Out of Print - Home
Rock, Paper, Scissors
Evan Butterfield
JAN 02, 2013 14:02 PM
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Seventeen thousand years ago, give or take, some presumably hairy and unkempt human-type folks drew pictures on the walls of a labyrinth of caves near Lascaux, France. The images depicted mostly wildlife, hunting scenes, and occasional human figures, and were drawn on the rocky surface of the cave using charcoal and various mineral pigments. The scenes are flat, and some overlap each other; there is no consistent point of view, or clear concept of perspective. Interestingly, though, in a form-follows-function sort of way, the artists occasionally used the irregular surface of the cave to create a consciously three-dimensional effect—a naturally-occurring swelling of the rock, for instance, became the body of a bull. Telling a story was all about the rock. Or, to put it in more contemporary terms, the medium informed the message.

Considerably more recently (but still quite some time ago, these things being relative), around the year 220 -- the Chinese invented woodblock printing. Conveniently, they used the woodblock method to print on paper they’d invented four hundred years before. And there, too, the medium informed the message: paper is a better surface for ink than silk, and there’s a certain long verticality (or horizontality) inherent in the form, a limited area of visibility at any one time, and the slow appearance/disappearance of the text from one side of the scroll into the other.

Practically yesterday on the timescale we’re enjoying here, Gutenberg one-bettered the manual woodblock process when he invented the printing press in the mid-15th century. This allowed for the mass production of books, the rise of literacy, and the modern novel. It also eliminated the scroll and introduced the necessity for standard sizes of paper (that is, whatever would fit the printing devices), which in turn set us permanently on the road of bookbinding, pagination, and 8-1/2x11.

For over 2000 years, then, paper has dominated how information is presented, and has pretty much defined what it is to read.

But things change. Along the way, we discovered electrons, and how they could be herded about on screens to make words. Suddenly the tyranny of the printed page was over, its central role as the dictator of how content is delivered called into question, and whole industries involved with creating paper, putting content on paper, and shipping paper around from here to there were shaken to their foundations. Everything suddenly got very different, and newspapers, magazines, and books lost their monopoly (and in many cases also lost their markets). Bookstores closed. Kindles and iPads were everywhere.

People tell me “there’s just something about the feel of a book in my hands” when explaining why they don’t want to embrace digital delivery methods. I mean, honestly, of course there’s “something” about holding a book: it’s what we’ve done as human beings for two thousand years. It’s ingrained in our minds as The Way Things Are Done. If it hadn’t been for the Chinese and Gutenberg, we’d be hauling around big slabs of stone and drawing pictures of what we had for lunch.

But here’s a wild and crazy idea: What if, in a digital age in which content is suddenly, miraculously, for the first time ever, liberated from the physical constraints of the page (or scroll or folio or whatever), what if in such an amazing time we actually treated content as relevant to its medium? That’s a fancy-pants way of saying this:

Maybe content that’s delivered on computer screens, or tablet surfaces, or smartphones, should not necessarily be expected to look and act as if it’s being delivered on a piece of paper.

There is just no particular reason why we should refer to content on the Web as a “page.” Documents are paginated and “typeset” in Word in a ready-to-print format, but if the documents are never expected to be printed, is the page necessarily the best way to do that?

Eight-and-a-half by eleven is a fine format for two-dimensional publishing in which length and width are intimately tied to how the presses process paper. But digital media offer more than two dimensions. When delivering content electronically, it’s possible to have depth, too: something that paper simply can’t achieve. Any word in a digital edition can potentially link to a virtually infinite number of locales across the Internet, providing additional support or illustration for concepts, additional background and history, access to the author or subject. Any word in a digital edition is a potential doorway to a whole world wide web of other words, and pictures, and videos, and sounds. An author can write about an experiment, for instance, and link to videos that show it happening, or that illustrate the result. Conceivably, we live in an age in which the only limit on content is how much time the author or publisher is able or willing to invest in depth. And even that’s not really a limit, since digital content carries with it the un-paper-like characteristic of simple and constant change. Content can be added, deleted, edited, or augmented in moments, without ever involving a paper mill or R.R. Donnelly.

Don’t get me wrong: I have an MA in English lit, and I’m a book guy from way back. I love a good book—I just haven’t read a paper-based one for over 2 years now. I travel a lot, and while I used to carry two or three books in my luggage on longer trips (OK I have a short attention span, sue me), I can now bring whole virtual libraries in a single 6-ounce Kindle).

The happy fact is that the new digital publishing media are the next step in the evolution of content delivery, and there’s no going back: In the beginning there were cave walls and charred sticks: that was what was “always” done, how content was “always” delivered. Paper added a previously impossible mobility to content that had “always” been tied to its location. Block printing, and the Gutenberg Press, made mass distribution possible, and inexpensive mass production of books brought literacy and literature and information to most of humanity.

Digital delivery is just the next step in the evolution of content delivery. It not only enhances mobility and mass distribution, but literally adds a new dimension to the content itself. It’s up to us to take advantage of the new technology, to embrace digital publishing and digital content delivery, not to moan and complain about missing the smell and feel of paper. We need to cut ourselves free of the emotional and psychological dependence on the 3 Ps: pages, paper, and print.

Seriously, if one more person whines at me with a faraway, sad-puppy look in their eyes about how they don’t want to use an e-reader or other mobile device because “there’s just something about holding a book in my hands” I swear I’ll throw something at them. A book, maybe. A big, heavy one, not one of those cheap paperbacks. Or maybe a rock. With a picture of a cow on it.

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