Stop Watching the News and Read a Book

Yesterday’s post was an attempt to cope with the seemingly steady stream of horrific news of late. Then I read Karl Ove Knausgård’s Vanishing Point, which helped me to better understand how the media makes things more distant even as it makes the world smaller:

Perhaps the foremost characteristic of our age, what sets it apart from all others before it, is that the sheer volume of images of the world—not just the world of the past, but also, and perhaps especially, that of the present, the world of which we are a part—is so massive. Any event, anywhere on the planet—an earthquake, a plane crash, an act of terrorism—will be available for us to view only moments later, in on-the-scene images we see and consider as we go about our day-to-day lives, stuck in our tailbacks of traffic, as we make our coffee, visit the bathroom, wash our clothes, prepare our meals, set our tables. Usually, we keep these different levels of reality apart, or at least I do. Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance, of concern to me only in the most superficial manner. At the same time, and more profoundly, such images provide a release insofar as they allow me the freedom of never having to be entirely present in my actual surroundings, in the routine state of boredom they constantly threaten to dull me with, since one’s attention is continuously being directed toward something else, to what is happening right now: the occurrence, the event, the news item.

The article—actually from a speech in acceptance of the Welt Literaturpreis—makes an interesting case for reading novels as a way to move beyond the media’s distancing universality to something much more personal, particular, and singular.

Vaporous Knowledge

When the apocalypse strikes, we’re all going to be really sorry that we decided to store everything in the cloud. As the grid powering the Internet and all those data centres collapses, suddenly these pocket computers will contain almost nothing of value, since they can’t get at any of the knowledge that once made us as gods.

In The Web of Alexandria (follow-up), Bret Victor describes two types of media:

[S]ome very stable and reliable media, DNA and print, owe their stability and reliability to replication and retention— every reader gets a copy, and every reader keeps their copy. The web, on the other hand, follows the strategy used for books before the printing press — put a single copy in an institution, allow readers to come visit, hope it doesn’t go up in smoke.

Whenever the ephemerality of the web is mentioned, two opposing responses tend to surface. Some people see the web as a conversational medium, and consider ephemerality to be a virtue. And some people see the web as a publication medium, and want to build a “permanent web” where nothing can ever disappear.

Neither position is mine. If anything, I see the web as a bad medium, at least partly because it invites exactly that conflict, with disastrous effects on both sides.

We don’t even need to follow the logic of apocalypse to understand that single points of failure are a bad idea. URLs are just such a thing, and are wreaking havoc today:

For the law and for the courts, link rot and content drift, which are collectively known as “reference rot,” have been disastrous. In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes; they expect that evidence to remain where they found it as their proof, the way that evidence on paper—in court records and books and law journals—remains where they found it, in libraries and courthouses. But a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked.

…To forget the past is to destroy the future. This is where Dark Ages come from.

On a practical level, this makes installing a local Wikipedia mirror look pretty attractive.

Vestigial Tail Ebooks

After writing my recent piece about the ebook-reading experience, I engaged in (more like was on the receiving end of) and interesting twitter conversation between @pensato and @oo, who had some great thoughts on a question my previous essay begged: what does the the medium of electronic reading have to say about the form and content of what we read? Or are ebooks actually the vestigial tail of paper publishing as we move into the age of digital texts?

Different media tend to encourage the production of different artefacts, and the arrival of a new medium tends to be be a time of chaos, experimentation, and play with the possibilities and limits of the medium. It is also a time in which those invested in the well-established rules and practices of the old medium respond with 1) denial, 2) anti-new rhetoric, 3) attempts to shoehorn their old media products into the new medium, and 4) evolution or death. It seems to usually be death, as the ossified culture of the “old guard” does not adapt well to a changed world.

What has been particularly interesting about living in a digital age is how many times we’ve been able to see this play out in the space of a few years.1 Music, movies, magazines, news, books: each of these industries have had–and are having–their production and distribution modes changed and challenged. One example is that, in the age of downloadable music, many musicians are choosing to release individual songs as they are completed rather than labouring to complete entire albums of songs grouped around the former limit of LPs and CDs.2

It’s surprising that books are the last industry affected.3 Various platforms have promised ebooks for some time now, but the Kindle’s arrival in 2007 seemed to signal the first real steps into the ebook age.

The steps for ebooks have been unique. Music was transformed first by Napster piracy, with iTunes later succeeding by being easier and better than piracy. Movies have moved from Bittorrent to Netflix. Newspapers and magazines are either fading into popular irrelevance or moving into niche publications. But ebooks have faced neither the free, illegal distribution of the former type,4 nor the persistent attrition of the latter. Perhaps this in and of itself explains why book publishers have been so late and reluctant to join the digital publishing party: they faced no apparent threat.

It’s also worth noting that, until the Kindle came along in 2007, there did not seem to be any hardware that people particularly wanted to read something of book-length on. An LCD may be more crisp than a CRT for reading, but nobody was clamouring to read a novel on one. The Kindle’s E-Ink5 display, and the iPad’s higher-resolution LCD screen–and more natural form-factor–made reading longer digital works suddenly seem feasible.

These exciting developments can, however, obscure the fact that ebooks have shown up at a point where the production and consumption of texts has already adapated to the digital medium. The Web has been changing our reading and writing habits for almost 20 years, partly because the medium promotes short attention spans,6 and partly due to the very fact that computer screens do not encourage long engagement with a text.7 Digital texts in the age of the Web have become shorter, more concise, and, above all else, linked. We’ve become accustomed to our digital texts being available instantly anywhere and, increasingly, on myriad devices.8

Ebooks therefore fundamentally misunderstand the digital reading medium. In their current incarnation–an afterthought in the traditional print publishing process–they have no future. Book publishers want ebooks as mere gravy atop their existing business model rather than seeing digital publishing for the disruption that a new medium always is. The reality is that printed books will be going the way of the vinyl record: still around, but rarer and largely for enthusiasts. Digital publishing is already here, and the age of print publishing dominance is already passing away.

Supposing that I am right, what will ebooks be, if anything, once digitally distributed texts gain ascendancy in the post-paper publishing age? Whatever they will be, they will not be a simple one-to-one digital replacement of the types of writing that are presently printed. I contend that ebooks in their present form will be seen as an awkward evolutionary phase into the era of digitally distributed texts. As payment systems become increasingly frictionless, we will see a variety of forms of writing sold, purchased, and read on myriad devices and platforms.

It’s taken me nearly 1200 words to get here, but I might finally have enough background to start discussing the form of the “book” itself in the digital age. The short answer is, it will vary. For instance, I think we will see a renaissance of the short story. If I even asked you to name a famed short story author, you would likely draw a blank.9 We might also see a resurgence of the serial novel, much favoured in Victorian England. The conceit of requiring a certain amount of page-padding prior to publishing will simply cease when publishing is only a keystroke away.

In the realm of nonfiction10, I believe that the essay will gain prominence. As one who enjoys writing and reading essays, this is great news. Many nonfiction books I have read would have been far better essays were it not for the legitimacy-conferring length requirements of the print industry. Digital distribution allows writing to be just as long as it needs to be, which is often much shorter than the current print economy dictates.

New terminology will arise, but the lines between books, ebooks, blogs, essays, and other forms not yet imagined will blur, separate, and evolve into whatever form(s) actually work for electronic texts. Not only will shorter forms gain prominence due to diminished attention spans and greater ease of publishing, we’ll also see new forms of writing that truly inhabit the possibilities afforded by multimedia, interaction, and hyperlinks. These forms already exist, but in the coming months and years will move out of the margins and into the mainstream as the forms that digital distribution is uniquely able to produce. It’s going to be a bumpy, fascinating ride.

  1. Not that the process is finished. The major music labels, for example, have still not evolved or died. 
  2. I am grumpy and old enough to still far prefer listening to whole albums. Random playlists make me twitch. 
  3. Surprising because it is plain text, the basic substance of books, which has always been easiest to transmit electronically. 
  4. It’s not that ebooks aren’t pirated, it’s just that they aren’t pirated often. 
  5. Sigh. Another e-prefix. 
  6. This is the received wisdom, but I speculate that posture and mediation are more important factors than monitor technology. Most long-form reading is done in a relaxed position, in something like an easy chair or a hammock. The computer task chair hardly competes. Also, the mediation of keyboard and mouse have always made computers feel vaguely hostile–the quick embrace of touch screens has made this obvious. This is where e-readers are a definite advance: they are human-scaled and hand-held. 
  7. “For free” should arguably be on that list, but I think friction, not cost, is the major determiner here. I need to be able to pay for content I want at the speed of the web–now–or I won’t pay at all. Think OAuth for my credit card. 
  8. Flannery O’Conner and Alistair MacLeod are my own favourites. 
  9. I loathe the term nonfiction. We might as well term “fiction” non-reality. Terminology shapes perception. 

Those Flickering Pixels

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a promise to write about it. Getting a free book on a topic you’re profoundly interested in = awesome. Read other participating blogs if you’re interested.

Shane Hipps has some very important things to say in his new book Flickering Pixels, where he explores the hidden power of technology, particularly as it pertains to the life of faith. His conclusions aren’t always easy to receive, particularly for Christians who are heavily invested in cutting-edge media, but I think that critiques of technology have been far too casually dismissed as “Luddite” or “Amish.”

But name-calling too easily devolves into a simple “for” and “against” binary opposition, which does no service to the cause of careful thought. Hipps avoids this type of simplistic thought admirably, and while some might find him overly negative, it’s a much needed corrective to our usual lack of critical thought in this area.

Hipps helps us understand media better by trying to define just what it is. He says that all media have four dimensions:

  1. amplification or extension (being able to reach more people)
  2. every new medium makes an older technology irrelevant or obsolete
  3. every new medium retrieves some experience or medium from the past (for example, the surveillance camera–designed for protection–replicates the ancient city wall)
  4. every new medium, when pushed to an extreme, will revers on itself, revealing unintended consequences. For example, the Internet was designed to make information more easily accessible, thereby reducing ignorance. But too much information or the wrong kind of information reverses into overwhelming the seeker, leading to greater confusion rather than clarity.

It is the last item on the above list that reveals how we normally don’t think about the common drawbacks of the media in our lives, although they’re never far from us. And it is the fact that we don’t normally notice media and it’s effects (regardless of the content) that makes it so potentially harmful, particularly in the life of faith.

Examples could abound–and they do in Hipps’ book–but I won’t recount them here. (I will likely post a few excerpts over the next little while, however.) What I will do is to say that we desperately need more critical engagement with media, technology, and the ways in which our best-intentioned uses of them can subvert our best intentions to communicate the Gospel. Hipps does so in a clear, engaging book that any Christian who thinks and serves at the intersection of faith and media should read, ponder, and take very seriously.

Designed: Student Media

I did a lot of web design work for my school, St. Stephen’s University, over the summer. We recently unveiled a Student Media site for the creative and artistic types that
fill our school community to be able to share their creations with each other and everybody else on this internet thing.

So, go on over, be awed by the creativity, and if you care to, let me know what you think about the site. The link again: SSU Student Media.