Lost in the Flow of The Digital Word

my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.

Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.

But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.

By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)

But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.

There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.

Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go. 

The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”

Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.

And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.

Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.

I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)

We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.

So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?

Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.

But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.

Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.

So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)

This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.

There’s another thing at work here.

Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.

This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.

And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.

Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.

This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.

I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.

Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.

16. August 2010 by jeremy
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