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New Media

Do no harm

Okay, honestly. Futurebook.

There’s writing, there’s good writing and there’s dangerous neglect of the facts.

Here’s a line:

For aeons the digitalists have been trying to convince us that the container wasn’t important, that the shift from p to e was as natural as running water, and that we shouldn’t resist it. Now we have got so far the argument is moving ground: suddenly the medium has become the message again. The e-book is dead, long live the Internet-book.

So, aside from the brief response that Baldur Bjarnason made, pointing out that the ‘digitalists’ (by which I’m including Baldur and myself) have no interest in obscuring the relevance of McLuhan to the debate, there’s the matter of who are these ‘digitalists’ who have been trying to convince publishing that the container is not important. Not me, not Craig Mod, not Baldur

and frankly, not anyone who didn’t have a vested interest in maintaining a parlous status quo with regard to print and electronic publishing. Futurebook, and the Bookseller, by espousing that point of view; ‘you all think you’re so clever, but look at us, we run multimillion pound companies and we know what’s right’ are guilty of nothing less than promoting denial. The ‘digitalists’ who told you that the container wasn’t important are the same ‘digitalists’ who produced the abominable eBook edition of PD Smith’s beautifully designed City (see here) (I will concede that the Kindle and iBooks editions have improved since launch, although both remain a parody of the print edition).

I say again, you haven’t been listening. Not at all. The thinking that says the container isn’t important is the thinking that cripples design and materially-sensitive production from the outset, that sees digital as a tool for market reach, for extending sales and pays little or no attention to the nature of the platform itself.

That line of thinking, that kind of muddle-headed blindness does a disservice to every book designer working today. Which is why I got angry about City.

Bill Thompson didn’t just say thata file was different from a book, because a book when it was published was finished, a file can go on and on”, he tried to demonstrate that the nature of a digital edition is that it is extendable. It does not stop with printing, binding and distribution. If you want a less demanding example, see this on the Gollancz blog – it’s not as smart as Bill’s keynote, but it says the same things.

Bill Thompson gave a keynote at Publishing for Digital Minds. A Keynote. That’s something you paid upward of £300 to sit and listen to.

Let me say that again – you paid to listen to Bill talk, and so you really ought to have listened. Bill did not say, for example that “The future for reading, he said, was more akin to the internet (an infinitely extendable space), than a dead-tree book.” He said that “words in order that have been printed and bound in a book do something different from words in order that have been captured in a file, that they are distinct classes of ‘literary object’ and that we should not treat them as identical or even very much alike.” And then he said that “An ebook is an active part of the digital ecosystem, an object like any other online.”, and “The process of ‘reading’ an ebook is the process of copying its bits from storage, interpreting them, and displaying them, and every time you create a perfect digital simulacrum of something that has no original.”, and then he asked:

  • What are the affordances of the screen-based text
  • How do we secure and maintain attention
  • Can context and content work together?
  • And how can the printed book and the file coexist and support each other?

Bill talked about how digital can express ideas differently, pointing out that digital, that the eBook (to consider one, really ONE mode that we have and for goodness sake it’s the lowest hanging fruit so far) is a node in a network, is a set of data rendered as a simulacrum of a book that can do so much more when we stop thinking it should behave like a printed book, that this state of things is transitional and that “Perhaps the thing you do is not the thing you think you have been doing.

That’s what Bill said, and I got that without coughing up £300 to not listen to a word he was saying.

I’m not angry, I’m just very very disappointed.

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