Not Books, but Doors: Why eReading is a More Immersive Experience

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

I've been reading electronically -- phone, desktop (I know), Kobo, Kobo Touch -- for perhaps two years now, and I've come to the following conclusion as my reading habits have changed. Electronic reading does a better job of engaging the reader's imagination than print books do.

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It's also, of course, a more physically pleasurable experience:

  • Lighter
  • Easier to operate (I'm talking about turning pages, and believe me no one is a better one-handed print page-turner than I am)
  • Less likely to wake you up when you drop it on your face when falling asleep reading
  • Not going to bedazzle you with glare when reading in bright sunlight (seriously, reading a good e-ink display beside a pool is a world-class experience)

But all of those are ultimately secondary. What eReading is really, really good at is letting you be a creative reader. Reading is the act of imaginatively interpreting -- reconstructing -- the work of an another person's imagination. That's subject to two sets of constraints: the range and ability of the author to express their imagination; and the range and ability of the reader to interpret it, which is to say, to creatively reimagine it on their own terms. Technology is not a neutral factor in that relationship. And electronic readers do a better job of relaxing the second set of those constraints.

Here's what I've noticed about my reading experience over the last couple dozen months.

1. I'm reading more.

Having a vast array of content to choose from means less reading time lost because I'm not quite in the mood for the book that I happened to bring with me. And that's exactly the point: I can read according to my mood -- not have to remember to bring a book strong enough to change my mood. Every time.

So, I'm better read -- but also have the ability to start reading something on a spur-of-the-moment suggestion. If I'm at a party and someone says, look, you have to read The Poisonwood Bible, I can start reading it on the bus on the way home instead of the Pretty Little Liars #9 that I was reading on the way there. This possibility, alone, makes me feel better read, because it's always within reach. The horizons of my imagination feel broader. (It doesn't hurt that the prices are usually lower.)

2. I'm far less tolerant of poorly written non-fiction.

Perhaps that's not quite fair: I'm far less tolerant of non-fiction that is written without a distinctive voice, or at the very least some concession to narrative structure. For all the improvements of scrolling and progress indicators, it remains much easier to skim a print book than an eBook. Which means I have to page through the eBook... and if it's boring I'd just as soon move onto something else. But on an eReader, the abandoned books aren't staring me in the face in some strange transfiguration of guilt and anxiety. In short: I'm in control of the reading experience -- unless the author is really, really good; unless they are actively contributing towards the mutual creative act.

 Hanna from Pretty Little Liars

Hanna from Pretty Little Liars

 Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser

Perhaps we do lose something in that. "Great books don't promise to hold your attention," I remember an English professor once telling a class utterly bored by one of the masters of American literature (probably Dreiser), "but they do promise to reward it." I suspect that, in a future when electronic reading is the dominant manner of reading, authors who can't write well will not be able to release ideas slowly. (And if we don't read Dreiser, we'll all miss out on some of the more amusing fender-benders of American prose.)

On the other hand:

3. I can concentrate better

Somehow the flexibility of the form -- yes, the font size, the typeface selection -- means that I can get better terms in the reading relationship. I can take my glasses off but still read without having to hold the device a couple of inches from my face. It's less about the conditions that I must arrange in order to read, and more about how I can manipulate the content to suit me.

4. I don't feel like I'm carrying a book around

Because I'm not. I'm not carrying hundreds of books either. At a certain point, having more books than I could list made my device something less like a book, or a compendium, than a portal: a door. That was one of the thrilling discoveries of the first Kobo reader: it came pre-loaded with a hundred free books, which made it clear that this technology was not simply a more efficient distribution mechanism, but a gateway to limitless content. Wi-fi devices have absolutely helped with that too -- but they have kept the connection to the wider Internet obscure enough that I'm not prone to jump on Twitter or the web. Reading remains immersive, yet feels connected.

5. The books I have read feel closer to one another

And that sense of connection, crucially, extends to the books I have already read. Somehow the ability to have the complete works (well, not quite yet) of Faulkner, Didion, Murakami, and John McPhee in my bag, at all times, gives me a more holistic sense of my reading life than having them marooned, out of reach, on a bookshelf, where their valences are confined to the sequence in which I happen to have them shelved. The connections between these books are multiple and they continually expand as I -- by the sheer act of reading -- add to their company. Virtual shelves aren't the same as real shelves, and the books I have on my Kobo live in the same kind of unregulated relationships to one another than they do in my imagination.

John McPhee: The Non-Portable Version

By amalgamating possibility, your aggregate reading experience, the range of your reading and your interests, electronic readers offer a sort of physical external representation of your imagination. They are a sort of auxiliary imagination. My Kobo Touch, after only a few weeks, houses hundreds of books and hundreds of annotations and highlights; it has measured and marked my progress through novels and essays (and, yes, I earned the insomniac badges along the way). It hasn't just been a device: it's been a companion.

Reading merges the content of the page with everything else you have ever read, through the filter of your imagination. It is a cumulative, messy process: it disintegrates the boundaries between ideas, times, places, people, events. It is a process of unseaming the constraints of reality; of unspooling it into the collective and personal reaches of the imagination. And the eReading device is by definition a much better metaphor for that process than physical books. Ideas collide, aggregate, pile into one another. They are sunk within you. They do not remain distinct.

Perhaps this is how the listeners to epic poetry once felt, as the stories that are now The Iliad and The Odyssey were released into the collective ether. Perhaps physical books were a transitional media.

So that's where I'm at. Admittedly other things have conspired to bring me there. I'm not at a point in my life where I still strongly feel the need to display my books around me as an expression of my refinement and taste, and in any event it's rare that a book changes me in the way of a Slouching Towards Bethlehem or Light in August: my imagination is more robust than it was when I was 21, and I've already discovered many of the books most likely to change me. What's more, the limitations of urban living have somewhat necessarily curtailed my ability to endlessly collect books.

But still: I've fallen out of love with shelves of trade paperbacks, and back in love with something that feels closer to the experience of reading itself.

Reading a physical book still retains its pleasures: there is absolutely something thrilling about a gorgeous hardcover, something that feels like a communion close to the author's intent. But that's exactly the point: physical books make you read on the author's terms; reading electronically takes place more on the reader's terms. I think that's a good thing. It makes reading more personal, more democratic, more controversial.

But it's a huge change -- and it could be a generation before authors catch up to it.

Twitter and Conference Rage

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

An interesting post by Michael Fienen about David Galper's keynote presentation at a recent HighEdWeb conference -- and the Twitter backchannel that resulted (it starts at 12pm).

Twitter allows two things to happen very well: mobs feed on themselves, and the slippery slope gets very steep and extremely slick. There’s also the snowballing analogy... Bottom line, there was a lack of respect for the topic, a clear void in researching the audience, and just bad presentational ability. A perfect storm, if you will. And once the tweeting started, it simply became more fun to be in the stream than put up with the presentation. In a way, it was less about being snarky towards the speaker, and more about amusing each other by sharing and exaggerating the pain.

We touched on this a few months ago: the idea that Twitter is, as yet, a social space largely unregulated by norms of behaviour. There are further thoughts elsewhere about this particular example and some possible lessons: are we moving from a model of passive consumption in conferences to one of active participation? Does the 'unconference' model so successfully employed by, for example, BookCamp Vancouver last week, provide more value to attendees? Has the burden changed from audiences (to pay attention to the presenters) to presenters (to better know their audiences)?

Recommendations Based on Your Mood, Not Just Your Taste

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

I've written elsewhere of my love for the Nike+ and its exemplary use of technology as a bridge between a solitary leisure pursuit and the support offered by a network. But I find -- as I increase my workout times -- that there are some significant feature gaps. While I like the 'powersong' feature to deliver a boost when I find myself flagging, it doesn't quite take it to the next step. For example, if I want to change music to something more appropriate to a warm-up or a warm-down, I have to pause the workout and change the playlist.

But these things have a fairly predictable place in my routine. It should be possible for the technology to anticipate them. Just like bookclubs (real or virtual) will set landmarks for progress, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to set playlist markers. Get me to x bpm after y minutes, keep me there for z minutes, then give me a warmdown. These landmarks could be used to manage a random selection of music within nonetheless predetermined parameters.

This kind of landmarking could be helpful in all kinds of situations -- workouts, parties, coitus.

But that's really only the first step. I'd ideally want the ability to tailor my listening dynamically to my pace, location, mood, heartrate, or any number of other parameters which would increase its utility. Music at parties could change depending on the volume of the conversation, the number of participants, and the amount of alcohol thus far consumed. Think of the public safety implications.

The same is true of reading -- I'm more inclined to read business books and articles on the way to work, but a novel or entertainment news on the way home (particularly on Fridays). An electronic reading device should be able to push content to me on the basis of my habits, mood, place, location, activities. In this context, having to remember to pick up a different magazine or different section of a newspaper seems just ridiculously inefficient.

In short, we're talking about having our devices present content to us on the basis of mood, not just an aggregated taste history, or the ratings we have assigned to things.

Suppose that our interfaces could isolate trends in your reading, listening, or leisure pursuits. Suppose that iTunes Genuis or Amazon's recommendations algorithm could give you some options:

  • It looks like you've been listening to a lot of indie guitar noise merchants recently. Would you like these kinds of recommendations to be weighted higher in your results?
  • You've rather gone off James Patterson of late. Even though you own his entire published output, would you like recommendations based on this to be fact to be downplayed?

Better yet -- imagine that these engines could talk to one another.

* Note: not all of these scenarios are based on personal experience.

These are, of course, exactly the kinds of things that happen in day-to-day conversations with friends. Which is why social networking stands to enrich our exposure to culture and events so significantly. In the meantime, how do shuffle and recommendations engines acquire more precise sensitivities to our desires? Landmarks, trending, and complements would be good first steps.

The Phone is Technology Inertia

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

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A post by Derek Thompson for The Atlantic Monthly's fine new ideas blog reminded me of something Nathan wrote recently about the impending redundancy of the cellphone. With the development of the MiFi, alongside the ongoing revolution in mobile software applications, trying to cram all of this functionality into a small hand-to-ear device is going to seem increasingly foolish. Why do we think we need a phone at all? It's a vestige of a nineeenth century technology that we've been progressively adapting to do more and more things -- take and store photos, browse the internet, store and play music. This is the anxiety that some feel about an eBook reader -- where would it fit? Wouldn't the ideal eBook reader be larger than the iPhone? When Apple's iTablet Touch finally materializes, will it be yet another device to carry around?

How about this: the tablet lives in your bag. A bluetooth headset -- working off voice navigation like an iPod shuffle -- tends to your urgent phone and audio needs. If you need to do anything more complex -- read a book, browse the internet, work -- you reach for the tablet.

The phone is now a classic example of technology inertia. Why should anyone have to communicate by holding something next to their head?

Digital Distribution and the New Ecology of Customer Expectations

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

We've written previously about the possible impact of digital distribution on the impulse purchase, and will have more to say in the future. But something else in the equation occured to me after a handful of particularly frustrating attempts to buy music online recently. Something that's obvious but goes unstated in discussions about preserving traditional industry practices.

I was irritated a few months ago when I placed Hjaltalín's wonderful album Sleepdrunk Seasons in my iTunes wishlist playlist, only to discover when I went back to purchase it on payday that the territorial rights had changed and it was no longer available via the Canadian store. (I was eventually able to purchase it via the record label, Kimi).

This week I have tried and failed to purchase Cliff Martinez's beautiful score to Steven Soderbergh's remake of Solaris, and -- astonishingly -- The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld.

(And if you're looking for music which is not available on iTunes, discovering that the record label in question is a subsidiary of one of the majors is really, really bad news. Small labels appear to have discovered the benefits of having in-house mp3 stores. The majors? Not so much.)

A few years ago, this kind of thing would have been mildly irritating but not all that surprising. So your local record store was sold out or didn't carry that particular release. That's inconvenient -- but with those cumbersome industrial production processes and a physical supply chain to negotiate, it wasn't going to shake you up. You were used to it. You'd place a special order, order it yourself online and wait a few days, or just give up. Oh well. Nobody has a right to everything.

Nowadays, though, these oversights feel absolutely unforgivable -- not least because so many of the alternatives (the secondhand stores, the large independents like Sam's, the in depth assortment at large branches of HMV) have disappeared precisely because of the benefits promised by iTunes and its legal and illegal competitors.

This reminds me of something that Dustin Curtis wrote about recently on his amazingly attractive website. The customer experience is only as good as its weakest link. iTunes is an astonishingly good customer experience -- in the context of everything that preceded it -- and offers a breadth of selection unlike anything the average consumer has ever known. But when you can't get something that should be easy -- easy -- it feels as if they don't care.

And for the most part these things aren't the fault of iTunes, Amazon, or other digital retailers. Territorial rights are a massive barrier to the promise of universal availability. But there has been a sea change, I think, in customer's tolerance for a lack of product availability. In the past, it was possible that the retailer was trying but that they weren't very good. This still persists with traditional retailers (Metro, I'm looking at you). But where digital product is the norm, it doesn't feel like that's possible. Instead, it feels like the retailer isn't even trying -- that they just don't care. That's a terrible, terrible face for a major retailer to show to their customers.

As industrial production and distribution processes fade as intermediate factors between content producer and content consumer, the expectations for customer service are skyrocketing. Traditional retail spaces are being redesigned around exceptional customer service rather than stack-and-sell local warehousing. This is the wrong time to be hiding behind the walls of territorial copyright, which will only make customers feel justified in acquiring product in illegal ways. For these reasons it's encouraging to see New Zealand effectively scrap its existing copyright laws, and Australia begin to dismantle territorial copyright.

As the ebooks revolution gathers steam, this will be critical for Amazon, Shortcovers, and other contenders to bear in mind. It's all about availability and customer service. The customer will not forgive you for slamming the door in their face. They will not wait for copyright to catch up. They will sign out of the system.

Digital distribution won't level the playing field. It will tilt it in the customer's favour.

Retro Soundtracks to Imaginary Heist Movies

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

Brian Gossett's Heist series of mixes are exactly the kind of thing content systems need to evolve to allow: a fabulous concept (who doesn't want retro location-themed soundtracks to imaginary heist movies?), brilliant execution, and (every bit as important) gorgeous custom cover art:


I am a huge fan of heist films. They exude a sense of excitement and wonderment. The recipe for a great caper is a seemingly impossible score, specialized team members, exotic sports cars, gadgets galore, globetrotting, beautiful yet conniving women, a dash of good humor, and an impeccable musical backdrop. The latter brings us to my latest series of mixes, The Heist Series. I have chosen artists who have scored classic and modern heist films. To add color to these mixes are complimentary tracks that flavor the ambience of the narrative. Each subsequent mix to follow, will personify a city in which our fictitious caper takes place.

Highly recommended.

(via design work life)