Feeling our way forward: Touch and the new reading

An article I was commissioned to write for the Touch issue of What’s Next magazine.

What does it mean for a text to be digital?

In principle, it can be replicated in perfect fidelity, and transmitted to an unlimited number of recipients worldwide, at close to zero cost. Powerful analytic tools can be brought to bear on it, and our reading of it. It can be compared against other texts, plumbed for clues as to its provenance and authorship. Each of our acts of engagement with it — whether of acquisition, reading, or annotation — can be shared with our social networks, mobilized as props in an ongoing performance of self. Above all, it becomes (to use the jargon practically unavoidable in any discussion of information technology) “platform-agnostic.” This is to say that it becomes independent, to a very great degree, of the physical medium in which it currently happens to be instantiated.

To varying degrees, these things have been true as long as words have been encoded in ones and zeroes — certainly since 1971, when Project Gutenberg was founded with the intention of digitizing as much of the world’s literature as possible, and making it all available for free. Why is it the case, then, that digital books only seem to have entered our lives in any major way in the last two or three years?

The apparently sudden arrival of the digital text likely owes something to the top-of-mind quality Amazon currently enjoys in its main markets, its name and value proposition as prominent in our awareness as those of the grocery chains, television networks or airlines we patronize — a presence it’s taken the company the better part of the last fifteen years to build up. And it surely has something to do with the widespread popular facility with the tropes and metaphors governing our engagement with digital content of all sorts that has developed over the same period of time, to the point that it’s increasingly hard to meet a grandparent inconversant with downloads, torrents and the virtues of cloud storage.

But the fundamental reason is probably that bit about platform-agnosticism. Anyone so inclined could have “engaged digital text” on a conventional computer at any point in the past forty years. But the act of reading didn’t — and maybe couldn’t — properly come into its own in the digital era until there was a platform for literature as present to the senses as paper itself, something as well-suited to the digital text as the road is to the automobile. I refer, of course, to the networked tablet.

It’s only with the widespread embrace of these devices that digital reading has become ubiquitous. Relatively inexpensive, lightweight and comfortable in the hand, capable of storing thousands of volumes, the merits of the tablet as reading environment may strike us as self-evident. But there’s another factor that underlies its general appeal, and that is the specific phenomenology of the way we manipulate reading material when using one.

We read text on a tablet as pixels, just as we would on any screen. But the ways in which we physically address and move through a body of such pixels have more in common with the behaviors we learned from books in earliest childhood than with anything we picked up in the course of later encounters with computers. This is why the post-PC tablet feels more “intuitive” to us, despite the frank novelty of the gestures we must learn in order to use it, and which no book in the world has ever afforded: the swipe, the drag, the pinch, the tap.

This is the new tactility of reading. But where there are comparatively few semantically-meaningful ways in which the reader’s hand can meet the pages of a material book, the experience of engaging a digital text with the finger is subject to a certain variability. It’s not a boundless freedom — it’s delimited on one side by technological limitations, and on the other by the choices of an interaction designer — but it does require explication.

The first order of variability is the screen medium itself. Each of the major touchscreen technologies available — resistive, capacitive, projective-capacitive, optical — imposes its own constraints on the latency and resolution with which a screen registers a touch, and therefore how long one must place one’s finger against it to turn a page or select a word for definition or a passage for annotation. Reading on a good screen feels effortless, even transparent — but particularly high latency or low resolution can easily disrupt the flow of experience, lifting the reader up and out of the text entirely.

The second is the treatment of type. As critical as it is to the legibility and emotional resonance of a text, and even at the higher resolutions now theroetically available, typography is all but invariably treated as though it had not been refined over five centuries. It still feels like we are many years and product versions away from type on the tablet rendered with the craft and care it deserves.

A third order of variability consists in the separation of content, style and interface elements inherent in contemporary application design. This means that both the meaning of gestural interactions and the treatment of the page itself can vary from environment to environment. Especially given the pressure developers are under to differentiate their products from one another, a tap in the Kindle for iPad application may not mean precisely what a tap in Readmill or Instapaper or Reeder does, or work in at all the same way.

In fact, something as simple and as basic to the act of reading as turning a page is handled differently in all of these contexts.

Originally, of course, the pagination of text was an artifact of necessity, something imposed by running a semantically continuous text across a physically discontinuous quantity of leaves. One might think, therefore, that pagination would be among the first things to go in making the leap to the digital reading environment, but contemporary applications tend to retain it as a skeuomorphism, larding down the interaction with animated page curls and sound effects.

On the Kindle proper, the reader presses a button — one for page forward, another for page back — and the entire screen blanks and refreshes as the new page loads, a transition imposed by the nature of electronic pigment. In the Kindle app, by contrast, the page slides right to left, slipping from future to present to past in a series of discrete taps.

The Instapaper application is, perhaps, truest to the nature of digital copy. It dispenses with all of this, and treats the document as one continuous environment: swipe upward when you’re ready for more. Instapaper is an acknowledgment of the text’s liberation from the constraints of crude matter. Handled this way, there’s no reason a digital text can’t return to something approximating the book’s earliest form, a scroll — in this case, one capable of unspooling without limit.

Finally, we also need to account for what it means to absorb text as a luminous projection. Marshall McLuhan drew a distinction between “light-on” media — that is, those in which content inscribed on a passive surface like paper is illuminated by an external light source — and “light-through” media, like our luminous tablets; per his insistence that medium is coextensive with message, we can assume that the selfsame text consumed in these two ways would be received differently, emotionally every bit as much as cognitively.

As it happens, I have both an actual, e-paper Kindle — digital, but nevertheless light-on — and Kindle applications for the eminently light-through iPhone and iPad. And purely anecdotally, it does seem to be the case that I have an easier time with thornier, weightier reading on the e-paper device. Novels are fine on the iPad, even on my phone…but if I want to wrestle with Graham Harman or Susan Sontag, I reach for the Kindle.

The McLuhanite in me frets that, in embracing the tablet, we inadvertently give up much of our engagement with the text. That beyond sentimentality, there is something about the act of turning a page to punctuate a thought, or the phenomenology of light reflecting off of paper saturated with ink, that conditions the act of reading and makes it what we recognize it to be, at some level beneath the threshold of conscious perception.

Which brings us back, at last, to the printed artifact. We can acknowldge that the networked tablet is a brilliant addition to any reader’s instrumentarium. I’m certain that it increases the number of times and places at which people read, and know from long, intimate and sorrowful personal experience the difference it makes where the portability of entire libraries is concerned. But it’s not quite the same thing as a book or a magazine, and cannot entirely replace them.

Curiously enough, the ambitions to which paper appears to remain best-suited are diametrically opposite:

On the one hand, deep, thoughtful engagement with a body of language, an engagement that fully leverages the craft of bookmaking. In this pursuit, the tablet cannot yet offer nearly the typographic nicety, conscious design for legibility or perceptual richness trivially available from ink on paper — all of the things, in other words, that permit the reader to immerse herself for longer, and with less strain.

But there are also occasions on which surface is all important, where the ostensible content is almost incidental to the qualities of its packaging. Here the texture or other phenomenological qualities of paperstock itself — even its smell — communicate performatively; I think of glossy lifestyle magazines. It’s hard to imagine any tablet or similar device affording these virtues in anything like the near term.

If we understand a book as a container, the precise shape that container takes ought to reflect the nature of its intended contents, and what one proposes to do with them. In acknowledging all the many virtues of networked, digital texts, the texture, tooth and heft of paper will ensure that for at least the contexts I’ve specified here, it remains irreplaceable among all the ways we contain thought as it flows from one human mind to another.

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