Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

documents, e-books, pages

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 As I’ve suggested, much of the research done on new systems of digital textuality in recent years has fallen into the trap of attempting all too literally to reproduce the printed page on digital screens, whether through innovations in hardware or software — whether through various “e-book” readers such as Amazon’s Kindle or new computer-based document types such as the PDF (Portable Document Format) originated by Adobe. Many of these technologies have been reasonably successful, and the PDF perhaps most notably among them, which has made possible the widespread distribution online of materials that either were originally in print or that are intended to wind up in print once again. Except for their mode of distribution, however, there’s almost never anything particularly “net-native” about PDF-based texts, with little in their form that makes use of the digital environment in which they exist. These documents are, until printed, like paper under glass: mostly unmarkable, resisting interaction with an active reader or with other such documents in the network. More recent iterations of PDF software do allow users to annotate documents, but even so, such annotations remain superficial – the ability to add sticky notes or to mark in the margins of a static document is useful, but no deeper interaction with the text, its author, or its other readers through these documents is possible. Various modes of e-book hardware and software, ranging from the Expanded Books of the early 1990s Voyager Company through today’s platforms such as the Kindle, have focused on becoming more genuinely digital in mode by providing readers with a set of tools that can be brought to bear on the text, including bookmarking, annotation, hyperlinking, and the like, all of which are simultaneously aimed at allowing the reader to traverse the text in ways that would be difficult, if not impossible, in print, while also providing the ability to mark the text so lamented by bibliophiles in contemplating on-screen reading.[3.6] Thus far, however, no e-book format, whether, in Clifford Lynch’s terms, device-based or text-based, has been terribly successful at luring readers away from pages and toward screens.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 One of the problems with both the e-book reader and the portable document format — as well as, for that matter, the more generic HTTP/HTML-based web technologies that have produced billions upon billions of web pages — is visible in their very vocabulary: despite whatever innovations exist in “pages” or “documents” or “e-books,” we remain tied to thinking about electronic texts in terms of print-based, and more specifically codex-based, models. As Johanna Drucker notes, “Such nomenclature seems charged by a need to acknowledge the historical priority of books and to invoke a link between their established cultural identity and the new electronic surrogates” (216). The book and other forms of print have of course been critically important to the development of western culture over the last 600 years, and they are for that reason so deeply a part of the ways that we think that it becomes hard to imagine any alternatives to them.[3.7] However, simply translating texts from paper to screen misses the point. There’s a reason, after all, why so many of my students print the PDFs that I teach in my classes before they read them, and a reason why the response of many readers to e-book formats is to talk about the smell of paper or the use of a pencil or the comfort of reading in bed; each of these e-book forms loses many of the benefits of print in the process of trying to retain them.[3.8] While these technologies have demonstrated that the format of print-on-paper can successfully be translated into pixel-on-screens, they’ve done so at the cost of remaining trapped in what Paul Levinson, following Marshall McLuhan, has referred to as “rear-view mirrorism” (126), the difficulty we have defining new technologies except in terms of older ones. Take, for instance the example of the car: the first major insight of its inventors was the flash that one might produce a carriage that was able to move without the horse; had, however, the thinking about such an invention remained at the phase of the “horseless carriage,” many of the later developments in automotive design would have been impossible.[3.9]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In the same fashion, many of our attempts to produce a new form of electronic textuality have yet been unable to escape the structures of thought associated with the printed book, resulting, as Drucker points out, in forms that “often mimic the most kitsch elements of book iconography while for the longest time the newer features of electronic functionality seemed not to have found their place in the interface at all” (216). These elements of the book mimicked in the e-book of course have their own histories; print-based features such as the title page, for instance, or the table of contents, or running page headers, or even something as simple as page numbers, took decades to coalesce, and as Kindle users are discovering, they don’t translate easily to new environments. Worse, attempting to make those translations in any direct sense may prevent us from really seeing the ways the new format might best function; we are being distracted by our attempts to simulate “the way a book looks” from the more crucial problem of “extending the ways a book works” (Drucker 217, emphasis in original). Once we’ve genuinely managed to make that turn, developing wholly new textual structures, today’s concept of the “e-book” will no doubt sound naïve, a remnant of our tenuous toe-dipping into digital publishing.

  • For more on the history of Voyager’s Expanded Books project, one might begin with the Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expanded_Books).
  • Moreover, the attempt to imagine such alternatives often results in a profound anti-technological backlash; one might see, for instance, Alvin Kernan or Sven Birkerts, among any number of other such sources.
  • That said, even famed bibliophile Nicholson Baker was able to see the potential appeal of the Kindle, if not the success of its actual execution; see Baker, “A New Page.”
  • In fact, there are remnants of such rear-view mirrorism still lingering in current automotive design, such as front-wheel steering. Thanks to Dan Visel for this insight; see “Horseless Carriages.”
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/three-texts/documents-e-books-pages/