Category Archives: Experience

The reading experience

What’s a book? We have a number of ways of answering that question. On one hand, a book is a physical object, a rectangular thing with pages held together with binding. My copy of Candide is a book. On the other hand, we also think of a book as the words that inhabit that object. When someone sees you reading Candide and says, “I’ve read that book,” they probably don’t mean they read the same copy you’re reading, but rather a different copy—perhaps from the library. So there’s a sense that all the different copies of Candide in the universe are somehow the same book. Nowadays, these copies aren’t all in print—we have web-based text versions and audiobook versions, for instance.

Thinking about books in this way can serve us well enough, but we have to be careful. Different technologies have different possibilities for use—for instance, a tablet is multifunctional, whereas a printed book only does one thing—and exist in different social climates—for instance, a person may not feel comfortable using their smartphone in a certain part of a city. Both these things present affordances which constrain and enable how we use technology. And since books are presented through technology (we don’t live in the world of The Matrix yet), each book has a set of affordances through which a reader’s interaction with that book unfolds.

In many cases, a text presented in different technologies might be close enough that we’d be justified calling them all the “same.” For instance, the book White Noise by Don DeLillo presents a narrative that seems to be conveyed similarly whether it’s read in print or listened to in audio form.

But some authors specifically take advantage of the possibilities of a technology in making their book. I call this “entanglement,” because in books like this, the form and the content become entangled to a degree that can’t reasonably be ignored. An example of this is the book The Neverending Story, in which different colors are used in order to present the narrative—and the narrative is diminished in editions that print it in only black ink.

At iConference this year, I presented a study I did on people’s experiences reading two books I felt were entangled in a similar way—Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace—to see how people experienced these books in print, audiobook and Kindle formats. What I found was that, though people in all formats “got” what the books were about in terms of content (plot, themes), only the people who read the print editions talked about having deep, transformative, personal experiences with the books.

Now, this isn’t to say that print is better and that’s the end of the story. Rather, what I conclude from this study is that a book is likely best in the form its author intended, particularly when it is entangled. When a book is adapted, it is wrested from that entanglement and becomes, as a result, impoverished. While this cannot be seen if we think of a book as just the verbal content of its text, it is quite visible when the reader’s experience is taken into account. What’s important to note in all this is that audiobooks can be entangled just as can movies and webcomics.

What results is an important lesson for publishers and designers who are adapting books from one format to another: Put the reader’s experience first.

If you’re interested in reading more, I’d invite you to read my paper “Novel Experiences: On Page, In Ear, On Screen,” which is available in the open-access iConference 2016 proceedings. You may also be interested in the book Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, by David Levy, and others that I have listed on my Reading List page.

The value of the obsolete

I’m currently reading the book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil. The author predicts the not-so-far-away union of human and machine. It’s kind of a terrifying read. (What does that say about me?)

Anyway, there’s a section in the book where he discusses the life cycle of technology, which has seven stages:

  1. Precursor. Prerequisites for a technology exist, but have not yet been put together.
  2. Invention.
  3. Development. The invention is protected and supported. Kurzweil cites the many “tinkerers” who invented horseless carriages, but the development ingenuity of Henry Ford who helped the automobile really take root.
  4. Maturity. The continues to evolve, but it’s been well adopted by the community. It may seem so indispensable that a lot of people think it will last forever.
  5. Threat. An upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. This upstart may have some unique benefits, but overall it is found to be lacking, and finally it is rejected. The people from the previous stage take this as further proof that the technology in question will live forever.
  6. Successor. Another new technology comes along that is significantly better than the threatening upstarts. The technology in question gradually declines and obsolesces.
  7. Antiquity. The technology finally fades out. Kurzweil cites the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, the vinyl record and the manual typewriter as examples of such bygone tech.

Kurzweil goes on to spotlight the printed book, predicting that it, too, will fade away. The book was written in 2005, when e-reader tech was only beginning to bud, but already he saw the writing on the wall. And sure, there are plenty of people who don’t touch books. Even for bibliophiles like myself, most of the reading we do is in electronic form.

But taking that as evidence that books are obsolete assumes that the content is all that matters. And so hey but wait—look at those examples in Stage 7. I see horse-and-buggies prancing around the city from time to time. I have friends who still swear by vinyl. I have at least one friend who is a regular user of a manual typewriter. Yes, these things are obsolete in the popular sense of the term, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any uses.

Yoon Kwang-cho - Heart SutraAt the Philadelphia Museum of Art I recently saw a wonderful sculpture, pictured to the right, by South Korean ceramic artist Yoon Kwang-cho. Here the artist has carved the Buddhist Heart Sutra onto a clay slab. But wait, aren’t clay inscriptions obsolete? Of course, since this is an objet d’art, we can surmise that there’s more to the story. It’s what the medium symbolizes—its place in culture. It’s the tactile experience of creating art. It’s the act of creating rather than selecting characters from a font made by someone else.

Different technologies have different affordances. And even after they go “obsolete,” we can still find value in those affordances.

Kurzweil predicts the downfall of the printed book because e-reader technology has improved so that (1) it no longer hurts your eyes, (2) resolution has increased, (3) the devices are about the size of or even smaller than print books, (4) these devices are more feature-laden, (5) they hold more content, (6) that content is more easily navigable, and (7) battery is becoming a non-issue. He says the biggest limiting factor is going to be a distribution model that satisfies publishers. Remember, this book is from 2005. I think we’ve achieved that model. (Keep in mind I am not in the publishing world, so they might have something to say…)

But anyway, I don’t think books are going anywhere. And it’s precisely because they are single-purpose devices. Reading a book is contemplative, because Facebook isn’t a click away. No notifications are coming in. It’s tactile. And physicality is important, since we’re physical creatures. In our world of multi-purpose this and that and multitasking madness, books are refreshing precisely because they only do one thing. I’m currently conducting a study on how people read the Bible, and many of these findings are surfacing (full findings coming later this year).

Maybe I’m one of those clingers in Stage 4 and 5 of the life cycle described above. But I’m not alone. David Bawden, editor of the Journal of Documentation, pointed out in the introduction to the journal’s latest issue  that we’re experiencing a general trend toward “slow” information, as evidenced by, for example, the proliferation of super-simple computer interfaces and websites.

Text in images, a reflection of our visuality

We’ve fallen in love with putting text in image formats on the Internet.

On some level, this is nothing new. For as long as humans have been making art, text and imagery have intermingled. To speak only of the computer age: Photoshop has a text tool, after all, and wherefore a tool if not to be used? One of the earliest viral images in my memory, from 2005, is the O RLY? owl, seen below. And then of course, we’ve long had Someecards and Lolcats (both ca. 2007).


Traditional usability heuristics condemn embedding text within images, because text in images can have problems with readability, and it’s obviously not searchable. And, of course, HTML canonically separates image tags from text tags. Moreover, if we close our eyes and are asked to think of an image, whatever comes to mind will likely not include any text. It seems, at least prototypically, that images and text are meant to be separate.

But, if anything, our images are only getting more text-laden. Wikipedia recently enhanced their Android app in order to allow users to share text extracts from articles as images. An example appears below.


On the surface, this seems absurd. What’s going on?

I think it has to do with social media. Platforms like Tumblr have seemed to work best with images, and users on this site have long preferred text embedded within images. For a while I ran a Top Chef–inspired blog, where I published screenshots from recent episodes along with their captions, written as text; a friend urged me to incorporate the text into the image so she could share the images on her own tumblog more easily.

This trend seems to have crept into other social media platforms, too: Facebook’s algorithm seems to favor images over text in constructing your newsfeed. Since 2013, Twitter has automatically shown images within its stream, whereas previously the service was text-only. Thus sharing text in images on Facebook makes them more visible, and sharing images on Twitter allows users to bypass the 140-character message limit.

Whether these things are causes of our text-in-image frenzy or co-conspirators is an open question.

Perhaps it reflects our society’s orientation toward the visual rather than the oral, which seems to be getting stronger and stronger. (Think about how “no one reads anymore” but how “300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.”)

In a recent interview, social researcher danah boyd discussed that this orientation has had ramifications in other areas of our lives, such as how we now navigate conflict. In the workplace, she says, if there is a problem between two employees, they won’t deal with it verbally, as employees might have done in the past. Instead, they will use a written medium, such as email, to express their arguments—and perhaps protect themselves. The bottom line is that, as our lives are structured, we have more exposure to and comfort with textual, visual environments.

And yet, orality is primary, whereas literacy (and visuality) is secondary. What does this mean for the future?