Digitise or Die – A Personal Reflection

chairsAs I entered the empty auditorium (I was the first there) I paused and took in my surroundings: padded leatherette seats for the audience, modern, sleek white armchairs for the panel, a bottle of water next to each long-necked microphone, dimmed lights, shining stage, and a background image centered behind the panel announcing the speakers and the title of the talk. I then settled in, ready for "compelling arguments" which, I read, would "leave [me] with a renewed enthusiasm for books and vowing to spend less time online."
Well…that didn't happen.


I suppose activating my prior knowledge (hearing an Atwood interview on Start the Week earlier in the day) and noting the bold “or” in the title of the talk should have dampened my enthusiasm. But it didn’t. I was eager to hear what contemporary authors and a publisher might have to say about current developments in technology very firmly vis-a-vis books.
From Left: Atwood, Page, O'Hagan, WagnerRather than tackle issues arising from the evolution and expansion of digital lit. (things like multimodality, transliteracy, deep learning vs. surface learning, changing roles of the author and reader) all four speakers seemed to focus on the materiality of the book (almost always referred to in its singular form). Atwood and Wagner seemed to find it especially important that we find a book sensual, we can touch it (Stephen Page added that we could smell books…including the glue used for binding…) and, of course, read it in a bath. However, won’t printed pages soak or at least dampen, blurring the font and wrinkling the pages? Why might bringing a book into the bath be the test for “good” reading?

Besides, more people take showers these days than baths.”
O’Hagan began the discussion with a story of how he “mispent his use” hunting for books and winding his way through the rows of books his local library had to offer – something impossible with e-books.

For O’Hagan the joy came from the difficulty of finding the books, they were “old” he says, “very often dusty and a little bit exclusive.” “Democratization brings to an end that [notion] of exclusivity.” Now, this seems to be the key and in fact the notion of exclusivity kept making an appearence throughout the remainder of the presentation. O’Hagan also made sure to equate exclusivity of reading with a eduction, taste, judgement – all serious qualities that the “democratization” of books (I think he means Austen’s availablity on Project Gutenberg) threatens to “demolish” the world of books. “Throwing everything out there” is a “terrible” thing because all readers (not sure whether he means the educated or uneducated ones…) only get a “terrible mishmash” of “unedited…unjudged, uncontrolled material…” This is where O’Hagan brings in the idea of copyright but, not in terms of money (as Atwood said, authors don’t do numbers, their agents do) but in terms of being recognised for “serious” ideas. Copyright O’Hagan says is to “select, edit and present material in a way that actually has meaning and umm virtue.”
On that note Page begins his segment of the talk by admitting that publishers, writers, all those print-folk, have been “softened-up” as “luddites” who are “sentimentally attached to cracking a book open and sniffing the pages..loving the glue.” He says the “technophiles” would love this to be the case but, Page explains, “it’s not the truth.” He does go on to make a pertinent point in relation to copyright (but I think it can be extended to all digital development) that it is constantly under revision and changes and “makes itself appropriate for the market, gets relegislated…and is adapting very successfully to the modern environment” (however he does not mention Creative Commons et al.). Copyright “must be protected.” Those technophiles mustn’t think of copyright as something “rather inconvenient.” Enter blogger jibe but thank goodness “we don’t have to read that stuff anymore.” In fact, with the plethora of stuff on the internet, Page admits it’s “getting harder to attract people” (those educated readers?). He goes on to insert a quote here but wait, he’s forgotten where he’s read it, “one reads so many”

Interestingly, putting a positive spin on abundance (unlike O’Hagan), Page explains that intention becomes increasingly important as does finding something “good” and having “trusted recommendations” (sounds like he’s been buying books on Amazon…)
Atwood then takes up the talk by suggesting a temporal change: had lastnight’s discussion occurred 2000 years ago we would have been talking about “the death of the scroll.” Well, that’s what the title of the talk refers to then, digitise and authors and books die. At least Atwood exhibited a sense of humor, joking that if we stop publishing books we’ll save trees – that’s “the positive bit.” Well, at least she mentioned a positive. What about access, what about empowerment, what about appealing to different kinds of learners, what about creativity, and why does digital lit. seem to be synonymous with supplanting “the book?” Sadly, it was Atwood’s talk that left me the most disheartened. For her, a book is “having a voice with you” “even if that person is dead…” Does Atwood mean the author? So only dead people write books? The people in my row were certainly confused. Moving along, why would digital lit. be any different? Especially in the way the speakers were talking about online reading. For them it was exactly like a book, just text, appearing on a screen. No one mentioned the addition of images, sounds, and, most importantly especially from a pedagogical sense, interaction! This was not a discussion about the future of the book, this was a rant calling for the demise of reading text on a glaring computer screen. In fact Atwood explains, “We’re supposed to be talking about computers and whether everybody is going to read your book on a computer…not yet.” So that’s digital lit.; a print novel not published on paper and left in it’s “native” environment…hrm. Atwood goes on to say “it’s very hard for one thing to read 500 consecutive pages of Anna Karina on a computer without having something go really wrong with your eyes.” I think it would be difficult to read 500 pages straight of anything (nevermind the medium, I’d need a coffee break). How would you actually absorb that and then critically assess what was being said, by whom, and why? Fortuitously Atwood points out that “another thing with computers, you don’t neurologically assimilate the information to the same extent that you do with the page…they’ve done tests of this and that’s why when you send somebody a memo you have to itemise all the things you want them to do and number them otherwise they won’t see those things.”

Who are the “they” who have done such tests. Where were they conducted…what other tests share the same findings? I did some research and found Jakob Nielson explain how people read “web pages” (not memos, not digital lit…): “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.” Thus “we should teach students how to write hypertext and not how just to write printed documents.” Exactly, and, we can teach students how to read online (see my lesson plan on Inanimate Alice). Even more crucially, I think, how are memos like novels or like digital lit.? How can these different objects which are crafted to perform different functions and employ different media, and (often) appeal to different audiences, be compared? Atwood sums up the inadequacy of this analogy when she responds to Page’s call for “good” e-books by saying “what you mean by a good e-book is one that is really like a book” (not even a “good” book mind you, just a book.)
And so the talk continued until question time. Sadly Wagner didn’t seem to moderate the question period and encourage either the panel to stop talking once questions had been (more or less) answered or more discussion from the floor. This resulted in only four questions being broached because certain participants felt it their duty to offer lengthy eulogies on the merits of the book (which no one really doubts). The first question was very good and raised my hopes and was asked by the director of accessiblity at a digital design agency concerning the accessibility of a digitised book (the font size can be easily changed, it can be turned into braille, and it can be transformed into audio) however “digital rights management threatens to slam the door shut…if copyright [drm] means there are such secure locks on digital books.” Page answers: “I’m not quite sure how digital rights management would prevent that.” Really, like this: “The impact of compatibility limitations can be especially serious for users with special needs. For example, visually impaired users may not be able to access digital content effectively if DRM renders the content incompatible with specialized text-to-speech devices or software. See All Party Parliamentary Internet Group, supra note 3, at 13-14 (noting that DRM can “prevent the disabled from accessing digital content . . . because the specialist hardware and software that
is used to convert the content into speech, Braille, or large type, fails to interwork with the protected material
).”
After the first question (emanating from the second row), Wagner made a tactical decision and seemed to prefer taking questions from the back (I was in the first row) and from more seasoned looking people, preferably those with pens and paper (I had a digital camera). The second question was directed at O’Hagan: “is there no quality in digital text” to which he responded that “it’s true” that to read “literary” work (previously referred to as high-culture) one should be smart or educated but “fact is, education and a serious literary culture have a partnership.” By ignoring the merits digital literature offers and the different and wider audience it might reach, nevermind it’s still neophyte state, O’Hagan made a call for the “reinstating of that connection” (between “serious books” and education). And he doesn’t mean students using google to write term papers…

Favourite Quotes: “What they mean by content, we mean books.” “One reason you haven’t heard much of the longtail is because it’s become a boardroom cliche.”
Key Words: serious, literature, bath, paper, glue, book, education, intelligence, exclusivity, high-culture
Personal Aside: just because readers enjoy digital literature or art does not mean that by fiat they just will not appreciate or understand print lit. Why does the anxiety that one will eclipse the other remain? And, how different might this presentation have been had a digital writer or artist been involved?
From Left: Page, Wagner, Atwood signing books after the presentation

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17 thoughts on “Digitise or Die – A Personal Reflection

  1. Jess this is a great entry. I would love to see the panellists read it and respond. Not going to happen I know.
    One interesting little snippet I came across a couple of weeks ago:
    Surprise: Study Finds Online Users Finish More Stories Than Print Readers
    By Joe Strupp
    Published: March 28, 2007 12:10 PM ET
    WASHINGTON In a surprise finding, online readers finish news stories more often than those who read in print, according to the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack study released Wednesday at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference here.
    When readers chose to read an online story, they usually read an average of 77% of the story, compared to 62% in broadsheets and 57% in tabloids. (http://www.poynter.org/)

  2. Bruce,
    It would be interesting to hear the panelists responded. I did wonder, while I was writing it, if my judgement of the presentation was clouded by my enthusiastic optimism for the future of digital literacy…but I don’t think so. I mean, the videos are there for your perusal. The positive point is that people are talking about the issue of digital lit…but as Atwood did note, people are often afraid of new things (she shared a hilarious story of “bike face”) so maybe that’s just the stage at which we are?

  3. I wonder whether this is more of an issue for event programmers to address? After all, they are the people who choose who to invite and how to promote them. I would be interested to hear from them why they believe that asking print-based authors to comment on digital writing is of any use at all? Would you ask a vegetarian to comment on meat cookery? The way these events are programmed exposes the inability of the literature world itself to get to grips with what is happening and the depressing silo mentality in which much of it resides. Indeed, those who are willing to embrace a wider remit than print are often surprised and shocked by the level of resistance they encounter.

  4. I wonder if it is and issue…maybe that’s just the idea, that these talks are there to satisfy a certain audience and ally specific anxieties.
    Also, (back to optimism) I wouldn’t think that this presentation should stand in for “the literature world.” There must be other authors and pubishers out there interested in the positive and pedagogical applications of digitalia. For example, Random House, in 2005, decided to offer books on a page-per-view basis (much like Google now).

  5. Great post Jess, and no surprise on the one-dimensionality of the arguments put forth on the night. Sue’s analogy of vegetarians commenting on meat cookery is a nice one… and these particular vegetarians have been vegetarian from birth, and apparently have never even sniffed a nice leg of lamb.
    I don’t understand why the organisers didn’t invite at least a token digital writer to respond to some of the points raised. The omission of any discussion about images, sounds, interactivity… shocking (yet not, as we all know this is a common mistake).
    In essence this seems to have been all about digitized writing, rather than digital writing, and for me the two are completely different forms. I might even agree that I prefer reading linear print texts in a book (but no, not in the bath!) – but let’s ask them all to read a few electronic lit novels in print form…

  6. Ummm…roast lamb…. Yeah, I think it’s like comparing apples and oranges and by people who don’t like apples…
    I do wonder why not one digital-optimist was invited to speak. Maybe someone was invited but refrained from appearing, assuming the crowd would lean more towards ludditism?
    Exactly Chris! That people say they’re having discussions about digital lit. or web writing or narrative or story (Atwood employed those last two terms) and then not bring in multimodality really floors me. If digital lit. is only reading lines and lines of text through which one must incessently scroll (this was an argument in the talk actually) I can see why a print book would be preferred. But, if we’re talking about a different reading experience and we don’t including some of that excellent writing out there, then that just isn’t a conversation, anymore, it’s more of a monologue.

  7. Re: analogies, I’ve just remembered that Atwood (very humorously) compared book reviews to literary crit. when she explained that reviews are more like gossiping around the well (I loved her dress but did you see her shoes…) [don’t get me started on the gender thing…] and that lit. crit. is more “biblical” and all about analysis with pages explaining the whys and hows.
    There was also a funny point when she told Page that publishers didn’t do much other than (something like) sell books out of their dingy little shops.

  8. Jess – I was there too and bumped into Chris Meade – wish I’d known you were there!!
    Generally, I found the entire discussion crusty and extremely ‘closed’ – they were talking about books as if they were all the one thing, and I believe that to digitise ‘books’ means to split them by genre – to completely fragment the industry and publish across a variety of platforms. Literary fiction will possibly only ever work between the sleeves of a book cover, but there is an army of genre out there that will flourish and grow online – whether through blogs, interactive games or even downloadable bite size chunks. Margaret Atwood was the only one who really challenged old ideas! I have lots to say here – and will do so!
    But one of my main points of interest was the way that Atwood opened her talk with an explanation of how the scroll was once used as a platform for reading and writing – and that nobody would have believed the impending ‘future of the scroll’ to the smaller printed pages, stitched and bound as what we now know as a ‘book’. Then, at the close of the session she mentioned how she found ‘scrolling’ irritating – in that she disliked reading on screen and scrolling the sidebar to navigate up and down the screen! A movement from the ‘scroll’ to ‘scrolling’ perhaps? And still not happy!
    One thing though – as a reader and a writer, I do both differently dependent on whether I’m using a page and pen or a keyboard and screen. Atwood commented on how she instructs her students to edit with a ruler, to go through their text line by line as an editing exercise. She remarked at how it simply wasn’t the same, editing on screen – with the red/green wiggly lines beneath the spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. And I was desperate to say this – reading and writing from a page to a screen requires a different/new way of reading and writing. So to simply assume that to digitise books means to load them to e-readers, is to completely miss the point! Parades of text on e-reader is like reading a word document – digitising fiction means so much more than that. But I’m writing this all up in my research project, so will share more with you next week!

  9. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts Alison!
    I don’t think anyone would deny that reading on a screen is currently unpleasant to do for any period of time. But technologies are changing very quickly… within 10-15 years these slow-refresh monitors we use now will seem very outdated. Portable E-readers like Sony’s recent hardware are already a step beyond.
    The scrolling thing is interesting. I’m tempted to say that it is a matter of not using the correct tool: if you have a mouse with a scrollwheel, scrolling is extraordinarily easy and pleasant. If you don’t, it’s a rather clumsy affair. But then I wouldn’t want to read a print book with chopsticks, either.

  10. Alison – such a shame I missed you and Chris (am sure there will be future londinium digi. events). 🙂
    I too was struck by Atwood’s reference to the scroll and the ensuing complaints of reading online and scrolling through pages of text is so much more uncomfortable than turning pages…I agree with Chris, with a scroll wheel it’s super easy and comfortable, too comfortable in fact as it helps me stay at the desk far tooooooo long.
    And, you’ve said it again and it just seems to keep needing to be said: reading and writing online and reading and writing offline are very difference processes requiring different skills. I do believe online literacy builds upon the foundations of print literacy but it also expands it (especially if we think of the inclusion of sound, image, video, etc…).
    How about this quote: “Books are not fundamentally better than bytes, but to dismiss the analogue world as inadequate to the demands of a modern society is to lose much of our ability to move through different literacies and to access multiple resources. Revolution and revelation come in many guises and are activated through contradictory literacies. Education at its best allows access – not to technology, a screen or a program – but to ideas and a critical consciousness.” From here.

  11. Digitise or Die – What is the future of the book?

    One of the (many) things you may not know about us is that over the last few months we have been helping develop the content delivery systems for a brand new eBook proposition, so it was interesting to go along to this talk during this London Book Fair we

  12. Either/Or

    In relation to the recent discussion about the either/or mentality regarding the future of the book (for an example read this account of the recent Digitise or Die event), I thought it worth noting some comments taken from a video…

  13. …online literacy builds upon the foundations of print literacy but it also expands it (especially if we think of the inclusion of sound, image, video, etc…)
    Actually, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how images (static images) might need to be considered differently from the other media when talking about the differences between digital and print lit. Moving images, sound, interactivity, generativity etc. are all absent in print lit., but static images are not, at least back to the time of illuminated manuscripts. So the literacy to read images online or as part of an narrative may not have developed much at all?
    Like that endquote a lot, particularly the final sentence.

  14. I was at this event (with Alison Norrington from the DMU MA) and felt it was totally lacking in vision. Imagine a session on the future of the fridge where everyone reminisced about old frigidaires and had no predictions about improved freezers to come! I was embarassed on behalf of the book world I inhabit. Actually it increased my missionary zeal to help page authors get over their fears and explore digital possibilities creatively.

  15. Hi Chris,
    Great comment about fridges and freezers!
    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with regards to many discussions about new media (or probably any new *things*) – the lack of vision. Of course digital lit. right now can’t be compared to Joyce, Beckett, Woolf, Angelou in terms of it’s narrative offerings (nor should it). It is still very *new.* I agree, we should look to the future – to how these works might change and what possibilities they offer.
    As a personal aside, the panel made a point of saying that digital lit. isn’t nearly as good as print because we can’t read it in the bath…why not? E-Book readers, mobiles, laptops, mp3 players with text, etc…don’t need to be plugged in (and neither new or old media do well when in contact with water!).

  16. I once dropped a copy of Proust in the bath. I tried to dry it out but it congealed into a solid brick. I should have kept it as an art object.
    What a shame we didn’t meet up at the South Bank. Thanks for your thorough documentation – better than it deserved tho!

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