A participation program for futures of digital texts.

Thought I’d take a minute (or an entire damn evening) to gather a few reflections related to my dissertation. My current reflection strategy is to distill my project into the most fundamental questions I can conceptualize. Then try to answer them. One at a time. A weird combination of exploratory writing, argumentation, and exposition. But it seemed awfully productive tonight. I clarified (i.e. distilled) a few thoughts that had been eluding direct statement. And I also recognized some aspects of my project that I have yet to articulate. I’m going to have to figure out a way to do this sort of reflection more regularly. Here’s the raw, director’s cut of this evenings ramblings. Sort of reads like a manifesto. Maybe there’s a place for that sort of move (though likely not this sort of tone) in almost any scholarly text. Hmmm. Maybe. Here’s the stuff…

What can I do to participate in shaping the future of digital texts?

  • Learn the history of book technologies.
    • those that are relevant today
    • those that have come and gone.
    • ask: Why have certain technologies been adopted as book technologies, while others have not? Why have some been abandoned? What’s the historical arc of these phenomena? Is there a pattern?
    • Argue the importance of multilayered, interactive timelines for understanding the archeology of various technologies having influenced the form of the book.
  • Learn to use contemporary tools related to book production.
    • It used to be that the processes and media for book production were compartmentalized into divisions of labor across distinct industries and professions. Now, more than ever, those divisions are blurring. Instead of an author producing a manuscript, a publisher editing it, a press printing it, bindery binding and covering it, a distributor distributing it, and retailers selling it, now many of those skills, practices, and responsibilities are being combined into a (relatively) unifying digital workflow. It’s becoming increasingly common for a text to get from author to reader across an entirely digital process. This phenomenon is going to have a significant impact on the forms our books take, as well as forms they no longer have to take.
    • Fluid design conventions didn’t make sense within a bound-paper publishing paradigm. Books had to be produced (and sold) in large numbers in order for them to be profitable ventures. But now, the exact same file (Kindle, for example) will be experienced on countless different screens, and several different screens even within the context of a single reader. LCD monitors, mobile phones, tablets, e-ink screens… sometimes read in portrait orientation, and sometimes landscape. Sometimes taking up half the screen. Sometimes read within a browser as web pages of varying widths and heights. And this list only accounts for a fraction of the current possibilities for reading interfaces. The proliferation of interface technologies is only going to become more varied and unpredictable.
  • Be familiar with other historical production techniques.
    • Most production techniques within the publishing industry can be traced back relatively directly to legacy production techniques. It’s the nature of transition. Being able to perform these older practices isn’t as necessary as at least having a basic understanding between the production process, the materials involved, and the product produced. Innovations within these frameworks almost always have to accommodate existing paradigms in order to gain adoption. Partly because of the necessity for conceptual continuity, but also to take advantage of investments in earlier technologies. Change is always expensive, though often less expensive than not innovating.
  • Develop a language for communicating about design.
    • Design innovations will not only have to be demonstrated, but they will also have to be: previewed, argued for, critiqued, explained, collaborative, documented.
    • Design practices are often heavily informed by competing theories, research, aesthetic schools, and histories. The fundamental element of innovation is change. Not skill. Not details. Not rhetoric. (Though each is relevant) Design is about the intersections of principles, use, perception, and materials. In order to learn from each other, teach each other, and argue for design elements, designers need to have a clear and accessible design lexicon.
  • Produce texts. As often as you can.
    • Blogs. Websites. Articles. Chapters. Handmade books. Digital. Print-bound. Traditional. Avant-garde. Conservative. Risky. For profit. For art. For scholarship. For fame. Whatever. Just make texts.
    • Get good at starting projects, sustaining that focused energy, and delivering a product. “Finished” is becoming a less clear, less relevant term all the time. “Delivered” is much more important (and useful) than “finished.”