Thursday, 8 September 2011

Kindle, ebooks and the Future of Reading



Kindle and ebooks present a variety of new opportunities for reading and writing that the traditional forms could not and will not offer. Digital 'books' are more than just another version of our familiar and much loved print commodity and objet d'art.

First, we will see the development of enhanced reading, in which the text is not merely supplemented by, but integrated with other multi-media. If I am reading an ebook on the History of Rap, one click will allow me to place the examples featured in the book. Similarly colour illustration and video clips also become an affordable option for content, citation, and diversity of approach.

Second, improved opportunities for annotation are attractive for the many non-fiction readers who are studying or researching. Again, the transition is toward a more active reading process. Of course I can still underline and comment in the margins of my paper copy, but the ease of use for multi-coloured highlighting, commenting, searching certainly facilitates the usability of the text. Add to that the possibility of communal annotation and we have further avenues for creative collaboration which would be a crime against the crisp clarity of the shared library book.

My third observation is that we will see publishers offering discounts to groups of readers who have formed into clubs because they enjoy the shared experience of reading, comment and criticizing texts. For those with minority interest, this affords opportunities for informed discussion across vast distances, and on a global scale. Note how the empowering effects of the technology present opportunities for a shift in human consciousness.

A further development of the third observation would be the book that can evolve through individual or collective participation. We are familiar with books having different editions, but these have become uneconomic for all but the most popular or scientific non-fiction. The ebook becomes a living organism rather than a stable and fixed cultural artefact.

A fifth observation, more radical, and perhaps a little disturbing, takes the openness a stage further and provides books with different openings, middles, or endings. Or characters and locations that readers can alter and transform. The book perhaps comprises flexible and shifting modules, components, and floating memes, susceptible to addition, deletion, or transformation. Books that reform and deform. Texts become deconstructing games, and the balance of creative effort shifts from ‘writer’ to ‘reader.’ What’s disturbing in this case is the demise of our long cherished notions of property, authorship and ownership, guaranteed by the commodity form of the book as a fixed and stable created object. What’s more disturbing, perhaps, is the need to recognize that the period of romantic authorship, which we may be on the verge of abandoning, persisted for less than three centuries in the history of human writing and thinking systems.

A sixth observation proposed an experience even further away from the notion of reader, writer and book as a one-to-one experience. As texts become a form of enriched and enhanced reality, a transition is made to animation and game technologies; to infinitely increased levels of interactivity and engagement. Perhaps the student textbook will prevent access to the next level, until questions have been answered correctly. Books that police our journeys through them and a corporate dream of remote learning beyond physical institutions.

And lurking behind the collective participation is the machine tracking our preferences and choices. Reading interrupted by pop-up ads designed to capitalise and monetize our tastes and preferences. Othello becomes a weekend trip to Venice for a jealousy conselling-course; The Odyssey a Greek holiday opportunity with fantasy role play thrown in. In this scenario ebooks and maybe even the readers are offered to us for ‘free’ but are colonised by tracking, tagging and selling; a minor sacrifice and self-willed infringement of the safe and private experience of reading that is now no more than a shadowy nostalgia for a lost time, a lost place.


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