Wednesday, October 7, 2015

[Link] Why Have Digital Books Stopped Evolving?

by Craig Mod

From 2009 to 2013, every book I read, I read on a screen. And then I stopped. You could call my four years of devout screen‑reading an experiment. I felt a duty – not to anyone or anything specifically, but more vaguely to the idea of ‘books’. I wanted to understand how their boundaries were changing and being affected by technology. Committing myself to the screen felt like the best way to do it.

2009, it was impossible to ignore the Kindle. Released in 2007, its first version was a curiosity. It was unwieldy, with a split keyboard and an asymmetrical layout that favoured only the right hand. It was a strange and strangely compelling object. Its ad-hoc angles and bland beige colour conjured a 1960s sci-fi futurism. It looked exactly like its patent drawing. (Patent drawings are often abstractions of the final product.) It felt like it had arrived both by time machine and worm hole; not of our era but composed of our technology.

And it felt that way for good reason: you could trace elements of that first Kindle – its shape, design, philosophy – back 70 years. It evoked the Memex machine that the American inventor Vannevar Bush wrote about in ‘As We May Think’ (1945), a path-breaking essay for The Atlantic. It went some way toward vindicating Marshall McLuhan’s prediction that ‘all the books in the world can be put on a single desktop.’ It was a near‑direct copy of a device called the Dynabook that the early computer pioneer Alan Kay sketched and cardboard‑prototyped in 1968. It was a cultural descendant of the infinitely paged Book of Sand from a short story of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges published in 1975. And it was something of a free-standing version of the ideas of intertwingularity and hypertext that Ted Nelson first posited in 1974 and Tim Berners-Lee championed in the 1990s.

The Kindle was all of that and more. Neatly bundled up. I was in love.

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