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New Media

A short reply to Bill Thompson

Bill’s piece here.

Dear Bill.

I’ll cut to the chase, in the interests of brevity and clarity. I think there’s something missing from your piece on the future of the book (this morning’s BBC Online piece), and I think that something is rather significant. You address the tension between the desire of technologists to advance our cultural reception of media forms through the adoption of new devices, and the unique properties inherent in the printed page but you don’t afford more than lip-service to the issue of content.

Content, and the creation of such.

William Powers’ 2006 paper rightly addresses the position of technological determinism, proposing that, (among other insights), contrary to expectation, ‘Television did not kill off radio, but it did change the way radio figured in everyday life‘. Your piece articulates that position with regard to the printed page (something Lewis Blackwell would have done well to consider when he heralded ‘The End of Print‘ in his 1995 approbation of David Carson’s career) but, I feel, falls short of grappling with the thorny issue of ‘why‘ one might write for a new platform, and ‘how‘ that might differ from traditional printed literature?

Your final paragraphs:

But we could find that the particular qualities which we value in the printed book, especially the way it encourages immersive engagement, are just as possible with screen-based media too.

We are used to the passive immersion in the narrative encouraged by films and TV, but what of the active engagement we see in gaming? My 15 year old son may well find that the navigational and problem-solving skills he has picked up from hours playing Halo 3 enable him to work with on-screen texts just as efficiently as I work with printed ones.

do begin to outline some of the real issues thrown up by the emergence of a new generation of ebooks, and ebook audiences, but omit some of the more pertinent factors. The concept of Media Specificity for example, ought to highlight a response in part to your introduction of immersivity to a BBC audience (for this, though, you ought to be heartily congratulated – now can we get Rory Cellan-Jones to use the term?), especially with regard to the specifics of writing ebooks that exploit the technology, rather than simply settling to live within it. Transferring printed material to a new platform falls into all of the traps laid by a remediative strategy, without exploring the properties of the new platform itself. Until we start to engage with the why, and how (above), this debate is, I fear, rather moot.

Nevertheless, my thanks for an insightful piece, as always.


Tom Abba


4 comments for “A short reply to Bill Thompson”

  1. I thought that piece was pitched a good deal higher than the usual BBC technology stuff, which tends to be only marginally less condescending than a PC World commercial.

    I’ve still to see Bill Thompson and Bill Bailey in the same room at the same time though.

    Posted by mongo | September 9, 2008, 3:05 pm
  2. I take mine on the tube, as it means you can turn pages one handed whilst holding on to the pole. Also I don’t like being judged on what I’m reading so it’s very handy. When I was reading ‘False Impression’ by Jeffrey Archer last year, I was embarrassed to be sen with it. Which is my problem, as it’s a cracking read.

    Posted by Andy | September 9, 2008, 7:02 pm
  3. Tom, you’re right that I didn’t go into the issue of what content will work in what medium in my column, simply because there wasn’t space – like many others I think some forms of writing (like literary fiction) will still work best in printed books, but I also agree that we are only beginning to develop forms of writing (especially creative writing) that exploit the technologies.

    mongo: I’ll try to get a pic with Bill Bailey just to prove we occupy separate spaces!

    Posted by Bill Thompson | September 10, 2008, 7:54 am
  4. Don’t worry, on closer inspection I see you’re more Grizzly Adams and he’s part troll (his words, not mine).

    As a journo I concur with your point about word counts and space.

    ta ta for now

    Lord Mongo Mongingtons III

    Posted by mongo | September 10, 2008, 9:29 am

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