Where does the printed word stand in the digital age?
Nicholas Carr’s tendency for controversial opinion came as no surprise when he was speaking at the IDPF Digital Book Conference, BEA last month. Carr, known for his skeptical examinations of the impact of digital technology on our brains, stated that despite all the “good-news” about digital books, “the mind we read with is different in a book” and ultimately is in conflict with the growth of technology around us.
He concluded his talk by urging listeners to “resist the culture of distraction,” (smartphones, tablets, digital reading devices) – a comment every speaker following him seemingly ignored. Why are so many commentators sold on the print vs. digital narrative, even today? To begin considering this question, we need to understand that this sort of mutually-exclusive narrative is nothing new.
A Newsweek article from 1995, written by Clifford Stoll, refers to the internet as a “trendy and oversold community” and dismisses the prediction that “we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet”. Stoll had similar opinions as Carr, in that “networks isolate us from one another”, which was admittedly a justified point of view in the 1990s, when many others were predicting the death of print following the success of the internet. Even earlier than that, in the 1980s, it was suggested that the proliferation of office computers would lead to paperless offices, when in fact the exact opposite has occurred.
Yet, as a whole, both of these predictions have been proven false. Print and digital are complimentary products. Ultimately what’s critical to the future of books, is competing in a world where everything is serviced on demand and at the click of a button. Reading lends itself more to concentration, less to instant fulfilment and requires patience in some cases. Reading must stay true to this.
That said, Device 6, a game-slash-novel made by Swedish developers Simogo, is a really exciting development. Unlike most other interactive books on the marketplace today, interactivity and rich media were always supposed to be a fundamental part of the experience. By the simple act of not following a standard workflow of content being written and then being digitized, Simogo have inadvertently revolutionized the digital book space and created an experience that will be felt by tens of millions of readers a decade from now.
To speak more broadly for a moment, Carr is indeed right that reading books does produce “a trance-like state”, in which we “disengage from the busy world, transported from society”, it’s a form of escapism very difficult for the likes of film to recreate in how personal it is.
Books have been around for centuries before us and will continue to live for far longer too. But there are some extraordinary and exciting developments in the field of truly interactive books that have earned their place in the reading world and will continue to captivate millions.