The Obscure Future Of The Digital Book

Recently I stumbled across something that made me think of my first real post here on The Well-Prepared Mind over two years ago: Are we overlooking the real digital book revolution? At the time I was wondering why the digital book had not generated any fundamental transformations in the medium.

Inspired by a discussion with Frédéric Kaplan of the EPFL and Etienne Mineur of Volumiques after the colloquium “Des Livres Aux Machines” (From Books To Machines) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris last February, Hubert Guillaud discussed some of the functionalities that future books might have and tried to explain the observation that authors haven’t been taking advantage of all the possibilities that digital books offer today: Le Numérique au défi des auteurs (Digital Poses A Challenge For Authors, article in French; Google Translate version here for the very brave).

He started with some examples of the ideas being explored by Volumiques, a French publishing house and research laboratory devoted to exploring the printed book and its relationship with new technologies. Finally, I thought, someone is really trying to see what might be possible!

Without making a distinction between books printed on paper and electronic books, because the ideas could apply to both, he considered a number of possibilities, such as a book in which the character names are taken from the reader’s address book or in which elements of the story are drawn from items in the reader’s music library or browsing history. He mentioned books that might display with different typefaces, colors or other visual elements depending on when they were read, or in which interacting with the book might make some elements more or less visible. The example of shaking the reading device and having all the words except the verbs “fall off the page” struck me as particularly arbitrary, but why not? Other examples were a book whose text changes with time; if you go back to re-read a chapter, the text might be different, in much the same way our own memories fade over time. Adding a soundtrack or allowing the book to talk to the reader seemed more familiar, as did the idea of using the reader’s geographical location or the orientation of the book to influence the story or presentation elements.

Some of these ideas definitely seem odd, but read on to see why I found them very instructive. You can find links to videos of a few prototypes on the Volumique website.

The post concluded with some good insights about the creative difficulties that authors may have imagining how the availability of these functions might transform their work, and about how the legal aspects of copyright might discourage publishers from seeking all the rights necessary to augment books with other types of media, such as illustrations, animations, photos, sounds or videos.

One of the main arguments was that writing is very much a solitary profession, while the creative activity of developing a media experience that is more akin to that of a film or game is more likely to be a collective activity. It seems hard to argue with the final thought that perhaps authors need to reinvent their profession before they’ll be able to take advantage of any of these new opportunities.

Of course, there are other considerations, as well as the question of whether many authors will even want to use such features.

Writers typically know how to write, and it’s not every writer who is equally skilled as a graphical artist, illustrator, animator, photographer, videographer, musician or other type of artist (hence the collaboration argument). However, it’s also equally true that most writers may not have the necessary programming skills or technical background to understand how to create a book that uses other functionalities of the platform on which it runs. There aren’t really any tools to help authors create books as applications that use these kinds of features on reading devices, but perhaps we’ll see some over time.

Some of the ideas are amusing, but my enthusiasm dampened when I started to think about how they might work in actual use. There are so many constraints. Books that make sound or require interaction might be inconvenient in some situations. Readers may not be comfortable with a book that reads their email or messages, even if the “book” is just a program that runs on their telephone. They might not want to read a story where the evil characters go by the same names as their friends or loved ones, or where the action takes place in their home town with these people visiting restaurants, theatres, stores or other locations they already know. Books let people escape their lives, or imagine new experiences. Perhaps reading a book to find the same people, places and things one already knows might be disappointing. The book that automatically self-destructs some time after being opened would likely be especially annoying to readers.

Then there’s the idea that people don’t understand what they don’t understand. Most of the examples described were a radical departure from the notion that books are for, you know, reading. People know reading. People know playing games, watching TV or interacting with each other via instant messages, e-mail or Facebook. Concepts such as the book that rewrites itself, or a book that changes in time or space aren’t familiar to readers. I think most people would find those concepts either hard to understand (how will they know what to do), frustrating (what’s nice about the book is that the words don’t deteriorate) or seem overly gimmicky at best. Alternatively, people might consider them simply as artistic experiments. In short, they might be fun to try once, or they might work for a particular story, but I don’t see any of these ideas becoming a new type of media experience.

Reading is a form of storytelling, which is one of the oldest and most compelling forms of entertainment we have. Arguably humans have evolved to be captivated by stories, precisely because these stories helped us communicate with each other to learn about and survive in the world. A book allows an author to communicate a story to the readers. Any number of technically possible functionalities can be imaged for the future book, but these just might not make any sense if the new functionalities don’t add anything to the story or to the communication of it.

If in the end the author is not communicating a story to a reader anymore, perhaps we may have found a viable and exciting new medium to explore, but should we still call it a book?

What I like about these prototypes is that whether or not they succeed, not only do they show us what works and what doesn’t, but also why it works or why it doesn’t. When I realized this, I stopped being disappointed that I hadn’t found the seeds of a new unexplored medium in this discussion. I hope Volumiques will keep creating lots of crazy new French book ideas. The understanding these kinds of experiments bring is what will lead authors to embrace (or not) the new technological affordances of the future book.

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