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.


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)?

The Phone is Technology Inertia

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


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?

In Twitter, No One Can See You Being Rude

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

The guy at the back will be on Twitter when the Powerpoint starts

A number of people have remarked recently that the environment in which someone can switch from being a Twitter neophyte to a true believer is a business conference. Conferences give Twitter users the opportunity to provide commentary (and factual corrections) to what is being presented; to provide updates to a remote audience; and to engage with one another on a number of levels from professional networking to semi-anonymous flirtation.

It's fascinating that the feeling of a 'back channel' can provoke not only a more open and participatory discussion, but can also license behavior that would otherwise be frowned upon. A 'kids at the back of the class' mentality can develop, wherein the shortcomings of the presenter's style or of the venue are called out. These kinds of things would not be considered appropriate if they involved passing notes or calling across the room. But Twitter doesn't just make these things surreptitiously possible; it is also so new that the ground-rules for social behavior have not yet been established.

But part of it may be that the medium itself allows such a broad variety of messages that social norms can never become established.

Within this, of course, lies that rather tedious discussion about the extent to which one's online identity -- masked by some measure of anonymity (or, at least, not-there-ness) -- can exist distinct of one's "real-world" identity. But it's telling that several newcomers to Twitter ask questions about whether they should establish separate accounts for personal and professional identities. That's part of the appeal of a Facebook app like Selective Twitter: it allows you to filter your output for potentially different audiences.

But as you spend more time with Twitter, it becomes clear that people's expectations of the media are that it provide a constant mixture of personal and professional. It isn't at all unusual for you to learn what a business contact ate for dinner, or to read a friend filtering a technical business conference. Part of that is the openness of the platform: you can choose who to follow, be it Neil Gaiman or your best friend. With that range of participants, what kinds of social rule set could we collectively agree to apply?

These are, of course, just a handful of the social reasons for Twitter's popularity, quite distinct from its more frequently cited technical adaptability. It provokes an extra level of interaction that simply didn't -- couldn't -- exist before. And it may remain, to some extent, permanently wild.

And I Don't Much Want Your Business Card Either

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

For various reasons too boring to get into, I've been handed an awful lot of business cards over the last few months. It was a relief, while attending BookCamp Toronto a couple of weeks ago, to escape the day w entirely ithout any of those sorry floppy items being apologetically proffered. I felt like some kind of temporary respite had been granted from my tenure in an extended episode of Life on Mars. What was behind it, of course, was that most of the participants at BookCamp had made the leap that something like Twitter is not just an improvement on Cro Magnon technologies like email, but geological epochs ahead of the Neanderthal business card.

That's not just because you have to carry business cards around and remember to input them into some kind of storage system later (usually, let's be honest, the desk drawer). And it's not just because, while they are occasionally gorgeous, creative, and inspiring, business cards usually showcase the most appalling and amateurish use of appalling and amateurish typefaces like Comic Sans. Let's not even mention the clip art.

No: these folks didn't give out business cards because exchanging contact details is, counter-intuitively, pretty much the worst way to go about developing contacts. It places an enormous burden upon first impressions and upon your powers of recall. Is that person you met several months ago at a technology conference really the right person to email about the idea you have just had at work? Did the person seem reliable and personable? Can I glean some insight into either of these questions from the sorry-looking creased piece of tree bark in front of me? Probably not. So I just won't bother.

The barriers of the medium just prevented me from getting something done.

Following someone new on Twitter, by contrast, allows you to enter their orbit -- to see what they think on the topics which, presumably, are of some shared interest. And, because of the mixture of personal and professional that Twitter allows, permits, and almost requires, you can develop some sense of whether their approach to life is likely to be conducive to yours. It will also allow you to get a glimpse into this new person's ability to engage (and survive) in a medium that allows all of that to happen. Does this person seem good at managing multiple streams of their life -- and maintaining the contacts necessary to do so?

You can then use Twitter to continue to lurk until an opportunity presents; to participate in a public conversation which by default is a casual interaction requiring less formal follow up; or to contact them privately via a direct message.

What's more, because there is only a single piece of information -- the username directly associated with you -- you don't risk losing every potential contact the moment that your phone number changes and those pieces of card you so diligently distributed become, everywhere, instantly, obsolete. (For those who simply can't live without lines and lines of personal contact information that you have to remember to update whenever they change, you may want to check out twtBizCard.)

In short, exchanging contact details is a waste of time. Don't give me a list of fourteen different means to contact you and try to entice me into doing it via some showy logo design. Give me access to your orbit. I'll take it from there.

First thing tomorrow morning, destroy your business cards. Let's make a stand.

Don't Tell Me Your Email Address

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

An interesting generational moment (one of many, to be entirely honest) at BookCamp Toronto yesterday. At the end of one session, the panel made a plea for all concerned to share any ideas, practices, or projects that might overlap with (or contribute to) the initiative that the team had spend the last 50 minutes outlining. A member of the audience asked for the resource at which this sharing would take place.

One of the panel members pointed to the email address that he had pinned to the wall about fifteen minutes earlier.

There was an awkward collective silence -- one of those "ah, what?" moments -- as everyone realized that, yes, that email address (an email address) was going to be the conduit for idea-sharing and contact management for the project.

Email is a terrible media for this kind of thing, and to this crowd -- a significant proportion of which had their Twitter usernames pinned to their chests through the day -- it carried a heavy implicit message. Email is not only a closed hatch, behind which activity is invisible, but it also suggests a very distinct model of information management. By emailing your information or ideas to someone, you are putting yourself at their disposal. It's a private communication vessel -- entirely inappropriate to a public plea for information sharing, and implicitly antithetical to an open source model of participatory innovation. And it's completely dependent on the recipient's ability to efficiently manage their inflow of information -- not something that most people are good at.

Twitter, to pick only the most obvious contrast, may allow for private 'direct messaging', but it is a public medium. The default means of a conversation -- the @ reply syntax -- makes the dialogue visible for all to see.

Positioning your email address as a the place at which I should post my ideas or contact details requires that I trust you to efficiently do the following things:

  1. Receive and record my information.
  2. Understand it completely, not only within the terms which I used to express it, but in all the possible implications it might carry for other people coming from a complete diversity of backgrounds.
  3. Distribute it to the most suitable members of the community.
  4. Do all of the above in a timeframe that is most appropriate to my ideas and best rewards my sense of engagement with the project.
  5. Warehouse all of that information in such a way that you can repeat steps 1-4 if someone new comes to the table later whose ideas and identity might have a fruitful relationship to my own.

In short, you're asking me to bet on your superhuman efficiency to understand information in all its possible permutations and maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of the network. But for most people of my generation that just isn't how we're used to interacting with the world. We like the instant public archiving of the internet (including the kudos and bragging rights that that provides), and the distributed networking that exposure to the crowd allows. In short, we'd rather rely on a network to do the things that a network does well.

I can understand that the team at this presentation might not yet have had time to put together a robust software solution (a forum? wiki?) at which open participation might take place. But a Twitter username or hashtag would have been better -- much better -- than someone's email address. Particularly when the topic was technological innovation. You guys know that email is 40 years old, right?