What has been done?

It’s not quite appropriate to liken a multi-decade-old medium to a toddler. A more appropriate analogy would be a teenager at a dance, trying to flirt for the first time: a person who is still rocketing through change trying their first tentative steps at what they see to be a grownup thing. The advent of tablet computers and the rise of ebooks has given us several choice examples: digital writing attempting to charm the pants off somebody and, for the first time, facing the terrifying possibility of succeeding.

The advances digital writing is making are on three fronts:

  • Phone and tablet apps: native applications go the furthest in experimenting with tactics and methods that are unique to digital media.
  • Websites: the most widespread form of digital, or neoteric, writing, also the one that is the most established and set as a genre. The web world is picking up ideas and concepts from the native app world at a faster pace than many expected.
  • Ebooks: the form of digital writing that clings the hardest to the conventions, codes, and practices of print media, often going to extraordinary technical lengths to disable, remove, or prevent tropes, conventions, and means that are native to digital media.

Touchpress’ (supported by Faber and Faber) The Wasteland stands out amongst recent impositions of literary works to a digital environment. Taking Elliot’s 434 lines as it’s starting point, the iPad app deconstructs the experience of reading a linear poem, and re-presents the digital text as an exploration of meaning, significance and context by means of Ezra Pound’s annotations to Elliot’s draft, (etc.). Strip away the technically mediated, affective layer of The Wasteland’s iPad instantiation and it is evident that the app is designed around the materially original (one might suggest scroll-like) format of the poem. The app does not simply remediate that form though; slavishly transferring its affordances to a new platform and intending the work to be read in an identical manner as its physical counterpart; it undergoes a process of transposition by which the material original is not copied, nor removed, rather its affordances as a ‘readable’ text are addressed within the transfer to a new formal environment. We are encouraged, as students of Elliot, to read The Wasteland with a book of annotations beside us. The app affords this. We are familiar with the nuance of the spoken word with regard to poetry; interpretation, emphasis, temporal specificity all impact in meaning; the app presents readings from 1933 (Elliot) through to contemporary performances (Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance) by way of Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes and Viggo Mortensen. We approach Elliot’s work as acolytes, as scholars, a position the app enforces.

Flipboard is an app that aggregates various news items, blog posts, pictures, videos, etc., from all over the net. It’s both mass media—it has a curated set of news feeds you can read—and micro media, with its deep customisability. Being an aggregator is unique enough to digital media but Flipboard has taken a central role, not only in setting design trends but also because of the lead its lead designer, Craig Mod, has taken in online discourse on the nature of digital writing. It manages to take its inspiration from offline print affordances while still remaining uniquely digital. The folding pagination animation it uses refers to the act of turning a physical page but actually represents an act that is impossible in print, pages just don’t turn like that. No matter what you think about its nature as an aggregator and no matter what you think of the writings of its lead designer, the app itself represents a mature understanding on how digital can reuse print affordances without being a slave to them.

Visual Editions (a London-based boutique publisher of bespoke editions) venture into the book-App market has, to date, been an edition of Marc Saporta’s Composition No.1. Saporta’s original text - a boxed ‘novel’ printed on 150 unbound pages which asks the reader to shuffle and read in any order, deriving meaning from accidental juxtaposition and aleatory connection—is repurposed for a tablet platform in exactly the same format as the physical original. The reader lets pages skim past, only stopping to read when a finger is pressed upon the screen. The page rests as long as a connection is maintained, upon removal, the motion begins again and a new, randomly chosen page is revealed at the next intervention. Once a page has been read, it cannot (in that sequence) be re-read. The digital edition, curiously, is more successful than Saporta’s 1962 print experiment. The sensation induced by our inability to accurately control the next page we read is more pronounced than in the boxed edition. No-one who has ever shuffled a deck of cards can deny that control is always present to some degree. Magicians make careers of it. Within a digital instantiation of the same process, human intervention is reduced to a truly random moment, and there is no going back. Like The Wasteland before it though, Composition No.1 is built on a thorough and considered understanding of the material process of reading its physical forebear.

By far the most popular incarnation of new, interactive, text is the web, which ranges from the facile and trivial to the complex and involved. News, personal journals, fiction, commentary, recipes, travel guides, tech references, how-to guides—the web has already absorbed large segments of what before was an indivisible part of non-fiction publishing. Digital writing is already a profitable and successful mass medium, all managed without pushing books into extinction. To keep insisting on a dichotomy of print versus digital is to ignore the fact that digital has moved on. It has become its own thing, with its own dynamics, styles, tropes, structures, and patterns of authorship. It’s also managed to do this without saddling webpages with detailed and realistic simulations of print behaviour. The scroll, hyperlinks, navigation, animations, transitions, embedded movies, are all implemented without the slightest visual or tactile reference to a print counterpart.

The best example of a relatively accomplished interactive text platform that has saddled itself with spurious and useless replicas of the print context would be Apple’s iBooks. Normal, text-oriented, ebooks grow further and further away from being print replicas with every successive update, but it’s graphic novels that represent the pinnacle of mimicry of physical objects as a user interface (often referred to as skeuomorphism). iBooks renders each page of the graphic novel as a realistic simulation of an actual page, something that is at first jarring when the book is opened, the cover flipped open, and the reader finds the cover as the first page. Comixology, a much more popular digital platform for comics, has taken another direction. It eschews skeuomorphisms and instead renders the page full-screen, no fake page shadows or animated page curls. This lets them do uniquely digital things such as adapt the page to screen sizes and let the app guide you towards an optimal reading for your device. iBooks, by choosing to replicate print when displaying graphic novels and fixed layout ebooks, offers a compromised experience that can’t adapt or fully take advantage of the digital context.

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