Earlier today the following quote appeared on Twitter (via Guy Charles and others), regarding Jane Friedman’s keynote interview at PBV:
Friedman on enhanced ebooks: “Vook is read and watch… I’m not interested in disrupting the reading experience; it’s sacrosanct.”
By coincidence, I ran across the following quote at almost the same moment while doing research for the previous post:
There are plenty of people who cringe at the cultural toll, who believe that the loss of books means losing the tactile, absorbing relationship with text we’ve enjoyed for centuries. MIT technology guru Nicholas Negroponte would like to remind them that people resisted indoor plumbing, too.
“They complained that if women didn’t do the laundry beside the river and at the fountain they would be alone, but other things started to serve those social purposes,’’ said Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, a festival panelist, and Deborah Porter’s significant other. “The reading experience is becoming more social. There are various ways of interacting on e-readers or computers, where people blog and use Twitter, and where the sharp line between the writer and the reader is going away.’’
I understand both of these perspectives, but relative to the functional merits of books they are both wrong, and both wrong for the same reason.
It’s indeed possible to have a romantic association with books, or to feel that books as objects are sacred, but you can do the same thing with any other object. People who are maniacs about collecting anything and everything would say that their objects are sacrosanct.
By the same token, it is possible to view the digital age as a kind of opening up of narratives, where content becomes plastic (in theory), and conversations about objects (stories) take place in real time; conceivably even with the author, conceivably even as the story is being written, and conceivably even affecting the outcome of the story. And that all sounds good. But it’s also a romanticized view of what the digital age and interactivity really means relative to storytelling.
As functional objects, books are not sacrosanct. If they were, we would be hunting down and killing magazine publishers. And the people who put all that great stuff on the back of cereal boxes. Likewise, the internet is not going to usher in an age of interactive storytelling, for reasons I’ve gone into here and here and here and here.
The reason the Vook won’t change the way we tell stories has nothing to do with books being sacrosanct or with technology delivering interactivity, and everything to do with the way in which storytelling works. It’s a subject I’ve come back to again and again in trying to explain the limits of interactive storytelling, and it bears repeating:
For those who have heard the phrase before, but haven’t had it explained, suspension of disbelief is an unwieldy term used to describe a distinct mental state. Our normal mental state in life is to expect that the things happening around us are real: the sun rises and sets, the grass grows, the lawnmower shreds our toes if we’re not paying attention. Put another way, we believe in these things.
In contrast to Real Life, where you can lose your toes, fictional experiences are not real, and not believable in the same sense. We all know going into a movie theater that what we’re about to see is a mechanical charade that has been intentionally rigged by a bunch of people working somewhere else.
Most of the time we actively disbelieve the reality of a movie, up to and including when we take our seats in the theater. Amazingly, however, as the lights come down, we can still mentally SUSPEND our DISBELIEF and become imaginatively and emotionally affected by the motion picture(s) flickering on the screen in front of us.
All storytelling mediums aspire to, and are defined by, a technological transparency which supports this mental state. Books as objects are so completely perfect in this sense that it’s understandable we revere them: we can hold these simple objects in our hands and they can transport us around the universe with the turn of a page.
Computers and other devices tend to interrupt this mental state, and particularly so if interactivity is promised but not fully delivered. I’ve already noted my own apparent inability to enjoy fiction on a computer, and I chalk it up to the fact that computers as a medium tend to interrupt suspension of disbelief.
That’s the same problem the vook has as a storytelling concept, except it’s worse. The vook is designed around a transition that risks suspension of disbelief, and these transitions are hosted on a computer. (I’m not saying someone won’t do something amazing with the vook form. I am saying the average audience member looking for story will probably choose either a book or a film, because those mediums lack the additional transition which makes a vook a vook.)
My metric for the success of an e-book reader is simple: it should disappear from my mind while I’m using it. So far, despite all the tech advances, nothing comes close.
Books are not stupid tools lacking interactivity. They are amazing examples of transparency in the service of conveying emotion and information. The goal today is neither preserving the book as object nor injecting interactivity into stories with tech.
The goal, no matter what else you are doing, is maintaining suspension of disbelief. If you have a new medium, that’s the test. If you have a new device, that’s the test. Always.
— Mark Barrett
Comment Policy: Ditchwalk is a wild place, but not without tending. On-topic comments are welcomed, appreciated and preserved. Off-topic or noxious comments are, like invasive species, weeded out.