Ebooks: the stillborn hybrid

The ‘killer bee’ born of two paradigms

(The lies are an attempt to pander to a dead paradigm which can never work. The frustration in this section comes from the paradigm clash. Needs a rewrite.)

We lie to you. Not the ‘we’ as in the authors of this book-like object, but the ‘we’ who make up the modern day class of haruspex and seers: advisors, consultants, pundits, academics, and trainers. We lie to you by wrapping up what we think to be true into neat little stories, each of which has the sound and smell of reasoning without the actual taste or meat of a structured, logical argument. We lie to you because you have demonstrated time and time again that the reason why you ask an expert is that you simply aren’t interested in understanding what’s actually going on. We lie to you by omitting important context because we labour under the delusion that skipping years of study will somehow make the issues more comprehensible to you, not less.

You… You want canned truth—easily opened and delivered, pre-digested so that you don’t have to think about it—because you think knowledge and understanding is a liquid thing that can be poured from one container to another.

Most of all, because we need you to listen and pay attention to what we say, we lie to you by telling you what you want to hear.

We lie to you because it’s the only way to get you to listen, because we know you’ll never change your mind, and because it’s the only way to get things done.

Calling the various digital storytelling forms ‘hybrids’ is one such lie, albeit one of omission. It’s a useful lie for useful idiots. It’s been an essential touchstone concept for those of us who have been trying to work in traditional media—trying to arbitrate between the two paradigms. All at once it implies a blend of two forms—an attempt to get the best of both—a fidelity with the past, a marriage of equals, while still implying something uniquely new. It’s a way of getting the terrified and closed-minded to work on something terrifying and open. Scared people reacting only in defence rarely make interesting things.

No matter how useful, it is a lie designed to flatter the past and is built on a thick, mucous layer of platonic essentialism: the idea that these forms can exist, or that their characteristics even make sense, outside of their native environments—that abstract ideas exist somewhere pure and isolated from their context. It’s a tactic for navigating around those who are stuck in the print paradigm while you try to get things done.

In addition to the basic trauma of a paradigm shift, we’re watching a specific kind of evolution in action.

Now, a lot of people don’t actually understand the concept of evolution. They think they do but they don’t. In their minds evolution is a hotchpotch of progress, manifest destiny, all mixed in with a strange sprinkling of Protestant-style unconditional election.

(I’m not talking to you. I’m talking about the other ones. The ones that brag about not understanding maths and how sciences “don’t have the answers to everything” as if that excused their inability to understand basic scientific concepts. The people who work in jobs that require an understanding of digital media but, despite this being 2015 are burdened with a fuck-ton of weapons-grade ignorance on the subject. You know, the people whose attitudes to science and maths make a Texan School Board look intellectually progressive.)

Evolution. Let me explain.

Evolution isn’t progress. It has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of progress. Evolution is cold and ruthless (as in Tennyson’s ‘nature is red in tooth and claw’) precisely because it has no concept of progress or inherent good. There is only adaptation. A bacteria that is now immune to penicillin isn’t inherently better than its ancestors, it’s just better adapted to an environment that has been pumped full of penicillin. This may sound like progress but it isn’t because adaptations are often costly and environments change, sometimes very quickly. A trait that was a superior adaptation can become a liability in the space of a single generation.

When two groups in a species start to diverge because they are, generation by generation, adapting to differing environments, what results is speciation.

That—speciation—is a word that comes a lot closer to describing what is happening in digital media than hybridisation, especially since hybridisation is merely one of the many forms that speciation can take. Hybridisation is a subset of speciation. Sometimes it fails; sometimes it doesn’t.

Let’s brush aside our jargon catch phrases for a moment; let’s forget disruption; let’s assume that the paradigm shift is behind us; and let’s just focus on what is happening in the here and now.

One form of adaptation that results in speciation happens when one species is driven out of its old environment and mates with a related species that’s better adapted to the new environment.

Like lately in Canada as polar bears are driven south to a warmer climate and end up forming hybrids with grizzlies and brown bears.

The ebook, as embodied by IDPF’s ePub and Amazon’s Mobi formats, is a hybrid, true, but an artificially bred one. It is the artificial and disastrous killer bee to the evolutionary if unsuccessful grolar bear. The ebook didn’t appear organically as publishing professionals began to make digital projects filled with book-like qualities. It didn’t emerge through experimentation as developers tried to infuse the values of readability and novelistic storytelling into their websites, but is instead defined by the backwards necessities of the old print environment and the thinking of the print paradigm. Instead of making websites or apps that take cues and steal ideas, concepts, and methods from books, those who put together ebook platforms went the route of crippling web technology so that it would fit the production processes, structures, and design of an environment it will never inhabit. It is digital media constructed to fit the limited confines of the print paradigm. It is a network node removed from the network.

The evolutionary analog to current ebook formats wouldn’t be the polar-grizzly hybrid but an escaped, lab-created monstrosity. The only reason why the killer bee might not be an accurate analogy is that the ebook is almost too deformed to be effectively harmful. It’s toxicity is on the level of second-hand smoke and being too lazy to wash up your dishes. More than anything else, it is ineffective at anything but the plainest and simplest of texts. The ebook hybrid is about as adapted to the digital environment as a coyote with gills would be to suburban Texas.

Which wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for the fact that all ecosystems are competitive ones, even the media environment, and ebooks simply don’t work as well in digital as their peers.

This is why regular ebooks fall between the cracks in this ‘book’ of ours. Ebooks don’t have the physical manifestation of meaning of their printed counterparts nor do they demonstrate a shred of the art of the printed book. What they do manage is to suffer from most of the limitations of print combined with the instability that makes digital design difficult. Which they do without exhibiting the same massive adaptability that other digital forms get in return. Ebooks have some of the readability and reader-oriented flexibility that other mediated digital forms have (e.g. feed readers, Tumblr’s dashboard, Flipboard, Twitter, Instapaper) but are disconnected from the hypertext of the web and lack the dynamic, networked structure that make those apps useful. Think of the difference between a regular downloaded ebook and a Wattpad ‘ebook’. The former may well have more features (though hard to implement given how compromised modern ebook platforms are for development) but the latter is immeasurably richer because it remains a part of a larger, interconnected, and social context. A book written and published on Wattpad is undeniably better adapted to the digital environment than a regular ebook, even when it’s the same book that has just been republished in two different contexts and even though it has much fewer features in terms of layout or typography.

The focus here is on the less compromised digital forms, comparing contrasting them to the more embodied media like print. At least, until the publishing industry comes to its senses and realises that adapting ebooks to a print environment that no longer exists is exactly what is holding ebooks back.

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