Call Me Interactivity

On returning home at the start of the Christmas holidays I found the Arion Press trade edition of Moby Dick waiting for me. However, unlike the majority of other books, you cannot but instantly remark upon how special it is.

An unusual thing happened whilst I read it though. The story became, over time, somehow indivisible with the shape and format of its container. The way that pages creak as they’re turned, their thickness, the initials that sink into wide columns of text, they all blend deeply into the narrative. These individual pieces combine to give the book both graceful and savage characterizes, oozing with the memories of those horrifying and blood curling moments of man, ocean and beast. The fear of what lurks beneath those depths, but the simultaneous wonder of it too, is captured by the format, by the design. That complex emotional bombardment is further intensified by the hand carved illustrations and the weight of the object; the book feels as if it’s pushing back as you read it, and so I can’t help but think of Leon Weiseltier’s description of his own personal library here:

My books are not dead weight, they are live weight — matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time.

Leon Weiseltier, Voluminous

This book sure has plenty of ‘live weight’, but there is no other way to describe it; it’s a paper Leviathan. The typefaces were carved from whalebone whilst hidden in some dark corner of this tome most probably lies a gigantic pair of white, fishy lungs. It could be said that I was swallowed by its sheer physicalness, gobbled up by this imaginary landscape. And yet in these delicious moments of storytelling and design you suddenly become a part of the story – one of the crew. Cutting the flesh, draining the skull, eating the steak, sleeping on the boat in the middle of the storm. You are Ishmael. You are the Pequod. You are the whale. You are Moby Dick.

To put it simply this book haunts me. It’s not necessarily the literary brilliance of it, or that the object itself is the consummate model for what a book should be (although it is). It’s because I can’t shake this feeling, this question. That ethereal bond between content and form asks something from me. I’m reminded of this question whenever I leave the paper world and enter the one made of pixels and then I realise that I’ve never had a similar experience with a machine or with a piece of software, and so I begin to ask: how can this experience, this feeling, be translated into a digital space?

And yet clearly this is the wrong question to ask. We know that paper is not directly transferrable to pixel, as there are those obvious features that machines ’lack’. For example the weight of a book, when translated into a digital environment, is separated from its volume, from that reassuring physical heft. Designers over compensate for this by applying kitsch page turning effects and book gimmicks, but this is not trying to recreate that connection between reader and writer (the essential part), it is simply pretending to be a book. And so in comparing these two worlds there are those that moan and whine like a child standing in front of a toy store after its closed. But we cannot lament these features we ‘lost’ when discussing interactivity, instead we must look elsewhere when forging these experiences. There are plenty of other toy stores out there.

So if we are simply incapable of translating physical features like paper thickness, texture and the smell of ink, then what is the question we should be asking? How do we navigate between these physical and digital spaces? How does this digital space change the relationship between reader and writer?

How does it collectively transform this information and the connection between people? This is the question we should be asking, as it pivots from translating existing material to creating something new. But in order to answer this question we must first examine how these devices change the entire experiences from top to bottom. From reader to writer, publisher to editor. How are these diverse roles represented in this medium? And what part will we play as designers?

The Future of Interaction

The word ‘interaction’ is constantly called upon to explain what digital books should be, how they should work and what we should expect of them. But what does this really mean? When a new iPad book thing launches on the AppStore the developers often describe them as being ’interactive’. And yet when we open them up and begin to read we find reams of text with badly drawn 3D info graphics and videos of car adverts and candy. It becomes immediately obvious that these features are not truly interactive; they’re like a jester pandering for our short lived attention.

To explore what the future book will be capable of we must first try to imagine beyond our current tools and devices, beyond the iPad and the Kindle into ten, twenty, thirty years into the future. If we get caught up in the present then we’re bound to miss the next hardware cycle, and thus stumble into it with as much confusion as we did the last. So what things are certain, what things are known unknowns about these machines? What is likely not to change over this period of time?

There will be many

We have to acknowledge the sheer volume of devices that will soon be available. At what screen size does a piece of text become a digital book? And at what resolution? 320x800? 720x1024? Is an iPad an ebook, but a phone just a single column of scrollable text? What about the plethora of Android devices, the Kindles, the PlayBooks, the other tablets that will soon occupy this marketplace? How are digital books affected by the multiplicity of materials they’re made from and the buttons that skirt their edges? How does this affect the reader?

Am I the only one who asks himself whether it is appropriate to read Melville on a tablet in Georgia or Times? Is “Moby Dick” the same text in a liquid browser window set in Arial or Courier as in a carefully set printed publication? I doubt it.

Oliver Reichenstein, Scrolling, flipping and clicking

By looking at these devices it seems that books are no longer objects that we shape and control, a book no longer has any kind of dimension attached to it, at least not one that we define ourselves. The future book will have to respond to these constraints and the smorgasbord of devices that people will soon be reading on: as this problem is only going to get worse over time, we must embrace it now. But it’s a problem that digital books and websites share in common, and so as book designers, writers and readers we should be watching the technological and aesthetic developments of web designers. Since the ePub3 spec is deeply rooted in HTML, CSS and JavaScript, it could even be argued that digital book design is web design.

They will be public

Books are private things; they are entirely devoid of geographical, historical, and social context. A book cannot update itself and tell you where you are, a book cannot explain every word inside itself, as it is locked within its own gravity, forever feeling the intellectual pull of its own physicality. Each book stands alone on the shelf, their content is finite, and therefore so are their relationships with one another, and between reader and writer. These are not necessarily bad qualities, but they are constraints; they define the medium. With a network we can finally break these chains, build new formats. By this I’m not suggesting goofy buttons in the margins like ‘tweet this Oscar Wilde quote’ or ‘comment on this awesome Jurassic Park book cover’. Surely the network is more powerful and capable than that.

But regardless of how the network will be used, we know that the future book will not give us solitary experiences; they will be a common experience, shared by many. How can this change the way we see interactivity?

One of the most interesting early iPad apps was Al Gore’s Our Choice, designed by Push Pop Press. After the cheesy intro video concludes, a three dimensional Earth appears in front of you and a small marker blinks on top of it, showing your location. This is pretty cool, but by touching the globe you’re quickly spun decades into the future, where the geography shifts according to some predefined scientific prediction. This small interactive sequence is saying: “Here you are. This piece of content is important to you because if you do not heed these warnings then your home will be eaten by the expanding deserts inflicted by global warming.” This interactive sequence has a message beyond that of mimicking the constraints of previous formats. By linking you personally to the application the book becomes, in a small way, public thanks to this information. However, this kind of public interaction over the web could be developed in more interesting and useful ways.

Imagine if Our Choice connected to the network and updated itself according to new scientific research coming in. We could have data showing us how much energy each country is consuming live, or how much CO2 they are pumping out and the text could evolve alongside this information as the latest research is published. The book would suddenly break time. It would no longer be bound by its maker, it would fluctuate and grow into something else, something unexpected.

With a public book you could read it in the morning and by the time you come back from work the entire thing has been rewritten, redesigned, republished, transformed. A thing capable of an infinite number of experiences. Mandy Brown criticised the current state of interactivity in an article entitled Deploy:

Ebooks can be updated, but only dumbly: a new file will wipe out annotations made to an earlier version, and no useful convention yet exists for communicating what was changed and why. Our content management systems know of only two states—draft and published—either privately in progress or publicly neglected. Nowhere is there a third state—in the world, but still evolving.

Mandy Brown, Deploy

There will be no control

All books on the iPad and the Kindle must live by the constraints set down by Amazon and Apple; buttons must do certain things, animations must work a certain way and very specific file formats must be employed. There are few alternatives considering how expensive and time consuming it is to make your own physical product. It requires efforts of international scale, with boardrooms filled with engineers and strategists, not to mention the millions of dollars required for testing and development. We simply cannot make our own digital formats. But this is not the problem that we have to solve; it is a constraint that we must live with if we want to explore what these formats are capable of.

The Interactive, Digital, Public Book

We are all tempted by interactivity; video and audio snippets, data charts that can be flicked and pushed, letters that can be popped and pinched. But how many of these features enhance the relationship between reader and writer? Due to the constraints I mentioned previously, we most likely won’t recognise the digital book in a decade. This is because they won’t be built in the same way, they won’t be written in the same way and they won’t be funded and published in the same way either. These problems, some economic, some technical, will force us to consider alternative methods of thinking about content, space, storytelling and time.

The line that borders pixel and paper has been crossed, boundaries have been muddied, but the future swells with opportunity. And so these uncharted, digital spaces demand not only new types of thinking, publishing and design, but also a new form of storytelling, new kinds of heroes and monsters, new worlds to explore. This frontier lies beyond the easy and the kitsch; the truly interactive.