Archives for posts with tag: reading

For more than a millennium, the codex was king. The gathering of paper or vellum, folded into pages, and bound with a protective cover to a common spine was developed in second century Europe. Over the next two hundred years it would slowly overtake the scroll as the primary vessel1 for the recording, storage, and dissemination of the written word.

And since its development, the form of the codex has remained largely unchanged. In fact, the most important innovation in the production of books — the development of movable type printing in the mid fifteenth century — was a manufacturing revolution rather than a reinvention of the codex itself. Gutenberg’s revolution was finding a faster and cheaper way to make books.

Granted, the print revolution did begin the evolution of the manufacture of codices. Vellum pages gave way to paper. Over time, new binding techniques allowed for the production of books of all shapes and sizes with all manner of coverings.

And thanks to the print revolution, the content contained by codices changed tremendously. The spread of the book form led to a blossoming of knowledge and art.

Information begot information. Books begot books.

But for all the changes in content, for all the new shapes and sizes of book, the overall container — the codex — remained largely the same. The form of the book had been locked down a thousand years before the birth of Gutenberg. In other words, channeling Douglas Adams, if a wormhole opened in a Barnes and Noble today and a paperback fell back in time to the court of Charlemagne circa 785 AD, the famed scribe Alcuin would immediately recognize the alien object as a codex, as a book.

The old adage is that when all you have is a hammer, everything comes to look like a nail. If thats true, then it stands that when the only information container you have is a codex, all information starts to look like a book.

Where there is no real alternative, content becomes inseparable from container. The two collapse into a single, seemingly inseparable form.

Well into the 1980’s, if not the early 1990’s, the codex remained the only mass-​market container for the written word. The advent of new types of recording and broadcast media created alternatives to reading. But none of them offered an alternative for reading.

It’s only been in the last two decades with the rise of eReading devices — first the PC, then cell phones, and now eReaders and Tablets — that reading has taken a truly revolutionary step.

We are in the midst of a renaissance for readers and reading. And this renaissance was facilitated not just by an explosion in publishing, but though the creation of alternatives to the codex.

The introduction of alternatives into a space where they had not previously existed disrupted a thousand year old illusion of a hard bound relationship between form and content within the pages of a book. People have discovered, for example, that novels are, for the most part, platform independent — words read just as well on screen as they do in a paperback or a hard cover. A book is no longer synonymous with its traditional physical container. Today the choice of which version of a text to read — hardcover, paperback, audio, or ebook — is becoming increasingly dependent upon what type of experience a reader wishes to have with that text. And that includes having multiple experiences with the same text over a variety of platforms.

The appearance of alternatives containers for words also opens up new and exciting ways of looking at the present, the future, and perhaps, most importantly, the past.

Thinking about reading on smart-​phones and tablets has given me a new perspective on the books in my library. I increasingly find that my books shelves contain printed apps like cookbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, how-​to books, travel guides, and directories. These collections of functional information, written for random access rather than narrative reading, and intended for specialized tasks were relegated to books, not because that was the optimal format for that information, but because the codex was the only option available.

Looking at things from this perspective — that these were always apps that we mistook for being books — is it any surprise these categories of publishing have been revolutionized by the advent of electronic reading platforms?

Realizing that digital reading has freed apps hidden within traditional books, points us to the exciting challenge/​opportunity for publishers and creators. Sure, people will continue to write platform independent works like novels. Despite so many fears, there is no real evidence to suggest that long form writing is going to go away. I’m sure their popularity will wax and wane. But while the business models will change, the overall production of that sort of narrative writing will continue unabated.

What is far more exciting, from my perspective, is that creators can now choose between a diverse set of publishing platforms. And that choice opens up new opportunities to create revolutionary works that work to embrace the full potential of their chosen platform. Publishing consultant and all around bright guy, Joe Esposito, beautifully described this challenge as follows in a recent email discussion thread:

[T]here is another model, and that is what I will call the Frostian (from Robert Frost: “all I ask is the freedom of my material”) model. In the latter model, the creative impulse comes about in a struggle with the material – good fences make good neighbors: the operative word is “make.” In this sense, books ARE their containers, or at least they are born of a struggle with their containers.

Now that we have learned how much of our content is platform independent, now that we can stop trying to force apps into the form of books, there’s a wonderful opportunity to create platform-​dependent works. To create books that truly link content and form.2 To choose to work with the codex format and embrace what makes it different than an eReader (and visa versa, of course).

For more than a millennium, the codex was king — the only game in town for the written word. That is now over. We are in the second decade of having real alternatives. And those alternatives are not going to go away in the foreseeable future. In fact we’ll most likely see them expand.

This is such a good thing.

We now have the space, the opportunity, to rediscover the codex and choose to embrace it. We do not need to try and recreate the codex experience on a digital device. After all, the codex has been with us for a long, long time. It isn’t going away. If anything, now is when things get really interesting.

Vive la différence.

  1. Other media for the written word — scrolls, clay tables, chiseled stone, graffiti on walls — persisted, but these were largely relegated to special uses. []
  2. To be fair, there have always been authors and book creators who have worked to tie content and form together. Examples of such works include Tristan Shandy, House of Leaves, and Watchmen … my hope is that this will become a far more common practice. []

We’ve known for a while, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, that Apple was planning something big in the book/​textbook market. Yesterday, January 19th, we found out it was iBook 2. Quoting from Apple’s oh-​so-​subtle press release entitled Apple Reinvents Textbooks with iBooks 2 for iPad, here are the key things that are part of the upgrade:

(1) iBooks textbooks, an entirely new kind of textbook that’s dynamic, engaging and truly interactive […] with support for great new features including gorgeous, fullscreen books, interactive 3D objects, diagrams, videos and photos;

(2) iBooks Author […] a free download from the Mac App Store and lets anyone with a Mac create stunning iBooks textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books and more, and publish them to Apple’s iBookstore. [You create a ibook] with Apple-​designed templates that feature a wide variety of page layouts [… and] add your own text and images by simply dragging and dropping, [… you can also] add interactive photo galleries, movies, Keynote® presentations and 3D objects.

(3) iTunes® U app [which provides students and teachers with] access to the world’s largest catalog of free educational content, along with over 20,000 education apps at their fingertips and hundreds of thousands of books in the iBookstore that can be used in their school curriculum.

At first glance, there seems to be a lot in here for advocates of self-​publishing and eReading to like. In particular, iBooks Author could be an incredibly powerful tool for getting students to engage with authorship and course material in an entirely different way — imagine every student making their own custom textbook.

However, when one digs beneath the surface a bit, iBooks Author has a few big problems. These are the two — one small and one big — that concern me…

Problem #1 — Interactivity
Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes that while iBooks make a claim of being “truly” interactive, what that really means is interactive animations…

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-​on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

I would take this one step further, in that the books that I’ve seen also don’t seem to provide much connection between text and interactivity. Rather than integrating the interactivity into the content in such a way that it becomes inseparable, it largely remains there to illustrate the text. In this way, all we have is dancing baloney sort of illustration within a closed reading experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t a revolutionary interactive experience.

Still even if iBook Author isn’t all that interactive, the promise of providing students a tool to build their own books is a good thing… right?

Not if the book is locked down to the iOS platform.

Problem #2 — ibooks can only be read on iOS devices
The iBook format, .ida, is a proprietary build off of the industry standard .ePub format which can only be read on an iOS device. That means that a student’s work can only be viewed, as it was intended to be1 , within the iOS platform.2 “Taking home” the book you made in class to show your parents requires you to take your ipad as well.

This may not seem like a big thing — especially since we imagine that each student would have their own iPad. However, it doesn’t take much to imagine less affluent school districts where students would share iPads. Or other scenarios where school supplied iPads cannot leave the school campus. Without access to a “home” iPad, that student’s work becomes more-​or-​less inaccessible — even if the family has a computer. Further, if the student wants to share that work within her extended family, all of them need iOS devices as well.

The problem is a closed, hardware based, platforms
The fact that iBooks only work on iOS devices seems to me an exceedingly problematic development for ebooks in general.

The rational — on the surface — for going with a proprietary format, is that the current ePub standard does not currently allow for an ebook experience that meets Apple’s high standards. As someone whose struggled with the limits of ePub, I’m sympathetic to this argument. Especially, if we are talking about typographic nuances and interactive elements, by all accounts iBooks are able to do things that standard ePubs cannot do as well (if at all).

This will surely result in some beautiful ibooks.

However, if we look beyond élite publications, this slavish attention to “experience” makes less sense. Most self-​publishing authors — including students — rarely end up using many of those advanced interactive features that made it necessary to drop ePub. I expect that time will show that, outside of the typographic tweaks hard wired into Apple’s templates, the vast majority of iBooks could have been created as ePubs without sacrificing anything.

And if those books had been “born” ePub, they could have been read on just about any computer, tablet, eReader, or phone available today. Instead thy will be locked to the iOS. In this way iBooks coverts generic content into something that can only be viewed on Apple devices.

Considering that the iPad’s traces its lineage back to the iPod, whose success was based on the cross-​platform MP3 standard, there is a certain irony to this decision.

Beyond the issue of experience, there’s another compelling reason for Apple to do this. As was recently pointed out to me in an email discussion, while Apple makes a lot on content (some $1,571 million in its 2011 fourth quarter!), content only accounts for 6% of all of Apple’s revenue. Almost 70% of revenue in that same quarter came from the sale of iPods, iPhone, iPads, and their related services, carrier agreements, and accessories.

To be blunt, iBooks are about selling iOS devices, not the other way around.3

Thus, there is very little incentive for Apple to develop an iBook reader for Windows or Android, let alone for Apple lap– and desktop computers.4.

For the foreseeable future, expect iBooks to be locked to a hardware platform. And that in turn means that a lot of new, traditionally platform agnostic, content will become locked to a platform for no other reason the artificial restrictions of the platform it was authored on. While that might not seem like much, it’s a very different approach to electronic texts than we have seen up to this point.5 Granted, there have always been technological barriers to reading and writing, but I cannot think of a bigger attempt, in recent memory, to restrict mass-​market reading and writing to a single platform. It may result in a win for Apple, but I can’t help but this of it as a loss for the rest of us.

  1. Apple does provide the ability to export a platform independent PDF of an iBook. However, all of the much touted interactivity is stripped from the book. And PDF is a format that still is primarily intended for print consumption, which means that all of the screen-​reading advantages of an ebook, such as dynamic text reflow, are also lost. []
  2. Additionally, the iBooks Author EULA contains a big “catches” to the distribution of ibooks. While free ibooks can be distributed how ever the author wishes, ibooks can only be sold via the iBookstore. []
  3. see Joe Espisito’s spot on analysis for more on this []
  4. In this way Amazon has a fundamentally different reading platform strategy. While they are heavily invested in Kindle, one must understand that it’s the Kindle platform versus the hardware that Amazon really cares about. In order to reach the broadest community of readers/​customers, Amazon has published Kindle software for every major Computer, Tablet, and Smartphone platform. Kindle books, which typically have DRM applied to them, may also be in a proprietary format, but, to some degree its platform agnostics approach makes it a far more available format to readers than Apple’s hardware locked .ida []
  5. Even during the browser wars of the late nineties, text on a site optimized for a given browser could still be typically read by anyone who visited that site, regardless of their web browser. []

Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in the coming weeks JSTOR will make a subset of it’s archive of academic journals available to anyone who registers for a free account. This is, generally speaking, a good thing. However, as Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic points out, details from the Chronicle’s article suggests that this is, at best, a very small victory for open access. He writes:

JSTOR told the Chronicle that each and every year, they turn away 150 million attempts to gain access to articles. That’s right. 150 million attempts!

The way I see it, that’s 150 million chances lost to improve the quality of the Internet. JSTOR, as the keeper of so much great scholarly work, should be one of the Internet’s dominant suppliers of facts and serious research. But if something is not publicly available, key gatekeepers like journalists and Wikipedians, move to the best available source, even if they know that there probably is a better source behind JSTOR’s paywall. So, instead, JSTOR’s vast troves of valuable information remain within academia and the broader Internet’s immune system is that much weaker.

Madrigal is makes an important point. Search engines like Google now regularly return links to academic articles as part of search results. For most people1 following a journal link leads to a page that informs you that you don’t have access to that article. Want to experience it for yourself, just follow this link to as article on Open access and academic journal quality … #irony.

Other than examining attempts, there are other ways to wrap our head around the problem. I decided that I’d look into how many articles are firewalled at JSTOR. To do this, I ran a number of queries on the JSTOR search engine2 using variations on the string (cty:(journal) AND ty:(fla)) AND (year:[1 TO 2012]) The results are rather sobering. Here’s the top line:

Publicly available articles on JSTOR as of 1÷13÷2011 total articles publicly accessible articles publicly available as a % of total
All articles on JSTOR 3,816,066 272,475 7.14%
Texts out of copyright (beginning-​1922) 533,282 264,384 49.58%
Texts published since 1922 3,172,269 8,085 0.25%

Currently, only 7% of all of JSTOR’s content is freely available.

Worse yet, only half of articles that have entered the public domain are publicly available via JSTOR!

0 of the 2,465,468 articles published between 1923 and 1996 are publicly available.

In 1997 the first open journals began to publish. However, only 8,085 — less than 1% — of the 829,330 JSTOR articles published after 1997 are publicly available.

These are big numbers.

In theory, the point of publishing is to disseminate research for the development of knowledge. Further, many of those 3 million articles were built on data collected through publicly funded research. I have a hard time seeing how we can say the public is getting a solid return on its research investment when it still doesn’t have open access to research it helped funded over fifty-​years ago.

As an academic of sorts, I appreciate the need to protect the work of research. But I cannot buy into the idea that copyright is the right way to protect that work (especially when the one who benefits in the long term is the archive as opposed to the scholar). Imagine an alternative scenario. For example, that academic publication were handled more like patents — which enter into the public domain after 20 years for the good of society. JSTOR currently holds approximately 2,567,820 articles that would, under patent laws, have entered the public domain, versus the 533,282 that currently have passed out of copyright.3

All of this speaks to Madrigal ‘s point. This massive amount of information that is only available to those of us who are lucky enough to be in institutions that are willing to pay for it.

Admittedly, as I understand things, JSTOR has no legal obligation to provide free access to any of this content. And the price of access for back articles is often set by the journals, or rather their publishers. However, moral obligations are entirely different.

To their credit, in September of 2011 JSTOR began the process of opening up access to all their content that has entered into the public domain. Approximately 50% of it is currently available, but that still leaves half of it behind firewalls.

Hopefully, JSTOR’s new program will greatly improve public access. However, given the fact that there are over three million articles that currently remain beyond the reach of the public (and many scholars), it’s going to take a lot to make a real dent.

BTW, I’ve made all of the data I collected available via google docs. Please feel free to use it as you’d like. If you do something cool with it, let me know.

  1. this includes academics as there are far more journals available than even the most affluent research institutions can afford to subscribe to []
  2. I had to brute force this. I’d love it if someone could point me to a example of python code to do the same sort of thing. []
  3. Currently 2,303,436 of those articles are firewalled. []

Thanks of Richard Nash of soft skull press for calling my attention to this reminder how the act of engaged reading can create a profoundly intimate space of information and exchange between subject and object.

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens (1947)

29/365 (IPAD) by Jesus Belzuncem Licensed Through CCLast week two opposing editorials appeared on TechCrunch representing the two oppositional poles of a discussion on reading and the iPad. On the side of the iPad killing reading was Paul Carr’s NSFW: I Admit It, The iPad Is A Kindle Killer. I Just Wish It Weren’t Going To Kill Reading Too . In opposition to Carr, stating the iPad is going to fundamentally change reading and we need to rethink books is Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should be an App, Not an iBook, written by 21 year old1 Cody Brown.

On the weekend of its launch Cory Doctorow and others (like myself) critiqued the closed nature of the iPad development platform and its relationship to innovation. Others have written in support of it.

What is it about the iPad that activates discussions like these? I mean, it’s a wonderfully engineered device, but it’s not all that and the proverbial bag of chips. Though it may replace some people’s “traditional” computers2 , neither the desktop, nor the notebook, will be going away anytime soon. And, while Apple will probably capture the slate tablet market, there are tons of competing tablet devices on the way. However, if the iPad had “just” been a tablet (like upcoming models from HP, Dell, or Google), I doubt that we’d be been having such focused conversations.

Having been witness to lots of debates on the iPad and its potential effects on publishing by pragmatic folks who, though technologists, are excellent at getting beyond the spin, I don’t think most of these discussions can be dismissed as simply buying into hype .

Nor is it necessarily the given reality of the situation, though transformations within the marketplace, like the move in publishing to agency model pricing is most definitely based in the immediate real. For the most part these conversations, take for example Carr and Brown, are fixated on the future.

So what’s driving all the churn?

I propose that the iPad is the metaphor3 that has allowed/​enabled existing ideas to be developed in new (and potentially more productive) ways.

The iPad’s promise of a tight “device” (versus computer) experience, able to be “infinity” expanded through apps, creates just enough space of ideation to activate all the debates that we’ve seen (open v. closed, book v. app, etc). What the iPad adds to this discussion is a common understand of interaction and experience that allows us to greatly refine the discussion.

Beyond the specifics (like app store pricing and agency models), the iPad offers an “open bounded” experience — neither as single purpose as an “eReader” or as open as a “computer” (or perhaps even a “website) — with an easily understood interface (emphasizing the immediacy of touch) and platform (the easy availability of apps). If you’re in a ‘modern’4 country and within a general age/​demographic grouping, you don’t need to have held an iPad to participate in the discussion — we can easily conceptualize the experience from interactions with other technologies (computers and cell phones being obvious examples, but also think about interactions with touch screen interfaces in retail and other locations).

The brilliance of Apple, for better or worse, is the iPad’s intuitiveness5 — using an iPad is far easier to imagine and explain than any other type of computer (including Macs).

If we take the iPad as both the subject of and a metaphor for the arguments, we can try and “step outside” the discussions to see what’s actually being argued. And the answer is, “the future.” Each of the debates, and positions held there in, encapsulate a specific ideology/​imagination of a future (for publishing, for software, for users) which have been going on for quite a while. Should devices (with the iPad standing in for all) be open (democratic) or closed (authoritarian)? Will literacy fail or be irrevocably transformed? Is all development positive? And what is lost when, with the move to digital production and distribution, “all that is solid melts into air?” 6

From this perspective, the increasing heat of these reactivated debates should not be a surprise. Previous discussions about future7 suffered from lack of a shared conceptualization of computing. We might have conceptualized unfettered computers with transparent interfaces, “elegantly” fitting into our lives, but I don’t think that most of us were truly able to imagine them, at least in a shared way. Turning Marx’s quote on its head, Apple has taken the conceptual and given it a material form. And it doing that, it’s (momentarily at least) reshaped the discussion.

  1. The only reason I called out the authors age is that it was invoked twice within the article, once by TechCrunch and once by the author himself. I’m assuming that being 21 years old is important to understand his right to comment on these issues (as opposed to the fact that he’s a Reynolds Scholar in Social Entrepreneurship at NYU, and on the board of CoPress). For the record, as of presstime, Mr. Carr is 30 and I’m 35. Hopefully our ages are as important to our messages as Mr. Brown’s is to his). []
  2. in particular folks who use a computer primarily for eMail, web surfing, & light word processing []
  3. I’m thinking about a metaphor in terms of Wittensteinian categorization, and not necessarily as Lakoff and Johnson do. []
  4. I admit that Modern is a deeply problematic term. I had initially “first-​world”, but that is equally, if not more, problematic. Any suggestions? []
  5. Intuitiveness should be thought of as a mediation between intangible individual and cultural expectations about how a device should work and its material functioning. It emerges in dialog with an ever emerging total social experience of technology, and is therefore a constantly moving target. []
  6. Marx and Engles, The Manifesto of the Communist Party []
  7. I’d go so far as to say every discussion of the future, as like technology, the discussions around it are in an ever emergent state. Thus categories and concepts are always being created and modified []