How will we read?

by Jason Wilson on January 18, 2010

We are on the eve of Apple’s “Come See Our Latest Creation” event, and the only thing I am thinking about is whether the fabled New Device will be a significant advancement beyond my Old Device, thus rendering all previous devices completely undesirable and highly repellent. And from what I’ve read by Tim van Damme, John Gruber here and here, Marco Arment, John Siracusa, Aaron Mahnke, Andy Ihnatko, Neven Mrgan, and Jim Darlymple, it will be an amazing Latest New Device. Yet, I’m still unsatisfied because none of them talk about how the Tablet will usher in a new vision of how we will read. The closest is John Siracusa, who observes,

[The Apple Tablet] will provide an easy way for people to find, purchase, and consume all kinds of media and applications right from the device. It’s that simple. … Apple’s doing the hard work to make all of this happen, of course. That means courting a new class of content owners whose wares are a good fit for a tablet-scale device: print publishers. Apple’s got a lot to offer publishers: millions of existing customers who’ve proven their willingness to buy digital media, relationships with other big media companies to show that Apple knows how to get along in this world, even a CEO who is himself the head of a movie studio and the largest single shareholder of a media giant. Add to that the color, video-capable touchscreen, which current electronic publishing suitors lack, and Apple can now appeal to new kinds of publishers: glossy magazines, comic books, and mixed media hybrids (e.g., People magazine with embedded celebrity videos).

So, we’re getting an expensive vook, is that it? Andy Ihnatko suggests that if we want to try and figure out the UI of the latest New Device we should get a comic book and hold it as though we’re reading what’s on the surface. What the hell does that mean? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of looking at things in a new and different way, but I don’t see a terrifically bright future as splayed out by many of our brightest technology prognosticators. Sure, they talk about a lot of other silly details such as OSes, hardware interaction, data connectivity, and market necessity, and make smart observations like

Apple always asks themselves simple and stupid questions like ‘How will this device be used?’ and ‘Will this be used by human beings with, I mean, arms and hands and fingers?’ and stuff like that.

But as a legal print publisher (like scientific, accounting, and engineering publishers) I haven’t heard a peep from these guys about the future of reading, which is in part what the Latest New Device is about. After all, it is going to save print. Right? And while there were some cool things that came out of CES, there wasn’t anything transformative, at least with respect to reading. Sure, there was the Kurzweil announcement of the Blio Reader, but it’s just a newer tractor in the end.

Americans really want and need and desire a Futuristic Vision Thing, they get all lonesome and moody without one, but it’s absolutely gotta be one of those good-old-fashioned American Futuristic Vision Things, just like the Americans had in the 1950s when everybody else was still on fire from total war and cleaning up the death camps. Bruce Sterling, State of the World 2010

Yes, I’m moody, and a bit pissed. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time having to think about the limitations of eReaders in some recent posts, only to acknowledge that they are perhaps a necessary artifact of books, which as John Palfrey observes are now all “born digitally.” But you must admit that given the emergence of the Latest New Device, eReaders are, what Adam Penenberg suggests, just mirrors of the present:

[T]echnology marches on through predictable patterns of development, with the initial form of a new technology mirroring what came before, until innovation and consumer demand drive it far beyond initial incremental improvements. We are on the verge of re-imagining the book and transforming it something far beyond mere words. [¶] Take note: The first battlefield tanks looked like heavily armored tractors equipped with cannons; early automobiles were called ‘horseless carriages’ for a reason; the first motorcycles were based on bicycles; the first satellite phones were as clunky as your household telephone. A decade ago, when newspapers began serving up stories over the Web, the content mirrored what was offered in the print edition. What the tank, car and newspaper have in common is they blossomed into something far beyond their initial prototypes. In the same way that an engineer wouldn’t dream of starting with the raw materials for a carriage to design a rad new sports car today, newspapers won’t use paper or ink anymore. Neither will books. But mere text on a screen, the stuff that e-books are made of, won’t be enough.

We don’t want tractors with cannons or bicycles with motors. And as legal publishers, we don’t want to emulate books on electronic devices because what we produce has so much meta and utility that emulation is an insult. That’s right, an insult. What we want is someone to step up and tell us what the future of reading is going to be like. What does the “far beyond of incremental improvements” look like? And I swear, if you say “Apple Tablet” I will punch you in the mouth.

Mitch Ratcliffe recently noted that

Making books into e-books is not the challenge facing publishers and authors today. In fact, thinking in terms of merely translating text to a different display interface completely misses the problem of creating a new reading experience. Books have served well as, and will continue to be, containers for moving textual and visual information between places and across generations. They work. They won’t stop working. But when moving to a digital environment, books need to be conceived with an eye firmly set on the interactions that the text/content will inspire. Those interactions happen between the author and work, the reader and the work, the author and reader, among readers and between the work and various services, none of which exist today in e-books, that connect works to one another and readers in the community of one book with those in other book-worlds.

And while he’s focused on trade, his observations apply equally to our market segment. Electronic books in their current format do not fit the bill. No matter what the Latest New Device promises it can do.

Thankfully, we are surrounded by some exceptionally bright, innovative people who ask questions like

  • What are the properties of physical books?
  • How do you expect to receive information now?
  • How many channels of information are you having to pay attention to?
  • How important is it that you consume information in a physical form?

While the following video is more about conceptualizing how we will read and consume magazines, I suggest you watch it because it has implications for what we might be able to do with legal publications.

After I watched this video, I asked myself if this is where we are headed? In a Room for Debate piece from October 2009 on nytimes.com, Alan Liu of the University of California had this to say:

My group thinks that Web 2.0 offers a different kind of metaphor: not a containing structure but a social experience. Reading environments should not be books or libraries. They should be like the historical coffeehouses, taverns and pubs where one shifts flexibly between focused and collective reading — much like opening a newspaper and debating it in a more socially networked version of the current New York Times Room for Debate. The future of peripheral attention is social networking, and the trick is to harness such attention — some call it distraction — well.

And while Liu’s vision isn’t fully reflected in the Bonnier conceptualization, I couldn’t get it out of my mind and went over to a white board to quickly draft a Bonnier-Liu-like interface for our own practice manuals.

reading

What I liked about the Bonnier concept was the fact that it recognized that users scroll through documents. In fact, if you’ve ever read an article that required you to scroll just a bit, but then page over, did you? My informal survey suggested that most readers abandoned the article. Scrolling is more engaging, even though there is no indication of overall length. (Bonnier goes with the up-down scrolling function, which is how you might actually think of scrolls historically, but there are others who believe sideways scrolling to be more preferable. I do not in the context of legal publications.)

Similar to Bonnier’s conceptualization with Liu’s social metaphor, I jotted down “graffati” and “under the hood” because I am visualizing the content in 3-D space, where there is a layer in the front, what you might call “on top” (which we already see with hover text), a layer in the back, what you might call “on the bottom” (which we usually don’t see because it’s the meta), scrolling, which is the top and bottom, and then the sides, which I call the “graffati” and “under the hood.”

As noted by the diagram, I was thinking that “graffati” would represent the editorial and social markup of the text, including comments, video, images, and whatever else could be attributed to the document. All of this additional meta could contribute to improving search results as well, over time. For most individual publications, however, an overly sophisticated search engine won’t get you that much closer to your goal. Graffati, as I regard it, is a social and interactive enhancement that increases value and engagement for a particular publication or group of publications.

On the other side, I thought “under the hood” might represent the analytical underpinnings of the content itself. Like the conceptualized magazine, it represents slide content, something that you can move over to when you need further support for what you’re reading. And like hyperlinking, it could be an endless slide, depending on how far down you wanted to go.

Of course, “rubbing” features would also be built in to allow you to copy and paste, email, and otherwise share, as well as “swipe calls” that would bring up tables of content, the web, a keyboard, and other social features.

But these are just my thoughts, off the cuff. The real question is what can you, the consumer of these goods, imagine? What do you expect of Thomson Reuters, Wolters Kluwer, and CCH?

Bonnier isn’t the only company, website, or person, trying to rethink print. BookGlutton, for example, tries to utilize the left and right space for graffati. Cell is trying it’s hand at the “Article of the Future,” which really isn’t a reimagining as much as it is an extension. If you’re looking for someone who talks about this subject a lot, I suggest Mike Cane’s blog The eBook Test.

But honestly, the way Bonnier talks about the future of reading is just damn sexy. And by sexy, I mean in that American Futuristic Vision Thing way.

[Image (cc) by stuartpilbrow]

[Post written to Keane, Hopes and Fears, and Cold Play, A Rush of Blood to the Head, Viva la Vida, and X&Y, and Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles.]

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