Debating the Ebook (Again? Oh shut up.)

by Nav

nookThanks to Tim suggesting AAAARG.ORG, a repository of critical theory PDFs, I’m now sorely tempted to buy that cheap(er) Sony Reader so I can read me summa’ that fancy-schmancy aca-ma-demic stuff (if it works, of course). Still, the eBook remains a hotly debated idea, most frequently over whether it actually works as a form unto itself, or if it’s an attempt to simply recreate an ‘obsolete’ form.

Recently, Brian Lam (or, as I say in my mind, “BLAM!”) essentially called them pointless, suggesting that the future of media is a mixture of text, video and audio, which renders the Kindle et al D.O.A. I would agree – were it not for the question of attention. On a very simple level, that’s the appeal of an ebook to me: it’s the convenience and portability of digital with the focus on print. The display does one thing and it does it slowly. When, like me, you can’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes, that seems a distinct, if very specific, advantage.

For this reason and more, I was intrigued by the debate in the NYT today called “Does the Brain Like E-Books?” – in particular, Alan Liu’s suggestion that our notion of reading is still constrained by the kinds of metaphors we use to contain print and images:

My research group on online reading (the University of California Transliteracies Project) has come to realize that we need a whole new guiding metaphor. So many of today’s commercial, academic and open-source reading environments are governed by metaphors of what I call “containing structures.”

For example, they want to be online “books,” “editions,” “encyclopedias,” “bookshelves,” “libraries,” “archives,” “repositories” or (a newer metaphor) “portals.”…

My group thinks that Web 2.0 offers a different kind of metaphor: not a containing structure but a social experience. Reading environments should not be books or libraries. They should be like the historical coffeehouses, taverns and pubs where one shifts flexibly between focused and collective reading — much like opening a newspaper and debating it in a more socially networked version of the current New York Times Room for Debate.

The future of peripheral attention is social networking, and the trick is to harness such attention — some call it distraction — well.

Interesting, right? That the new metaphors of containment are about reading spaces and communities of readers.

The rest of the debate is interesting too, but contains far too much for one post. If nothing else though, it encapsulates a lot of the discussion we’ve been having over the past year or so.

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