles is interesting on this: she says that we need all these different forms, but we need to understand what they are good for and the skill in future will be how to move between them. It seems to be similar to what they call “trans-literacy”. For us, it’s the emphasis on sense-making that seems to be of renewed importance.

INC: Can art and design practices give a contribution, with a different point of view form the corporations’, to the development of proper structures, models and devices for digital publishing, and how?

MP: Much of the work on new platforms is driven by the need to monetise them rather than reenergise the reading experience, say. We can’t forget that art and design practices are often inextricable from corporations. But, as we’ve seen with Typography and copyright, and Apps more generally, it’s probably in the serendipity of creative thinking and the cross-fertislisation of ideas and practices that new structures emerge or older models are re-written.

INC: LL was made in 2005. Now that a few years went by and things are changing fast, can you make a self critique of the project? Do you think that the book release of LL interprets the blog content in a suitable way?
Have you ever thought about how it could become a digital book? Would it make sense, and why?

MP: For us, it’s less about one medium interpreting another, than seeing what each is good at – and how we might use them in a more reflective, ‘relational’ way. That’s to say where they interact in dialogue with each other. Writing on line, for us, is an attempt to provide a breathing space within image culture. The book has provided a breathing space within the immersive, discursive culture of the web. In a culture of self-publishing, traditional book publishing processes are important because they emphasise the role of the editor.

But now, the question of what a digital book can do, well, this will be interesting to see. In fact, at the moment we are in the process of re-launching our web-platform and we are looking at all sorts of applications. Our interest is in the blog, the book – digital and not – Apps, Twitter etc. as forms of cultural engagement. And so of course this includes all the things-as-yet un-invented.

Colin Davies & Monika Parrinder, Limited Language: Rewriting Design – Responding to a Feedback Culture, (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2010)

Book on Amazon