“Does the Brain Like E-Books?” sounds and reads too much like a Snarkmarket original to be ignored. I like this bit from my friend and almost-colleague (if I had locked down that UCSB job) Alan Liu:
Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention. This was true as early as the invention of writing, which Plato complained hollowed out focal memory. Similarly, William Wordsworth’s sister complained that he wasted his mind in the newspapers of the day. It takes time and adaptation before a balance can be restored, not just in the “mentality” of the reader, as historians of the book like to say, but in the social systems that complete the reading environment.
Right now, networked digital media do a poor job of balancing focal and peripheral attention. We swing between two kinds of bad reading. We suffer tunnel vision, as when reading a single page, paragraph, or even “keyword in context” without an organized sense of the whole. Or we suffer marginal distraction, as when feeds or blogrolls in the margin (”sidebar”) of a blog let the whole blogosphere in.
And I adore this closer look at the cognitive implications of reading, as relayed by Jonah Lehrer:
I think one of the most interesting findings regarding literacy and the human cortex is the fact that there are actually two distinct pathways activated by the sight of letters. (The brain is stuffed full of redundancies.) As the lab of Stanislas Dehaene has found, when people are reading “routinized, familiar passages” a part of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA, or the ventral pathway) is activated. This pathway processes letters and words in parallel, allowing us to read quickly and effortlessly. It’s the pathway that literate readers almost always rely upon.
But Dehaene and colleagues have also found a second reading pathway in the brain, which is activated when we’re reading prose that is “unfamiliar”. (The scientists trigger this effect in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters, or using a hard to read font, or filling the prose with obscure words.) As expected, when the words were more degraded or unusual, subjects took longer to comprehend them. By studying this process in an fMRI machine, Dehaene could see why: reading text that was highly degraded or presented in an unusual fashion meant that we relied on a completely different neural route, known as the dorsal reading pathway. Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we learned how to read, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even literate adults still rely, in some situations, on the same patterns of brain activity as a first-grader, carefully sounding out the syllables.
That’s right — Mallarmé‘s “Un coup de dés” actually pushes through to a different part of your brain — because it taps into new graphic possibilities, as well as semantic (and syntactic) ones. And that, my friends, is poetry — i.e. “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
Or it is, so long as we keep making it new:
The larger point is that most complaints about E-Books and Kindle apps boil down to a single problem: they don’t feel as “effortless” or “automatic” as old-fashioned books. But here’s the wonderful thing about the human brain: give it a little time and practice and it can make just about anything automatic. We excel at developing new habits. Before long, digital ink will feel just as easy as actual ink.
Or today’s graphic avant-garde will feel as easy as tomorrow’s MOR pleasures.
Think about a newspaper — so much potential for marginal distraction! All those graphic collisions of text upon itself, with pictures and advertisements and such, in tiny type and held in an unusual bodily orientation. Then they added color! In the nineteenth century, the newspaper was a sensory onslaught akin to watching the commercials surrounding Saturday morning cartoons. Now, it’s straightforward, orderly — even stately.
There’s a great, probably unintentional allegory of this transformation in Citizen Kane. It plays out as the fossilization of a marriage, and the crystallization of Kane’s political intentions — moving from anarchic gadfly to demagogic gubernatorial candidate — but it’s also about the normalization (and neutralization) of newspaper reading. It goes from marginal distraction to tunnel vision, and in just six moves.
There are a lot of things I’m skeptical/pissed about re:the Google Books settlement (and Google Books in general). This, however, strikes me as exactly right:
Speaking at the Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt, Amanda Edmonds, Google’s director of strategic partnerships, said the programme would be rolled out by June. Edmonds said one of the strengths of Google’s offering was that once bought, the e-book would exist in a “cloud library”, which could be accessed from potentially any device, including laptops, “smart phones” or e-readers. “As long as you can get onto the library, you can access it,” Edmonds said. “All books will live in the same library, so it doesn’t matter where you buy it or where you read it.”
I’m assuming that Google will also use Gears or some other implementation to allow for local storage and offline reading. You’ve got the tools; it’s easy to use them.
I like a lot about this model for e-books in general, but it seems particularly well-suited for Google Books, which is a scanned backlist of books not originally written or designed for digital reading.
NEW e-books, on the other hand, might benefit from some hardware-specific formatting. You can imagine an interactive book that’s designed to be read on the iPhone, or maybe on a Nintendo handheld or something. Not hastily scanned text, but a piece of tailored multimedia.
The short lesson is that if e-book sellers are going to try to lock their content to a particular console, they had damn well better make sure that the design and readability of the book take full advantage of that console. AND that console had better create a hell of an experience reading books. Otherwise the versatility of the screen-agnostic, read-anywhere cloud model just guts whatever competitive value you might offer in throwing up text on a screen.
This is also a lesson to creators — if you don’t want to be a part of the Google Books party, but want to sell e-books, your best bet is to offer something Google Books won’t match: that is, a book that isn’t just scanned/copied text on a blank screen.
Mark Sigal at O’Reilly looks at “four different use cases that capture the promise of an improved user experience around a reboot of the book” — in this case centered around the mythical Apple tablet (called here an “iPad”):
Travel Books: As noted in my post Touch Traveler: London, Paris and only an iPod Touch, travel is a very fertile space for a re-envisioned book, as it depends on good, timely information, just when you need it. For example, a travel book could always be up to date with real-time event calendars. Listings could be interconnected with maps, Wikipedia, live review sites, reservations/ticketing systems, video libraries, trip photos, messages and discussion threads, and fellow travelers’ notes of interest.
Children’s Books: Remember the Pop-Up book? It was the first interactive book, and it was pretty cool when I was a kid (before computers). What if you married the pluggable simplicity of Radio Shack’s 150-in-1 Electronic Project Kit to creating pop-up books? What kind of engaging stories could you create?
Comics & Graphic Novels: A format like the comic book or the graphic novel could push the envelope on good storytelling, especially if it was designed with the prosumer blogger in mind. I can readily imagine classics like Judge Dredd and Swamp Thing jumping off the screen on the iPad, not to mention the ability of storytellers to create multiple outcome forks based on different narrative paths chosen by the reader.
History & Science Books: Imagine learning what it’s like living through the current recessionary times with a book that is traversable based upon events, chronologies, or the road traveled by specific characters. A great sports book could allow you to relive a game-changing moment in a classic Series, or be game-ified to allow you to test your managerial instincts and see how different moves might have played out. What kind of pertri dish could an iPad enable, especially if it took advantage of the physical hardware accessory plugins the iPhone Platform can support?
This post also included some thoughtful links to people writing about the new iTunes LP format, which does indeed show some potential for next-gen text. Jay Robinson talks about how it looks, then digs into the guts of the files to find WebKit, CSS, etc., while Tristan Lewis wonders about the possibility that the format could create something like an AppStore for content developers:
What if independent movie-makers or musicians could sell directly through the iTunes store and provide content on all the apple platforms (TV, iPod, phone, computer) with a single click. I suspect that many would be willing to give up 30 percent of their revenue in order to get to that public.
The components all seem to be there and it seems to me that it won’t be long before Apple starts pushing the idea that we are all content producers (an old idea at Apple, which was at the source of their creating the iLife suite) and we can all make some money at producing that content.
For my part, I’ve got no idea whether that’s what Apple is up to*, or even if this tablet, however coveted, will ever materialize.** But yeah, I think that could be nice.
* This is where Apple-as-a-toll-collector almost begins to make sense. Really, why do we need to wait? I mean, couldn’t ANYONE create a new format like this to deliver content? It’s HTML and CSS, folks — it’ll work in a web browser! But Apple’s got the store, the way to get it on dedicated devices, and the marketing clout to get people interested in it. So we wait.
** I also wonder whether Apple’s just waiting until we all get accustomed to reading things and watching video on teeny tiny screens, so that there won’t be a need to up the size of the iPod touch at all, rendering the whole thing moot. “Hmm, can’t find a good touchscreen vendor at that size… Maybe we can just wait for everyone’s brains and eyes to adapt.“Generations will die and be replaced by those who can easily read whole novels off pages the size of a deck of cards! We’re all going to have magnifying glasses implanted in our eye sockets, while our fingers become filed down to stylus points. And it will be magical.