The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Computers without Keys, Books without Pages

In the 90s, my sister went to college. With her went a SmithCorona word processor. It wasn't a typewriter, although you fed sheets of paper into it the same way. And it wasn't a computer, although it had monitor. It was a word processor. It was used for a single purpose—writing papers.

While she was there through the mid-90s, the computer age came to the masses. The Internet was born and home computers became a domestic staple—or nearly so. By the time she graduated, her word processor already looked Jurassic. After her last paper, even though it was still in great shape, I don't think her SmithCorona was ever used again.

That word processor was a bridge—in appearance and function—between the typewriter and the computer. The fact that it used paper and had a monitor seems paradoxical to us, like a hybrid. And in some sense that's what it is. The typewriter was evolving into the computer, but the transition wasn't complete. It was in that awkward adolescent stage. Yet, even today, the transformation of the computer is not complete. I'll explain why in a bit.

First, consider these two analogous instances—the horseless carriage and the radio-turned-television variety show. These two technological transformations will help us understand what we're seeing today.

If you saw some of the earliest automobiles (before 1900), you might mistake them for a carriage. The wheels will fool you: They're oversized and spoked just like a wagon's. Indeed, initially, automobiles were thought of in the same light as carriages: People called them "horseless carriages." They even had a magazine of the time called "Horseless Age." If you think about it though, it's funny to identify an object by something it lacks. (But not much has changed, actually. Today we have wireless Internet and cordless mouses.)

Or take early television programming. When popular radio variety shows transitioned to TV, they retained their variety show format and just added the visual component. Today, the only person still doing that is Howard Stern and a few late-night comedians (sort of). But early on, TV shows and movies (or “talkies”) retained strong similarities to radio in format. Most of the information was still communicated verbally, not visually. One example is "The Philadelphia Story" from 1941 whose dialogue catered to the radio-trained ear. Eventually, of course, the visual element introduced by TV changed the format of TV programming. Today, radio and television programming have few common characteristics. What little coverage they do share though (news and sports) doesn't use the same programming.

These examples illustrate a pattern: Old technologies and formats are always adopted into the new technologies and new media. The limitations, designs, expectations, and strategies of these old technologies and formats continue for a while. So, for example, radio scripts become TV scripts, and wooden carriage wheels are sufficient for automobile speeds. But eventually we realize these "limits" are based on old technologies, so we begin to adapt to the new environment without those limits or expectations. (Although, there are new limits in the new technology.)

This is why the computer's transformation is not complete. The computer still currently retains remnants of typewriters: keyboards. The same is true with cell phones that have key pads. But the iPad and the iPhone are beginning to pave the future. Touch screens are removing the spatial limitations of keyboards and keypads. When that transition reaches a tipping point, expect to see new configurations for letters and numbers. Why do we need buttons for them at all? Something completely new could be devised. People are already experimenting with it.

In the future, keyboards and keypads will appear just as antiquated as carriage wheels and variety shows.

But let's not stop there. Let's allow this pattern to illiminate one more technological change that's occurring: eBooks. Where I work, there's continual discussion about making book content flexible enough to fit into variety of electronic formats. This means making paper books available in digital formats for Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone, and dozens more.

But as we've seen, our first impulse with new technology is to put old content into it—think radio variety shows. But when we put old content into new media, the perceived limitations disappear and the content begins to change. In publishing, we're trying to put the variety show format into the television medium. And sure, we can do that and it will work for a while. But it is not the future of digital reading. "eBook" will someday probably be a funny term, like "horseless carriage." Electronic books are not books at all. Sure, both carriages and cars transport people and good, but they are not the same thing, even if they serve similar purposes. Neither are books the same thing as eBooks, even though we want them to serve similar purposes. The electronic format has its own set of assumptions that will reformat the books we put into it.

So what format will "books" take in the digital context? That’s a great question. There's a lot of experimenting going on out there, with embedded video clips, hyperlinks, character blogs, book trailers, dynamic indexes, iPhone apps, you name it. Already there's one significant change: flipping pages horizontally versus scrolling down vertically. You read the book from left to right horizontally. But in a digital it's a vertical column. But the digital context is not limited to either of these. Someday, we could have some combination of the two. And, depending on whether we scroll horizontally or vertically, that may connote some sort of meaning much the way a paragraph now indicates a shift in focus. We will also be able to create layers, so that we could move forward or backward. Why stay on a single plane?

I'm not sure if the book can be adequately transformed for a digital context and retain its original purpose. What I'm saying is, I don't know if book technology can be improved upon for the purposes it serves. I think users of the Kindle et al. will disagree with me. I certainly may be wrong. But the artificial limits that have been created for the Kindle and the Nook are just that—artificial.

If books ever migrate far enough into the digital context to reach a tipping point, I think they will be transformed. At that point, the book may go the way of the computer keyboard or the telephone keypad. And when that happens, expect to see things reconfigured.

Related Links:

New touchscreen typing (link)

Comic Books in the Electronic Medium (video)

Your mom taught you well