Thursday, January 17, 2008

Medium and Message

At MacWorld yesterday, Apple introduced the new MacBook Air, an ultra-thin laptop that incorporates many features developed for the much smaller iPhone, including three that will easily have implications for any future iReader, particularly on the touchpad. First, it downloads and plays music and film. Second, Air is totally wireless (picture the Apple techies punning as they developed the device). Imagine downloading any of the 2 million books Google is now digitizing directly to an iReader. Third, the screen text, graphics and sound allow manipulation of text and graphics. To increase font size, you put your thumb and index finger on the touchpad and simply draw them apart. To reduce the size, you do the opposite. To move to the next page on a web site, you swipe a finger across the touchpad (imagine the ease of turning pages in a book: no need to lick your finger, like in the old days).

But will the future ebook have pages?, whose approach already seems outdated, included a transitional technology that made the electronic page seem as if it were turning like a traditional paper one, complete with the sound of rustling. We’re beyond the need for accommodation in transition. Even the discussion of whether ebooks are the wave of the future seems to be over. In ten years, what will have replaced e-ink?

With the domination of technology, for those who continue to read older books, everything from Homer to Steinbeck, written for the printed book (our versions of Homer were most likely changed when it was written down), how will the consumption of the book itself change when read on future devices? I used to lead discussions of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and when we neared the end, I would ask the participants how they knew they were getting to the end, after 3,300 pages. They suggested many text-based ideas, but the real reason was that there were no more pages or volumes. By approaching the end of the physical object, their reading of the story changed, even though they hadn’t realized it. How is a multimedia Iliad “read” differently from its oral or written versions?

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