Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Future of the Book

We find ourselves in the most notable text technological moment since the invention of print, perhaps. That historical event took many generations to be fully accepted, and even as it was generating trade, enhancing the opportunities for increased and more democratized literacy, and widening access to knowledge—particularly in the European vernaculars—it functioned alongside manuscript culture, which itself had been the dominant mode of textual creation for some five thousand years or more.
            Now, some 571 years after Gutenberg and his Bible, manuscript culture is still absolutely mainstream. Children write with pencils, students predominantly use pens and notepaper, generally, we write notes, lists and cards by hand. The Digital has not replaced the convenience of the manual, just as print did not replace it. From that point of view, until printers are small enough to be carried around, no computer, or IPhone or other device will completely replace pen and paper. Moreover, until the Digital is absolutely independent of limited wireless and is freely accessible with day-long battery life, no number of e-book readers will replace the real book. And that’s just the practical side.
            In relation to the book itself, I’m going to think firstly about the debate surrounding the demise of the book and independent bookshops. For the latter, the threat is not primarily the e-book, it is Amazon and other vast mail-based sellers. An intelligent and measured response is here: E-books are having an impact, certainly, but it is not universal. My undergraduates, of whom there are 177, illustrate a set of varying responses typical of their demographic: technological resistance, technological inevitabilism, and technological embrace. Many of them--by far the majority—claim to prefer not to engage with e-books, chiefly because of aesthetic and intellectual reasons. Aesthetically, all of the students point to the fact that ‘real’ book is infinitely superior to the electronic. Showing high levels of self-reflective thinking, the students point out that they cannot easily make notes and underlinings in e-book (such facilities do exist, of course, but many do not utilize these packages); that they cannot read with any degree of sustained concentration from the screen; that they enjoy the untethered reliability of the book (which, as one student pointed out, ‘never requires troubleshooting’); that they like to be able to turn the pages, hear the spine crack (!!); feel the weight of the book; and, arguably most interestingly, finish the book, gain a sense of achievement, watch their library grow, and know that this is a tangible reflection of their increasing academic prowess. Interestingly, many students regard the e-book as ‘ephemeral’, and this has proven to be the case in the past when Amazon has removed books globally: literally taken them off a Kindle owner’s e-bookshelf (
            The students who do use e-books do so because of issues of portability and convenience, and generally associate this learning activity with university and textbooks. A very small number of students has Kindle or Nook or an IPad; it was something like a dozen out of the whole group. I assumed many other studnets would be seeking to acquire such reading tools, but this is not the case. This resistance stems from a feeling of overload—an overwhelming sense that the pace of technology is so rapid, the appearance of new technology so unrelenting that they might as well not bother. This is a proactive decision: a willful response, not inertia or idleness. This generation may well feel such scepticism and reluctance for decades, and may influence their children. Younger readers, however, have a different set of responses, such as that of the small toddler who cannot make a magazine interact like an IPod (, or the eleven-year old who spells in text-form as a first written language. These children will become an intermediary generation in the next thirty years, a generation that will dictate a new pace of change. Thus, layers of e-users will have different responses to the speed and direction of technology, and this is just in the Western world. Elsewhere, similarly variant reactions will depend on localized factors, available resources, and individual preferences. From my perspective, then, I don’t think we’ll see anything like the demise of the book, or even an alteration in its form for hundreds of years, though I do think there will be a shaking out of this technological transformation for particular areas of publishing, and especially, academic publishing and specialist, small print-run editions.
            Where major developments might be expected is in the area of electronic reading experiences. The digital world has promised innovation and inventiveness for some twenty or more years now. Yet from the academic perspective, no software or interface has delivered anything deserving the label ‘innovative’ or ‘new’. Packages that we saw in 1997—such as Martin Foys’ electronic edition of the Bayeux Tapestry—seemed revolutionary and elicited gasps of amazement from the audience at presentations. Now, such a package often cannot be made to function; on my MacBookPro, its technology has proven unsustainable. Subsequent to this, perhaps the most exciting technology is the Turn-the-Pages technology, used first at the British Library, and now widely utilized by museums and software developers. All that ever did was imitate the book, though, and never the complete book—always an unstated abridged version. (And I apologise if I sound like the typical grouchy user—the one without the talent to develop the technology—because I do appreciate the amount of work and money it takes to develop new software). Even so, until developers and designers can move away conceptually from rather unimaginative attempts to emulate the real book, we can expect little by way of excitement or even genuine competition for the codex. This is the age of hybrid or residual technology; just as for many decades, the printed book looked like a manuscript and used chirographic techniques to include decoration and rubrication, so we are now in that intermediary period, where the form of the codex dominates a technology that simply need not be bound by the features of such a form.

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