The iPad’s Ironic Disintegration of the Book

The iPad is changing. Getting faster. Cameras. New toggles. Editing software. More and more, this little tablet is transitioning from a consumption-prioritized device to a production-prioritized device. Granted, the transition has only just begun. I’ve got my own criticisms of Apple: their treatment of developers, content providers, etc. And then there’s the way they’ve handled the cameras on the iPad. They could have had cameras on the first model. And they could have been great cameras. The cameras on the second model are not very good, still. But I think it’s important not to get confused between discussions about what Apple is capable of, and what they offer consumers. They’re a business, and releasing incremental improvements to a device that already is a better value than the competition is just plain good business. They make more money that way. My money. And they’ll continue to make more of my money. Maybe with the iPad 2, but certainly with the iPad 3. Here’s why…

I’m fascinated with books. I love to read about the history of books… of paper, bindings, glues, scribes, printing, etc. And very soon, the iPad (much more so than the Kindle or the Nook) is going to start changing the way we think about books.

Over the course of it’s long (and contest/fuzzy/murky/non-linear) history, two of the major obstacles to the book’s proliferation have been production and circulation. Not the only two obstacles, the two most relevant to this reflection. And the iPad addresses both of those obstacles directly.

(I know there are other tablets, but I’m going to use the iPad to stand-in for all of them. Deal with it. The iPad is so far ahead of the pack on either pricing, features, or market dominance, that it’s influence is almost unchecked. When it was first announced, almost every major hardware manufacturer who’d been promising a tablet in development scrapped their plans and started over. That’s why, for now and the foreseeable future, I’ll be using iPad as a generic term for tablet computers. Also, because I have an iPad. And also, I’m becoming sort of a fanboy.)

The advent of desktop publishing over the last quarter of the twentieth century brought small-scale publication practices to many, many more people. Quark, Pagemaker, and their ilk not only brought more affordable, more powerful technologies to more people, but those programs were at the forefront of making production concepts more accessible. We can credit the advent of the graphical user interface (GUI, think “windows” and “icons” instead of command line prompts and directory listings) for this development, too. Though most people don’t explicitly realize it, computers have conditioned us to become very powerful metaphoric thinkers. (Metonymic thinkers, actually, but let’s not split hairs). What we see on the screen is related to what’s going on inside the machine, but in an abstract sort of way. Over time, users became accustomed to this sort of human-computer interaction (HCI), and interface design has become the new frontier of usability, efficiency, and adoption. More people started to have access to the production process as software interfaces become simpler and more intuitive.

Printing practices have not yet made the sort of leaps that manuscript production has. Paper is still expensive. Expensive to produce, to ship, and to ship back again. Writers can print out pages on their laser printers, bind them or have them bound, and they’ve got a book to show for it. This is a great improvement. But to tell you the truth, before the advent of printing, writers didn’t hesitate to pen multiple copies of handwritten texts (some even copied only as orders came in) and distribute them among a small circle of readers or patrons. Unfortunately, that was an economic model that was once viable, but fell out of practice in the last couple of centuries. Still is. Nobody is going to be able to make a living selling laser-printed copies of a self-published book. There are certainly people working on this very problem, and they’re doing some pretty amazing work. Print-on-demand services have been around for a while, and more often people are starting to be able to make a living by contracting out the printing of individual manuscripts to these types of companies. But this developmental thread is pretty thin. Paper is getting more expensive, not cheaper. Same thing for transportation.

Enter the ebook. There are various consumer-level software tools that make the process of putting together a pdf or an epub. And this makes it much easier for writers to produce a book and distribute that book for relatively little cost. For the immediate future, this is going to be the story that books tell. Cheaper to produce and consume. Less demanding of traditional material book resources. Easier to purchase. Easier to store. (And here we could get into all sorts of nasty discussions about licensing futures, but let’s not.) It’s impressive. But the book hasn’t really yet broken free into something truly revolutionary.

Johanna Drucker (about whom I’m going to write a post very soon) suggests that one of the major obstacles to truly revolutionizing the book is our reliance on unnecessary visual metaphors in our machine interfaces. More simply: we’re not doing ourselves any favors trying to make our ebooks look and act like physical books. The practical function of a “page,” especially one the “turns,” has such cultural staying power, that most people can’t imagine a book without them. In some ways, I agree. Pages do serve several functions. They are an important physical and phenomenological structuring convention for both paper and electronic books. But they may not always be necessary. Actually, if you read some of Drucker’s work focusing on artists books since the beginning of the twentieth century, you’ll come to realize that some writers have been calling into question the dominant “page” convention for a long time, even in (ahem) print books.

Are pages on the way out? Nope. They’ll stick around. They’re too darn useful. But their reign as the default structural element is now in decline. But they’ll stick around and serve more specialized purposes for more specialized textual needs. I think the same can be said for the ways we treat most of the generic paragons of codexical culture: covers, title pages, tables of contents, indexes, page numbers, paragraphs, etc. So many of these conventions emerged in response to the economic needs/demands/preferences/strategies of printers and the printing industry. But that industry, as it is currently structured, is almost already atrophying inside the hardened shell of it’s legacy business practices. (And these ridiculous notions about licensing and copyright are the direct consequences of the failure of these monolithic sloths to adapt.) Whoa. I gotta settle down.

So, the iPad. Right. I know that iBooks and Kindle books still use the page metaphors I’ve already bemoaned. Those formats aren’t what I’m talking about right now. I’m talking about book formats that combine the speed, storage, and interactivity promised to us by the CD-Rom craze, with the portability and consumer accessibility of ebooks and codexes. There are plenty of great examples in the Apples app store (think that “elements” book that came out with the iPad launch), and plenty of genealogical antecedents in the history of laptops, CD-Roms, the Internet, and various mobile technologies like smart phones and laptops (and a shout out to PDAs! Go, Dell Axim!).

But there’s still be nothing biblio-revolutionary about the iPad. Not really. Not until now. The iPad is becoming a production device. Sort of. It’s still young. Let it get its legs. The cameras are disappointing, sure, but they’ll inevitably get better. And the editing software is already coming along. Photoshop for the iPad already exists, and it will be available to consumers soon, I think. And the iPad app store already makes available much of Apple’s iLife suite of entry-level production programs like iMovie, Garage Band, and Pages. And there’s certainly no shortage of photo editing options, either.

But what do these have to do with books? Books are going to become increasingly media-rich entities. And unlike much of what’s been developed for web applications laptop culture, the iPad has demonstrated the importance of the physical object. Texts aren’t virtual. Neither are books. And they never will be. We will always have to interface with our texts, and that’s the real secret of the iPad as a book technology. The same could be said for the Kindle, which helps to explain its success, but the Kindle is a terrible production machine. That’s okay. It doesn’t have designs on being anything other than a reader (for now).

What’s so powerful about the iPad as a book format is that it is becoming a relatively elegant and accessible solution to the traditional obstacles of production, distribution, portability, interactivity, and hypo-mediation (how d’ya like that word, eh? Sort of like under-mediated, but not quite).

The iPad is revolutionary. Because it is physical. And it is the site where multiple functionalities of bibliographic activities all intersect. And the improvements in speed, portability, weight, connectivity, capture, editing, production, and distribution will all continue to crescendo.

But not to a climax. And not to a plateau. But toward an eventual disintegration. But not the kind you would think. Not the kind of disintegration from a center than cannot hold. The iPad’s disintegration is a sort of definitional disappearing act. Disintegration operates in opposition to the notion of integration. That is, the working together of separate parts. But integration, and by extension disintegration, begins to dissolve/fade/fog/fuzzify as the distinction between parts becomes increasingly difficult to discern.

And if you think I’m being histrionic (yes, please groan at my pun), consider for a moment some elements of the book’s history instead of its future. Think about a book as a text looking for a physical form. Think clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, scrolls, loose pages, sewn bindings, and covers. This collection of material bibliographic elements is incredibly diverse. Papyrus instead of clay? Glue instead of twine instead of rolled sticks? Each of the materials and forms has been revolutionary. And printing practices, too, have had a huge impact on the uniformity, circulation, and function (think entertainment, think scholarship) that books have taken over the past several centuries. Columns of texts. Pages of text. Punctuation. Capitalization. Each of these aspects of textual structure and performance, when considered in a long-view, historical context, could be considered a watershed generic development. (I’m not so sure I want to suggest historical disruptions, narrative ruptures, or paradigm shifts, but maybe.) And yet “the book” has endured a incredibly long tenure as one of the most stable generic structures in Western culture. For the longest time we didn’t see the book as a collection of technologies. Of papers and inks and threads and fabrics and glues and shiny coatings. For the longest time, books have been conceptually indivisible cultural icons.

And now books are starting the process of shedding that form. The codex declines. And what is starting to emerge is pretty amazing. It’s embryonic, so we can only glimpse hints of where it’s headed. But it’s going to be a new form with new functions. A site where our practices of consumption, production, storage, and distribution all begin to fuse. Oh, and it’s likely going to be “social” in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine. That’s a really exciting aspect of this discussion, too. I know it sounds sort of looney to suggest that books are going to be social in ways we currently can’t imagine. But think about someone from just twenty years ago trying to even comprehend, much less predict, our cultural investment in reality television, Twitter, Foursquare, or open source initiatives. Tough sell.

But there’s one more point I want to make. It’s about curmudgeons. I won’t be one. If you won’t be one. I’m thinking of a specific type. One who thinks that the world is falling apart as it increasingly diverges from the world he expected to encounter. And he’s pissed off about it. The sort of “Kids nowadays” sorta fella. Men and women. Boys and girls. Rich and poor. We just tend to do this sort of thing. Shake our heads. So don’t do it. “The book” isn’t dying. It’s changing. And because we don’t know what it’s changing into, we’ve got anxiety about it. Part of me wants to tell you to relax, but I think that’s a dangerous resignation.

I want to call for a certain attitude from you. Once that doesn’t see this sort of discussion as trying to slow a boulder rolling down a hill. Instead, getting back to the power of metaphors, I hope that you can begin to shift your thinking about the book as a huge, powerful ship plowing through deep water. And it’s getting smaller. Faster. Losing ballast. Becoming more efficient. Less capacious, but more responsive. Responsive not just to the winds and waves and captain, but responsive to that negotiation. Between a generic form with history, momentum, and cultural affordance and an emerging set of technologies and a new set of correlated cultural practices.

Methods of production and distribution are changing in ways that don’t necessitate or even reward the economies of scale associated with twentieth century industrialization. Production practices are more efficient when they can be responsive to smaller audiences over longer periods of time (think: the long tail). Digital editing on local machines and small-scale, on demand, off-site production aren’t necessarily the future, as much as they are harbingers of a broken economic model. It’s important to think about those phenomena as indications of inadequacy. We need to focus on the inadequacies of the current bibliographic production practices in order to understand first what sorts of practices will be addressed.

But too often, we think of book technologies as being driven by other technologies. I just don’t think this is the case. I don’t think we have ebooks because Microsoft develops a tablet computer, or Google digitizes the libraries of the western world or Amazon can deliver a thousand pages to our Kindles in less time than it takes to get from one subway stop to the next. “The Book” is a phenomenon. It’s an object affecting, responding to, emerging from, and shaping cultural practices around it.

But this way of characterizing the book, as an object that does things, is problematic, right? Books don’t want. Books don’t decide. Books don’t suffer. And yet, on some level, this characterization rings true for me, and has for quite some time.Where does this anthropomorphizing tendency come from? And why is it so hard to shake?

Because the book is neither a source nor a destination for cultural practices. We don’t answer to the book. We don’t work in the service of the book. And the book doesn’t act on us. The book is neither fountainhead nor terminus. The book is a mobile and structured site for interaction between independent parties. If the book is a hub at the center of a wheel, the spoke of that wheel merely pass through that hub to the other edge of the wheel, instead of originating or terminating in that center. It’s just a big, portable, intersection. An intersection of (consistent, contingent? I don’t know the word. Basically, “not ruptured.” Maybe contiguous? Maybe seamless?) where histories and futures are contiguous. And multiple. And coevolutionary. (The history of the book is a site of correlated mutations.)


When we tell the book’s history, as with any history, we construct a narrative. A history is sort of a narrative technology. It’s a tool we construct in order to understand a particular phenomenon or question or problem. Or to address an anxiety. In the case of books, this anxiety is related to a sense that the book, as a culturally affective object, is in peril.

To some degree, I think this anxiety is valid. And it may be a bibliographic anxiety unlike anything our culture has experienced. It has something to do with the rate of change. And it’s not just that things are changing faster. The rate of change is increasing. And there’s really no plateau that we can foresee. There are too many influences at play in an increasingly globalized world, operating on increasingly powerful digital technologies.

Whereas the shift from scribal reproduction to the printing press practices took root over the course of more than a century, the dominant form of the book twenty years from now is likely so different from what we have now that we likely can actually comprehend an object so different operating in a world so different with technologies that have yet to be conceived. And this is going to happen in our lifetime. We are going to experience something bibliographically revolutionary. We will feel it coming. We’ll feel it pass. The cultural shift will change us. It will change our culture. We will experience those changes. And yet we don’t know what they’re going to look like.

Feel like building an ark? Yeah, I know. It’s a bit dramatic. But here’s the thing. To return to an earlier metaphor above, we’ve already got an ark. The book.

Okay, this is a blog post. Maybe the longest blog post in the history or my blogging endeavors. And somewhere, it went off the rails. I’ve now got two controlling metaphors. The book as a machine so tightly integrated that it’s disintegrated into a singular, black-boxed object. And then there’s the book as a big-ass boat shrinking and splitting into smaller, faster, more efficient and responsive boats. Wow. What a mess. I guess I could try and tell you that metaphors are like histories: constructed rhetorical technologies to explain or respond to something.

So an important task, as I consider how I’m going to revise some of this material for dissertation fodder, is to clarify for myself exactly what these two metaphors respond to.

Or maybe this was just a really long explanation as to why I’ll likely go ahead and pick up that iPad 2 I’ve been salivating over. We’ll see.

Whether I do or not, that little machine is going to change the world.

(if anyone out there recognizes which Latour I need to brush up on, don’t hesitate to mention it. Same goes for any relevant narrative theorist. Is that Hayden White I’m thinking of? I dunno.)


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