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documents, e-books, pages

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Much of the work done on new systems of digital textuality in recent years has fallen into the trap of attempting all too literally to reproduce the printed page on digital screens, whether through the “portable document format” (PDF) originated by Adobe or through various forms of “e-book” readers. PDF technologies have of course been reasonably successful, primarily for the re-distribution online of materials that either were originally in print or that will wind up in print once again; except for their mode of distribution, however, there’s almost never anything particularly “net-native” about these texts, with little in their form that makes use of the digital environment in which they exist. These documents are, until printed, like paper under glass: unmarkable, utterly resisting interaction with an active reader. Various modes of e-book readers, beginning with the Expanded Books of the early 1990s Voyager Company, all the way through the in-development dotReader platform,1 have focused on becoming more genuinely digital in mode by providing readers with a set of tools that can be brought to bear on the text, including bookmarking, annotation, hyperlinking, and the like, all of which are simultaneously aimed at allowing the reader to traverse the text in ways that would be difficult, if not impossible, in print, while also providing the ability to mark the text so lamented by bibliophiles in contemplating on-screen reading. Thus far, however, no e-book reader has been terribly successful at luring readers away from pages and toward screens.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 One of the problems with both the portable document format and the e-book reader — as well, for that matter, as the more generic HTTP/HTML-based web technologies that have produced billions upon billions of web pages — is visible in their very vocabulary: despite whatever innovations exists in “pages” or “documents” or “e-books,” we remain tied to thinking about electronic texts in terms of print-based models. These print models have of course been critically important to the development of western culture over the last 600 years, and they are for that reason so deeply a part of the ways that we think that it becomes hard to imagine any alternatives to them.2 However, simply translating texts from paper to screen misses the point. There’s a reason, after all, why my students print the PDFs that I teach in my classes before they read them, and a reason why the response of many readers to e-book formats is to talk about the smell of paper or the use of a pencil or the comfort of reading in bed; each of these e-book forms loses the benefits of print in the process of trying desperately to retain them. These technologies have demonstrated that the format of print-on-paper can successfully be translated into pixel-on-screens, but at the cost of remaining trapped in what Paul Levinson, following Marshall McLuhan, has referred to as “rear-view mirrorism” (126), the difficulty we have defining new technologies except in terms of old ones. Take, for instance the example of the car: the first major insight of its inventors was the flash that one might produce a carriage that was able to move without the horse; had, however, the thinking about such an invention remained at the phase of the “horseless carriage,” many of the later developments in automotive design would have been impossible. (In fact, there are remnants of such rear-view mirrorism still lingering in current automotive design, such as front-wheel steering.3) In the same fashion, while thinking about the electronic form of the book was necessary to its original invention, a project like CommentPress, with its fully networked textual structures and participatory reading environment, demonstrates why the concept of the “e-book” is destined to sound naïve in the future, a remnant of our tenuous toe-dipping into digital publishing.

  1. 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0
  2. For more on the history of Voyager’s Expanded Books project, one might begin with the Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expanded_Books); on the dotReader platform, see http://www.dotreader.com.
  3. Moreover, the attempt to imagine such alternatives often results in a profound anti-technological backlash; one might see, for instance, Alvin Kernan or Sven Birkerts, among any number of other such sources.
  4. Thanks to Dan Visel for this insight; see “Horseless Carriages.”
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Source: http://projects.plannedobsolescence.net/cpfinal/documents-e-books-pages/