Books and Interactivity

Recently, my colleague Daniel Meyers wrote a post about the importance of creative professionals to ask the question Why? rather than to jump into the question How? User experience is at the heart of the discussion: Let’s consider the user’s aims and habits and expectations and humanity first before considerations of pure technology, aesthetics, or even profits. If only that were always the case: Mymother in law wouldn’t be calling me for help programming her remote control and my new range wouldn’t have a Chicken Nuggets button.

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Every time a new technology is popularized, the question comes up. It’s been true about everything from fire to the automobile to nuclear power to the Internet. What is an enhancement of our lives? What is ruining our lives? Change is inevitable, but it scares people. Ultimately any new technology is merely a tool. What people do with it is what matters. The moral and social lodestone, it’s becoming clear, is the phenomenology of user experience.

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Photo from Flickr, by Jennerally

So let’s consider the book. The lowly codex: papers bound together. It’s been around in printed form for hundreds of years, and most of the UX issues have been worked out.

1. It’s portable – Put it in your back pocket and go for a walk. It’s a nice day out.

2. It doesn’t require power – No need to recharge batteries because: no batteries. 

3. It’s durable – No compatibility issues. It rained during your walk? Just dry out the book on the radiator. It’ll be fine. Acid-free paper means that books are heirlooms.

4. It’s interactive – You pick it up and turn the pages. If you want, mark it up with a pen. Rip out the pages and switch them around.

5. It’s cheap – Head to Powell’s for some deals.

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photo from Flickr, by Si1very

The book is pretty great as an innovation. It’s had a good, uninterrupted run as the king of media. It’s changed societies and individual lives. But now change is afoot again, and the book is being reconsidered in light of new technologies. It’s definitely time to start thinking about why we would want to change aspects of the book and not just how we can change it. 

The book is pretty great as an innovation. It’s had a good, uninterrupted run as the king of media. It’s changed societies and individual lives. But now change is afoot again, and the book is being reconsidered in light of new technologies. It’s definitely time to start thinking about why we would want to change aspects of the book and not just how we can change it. 

But which kind of books are we talking about? Of course, when it comes to reference books and merely descriptive books, then there’s no problem, at least to me. We already have Wikipedia and the Internet in general, and they give us at-hand information. When was the last time you picked up The World Almanac, a book I pored over as a kid? Exactly — just Google it.

No, what’s at question is the narrative book: the history, the biography and autobiography, literary nonfiction and belles lettres, and of course fiction. What happens to those types of books in the future?

Well, ultimately I think there are three levels of innovation and intervention in the realm of the narrative. First, there’s a question of what’s obviously desirable in an digitally interactive book, things that readers have been hoping for since the Reformation. But are they good for reading? Second, innovations that bring more of what’s possible into the mix. And thirdly, there’s a reconceiving what a narrative is in the first place.

Books With Interactivity

See number 4, above: The book has always been interactive. What’s hardly interactive right now is e-books. Sure, you can look up words, you can insert a bookmark. The e-book must provide some base functionalities.

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Photo from Flickr, by D-Koupf 

You must be able to jump to chapters. You must be able to insert marginalia, and it would be great to be able to export those in some usable format when you’re done with the book, along with the quoted passages. Wouldn’t it be great and useful to build a commonplace book as you read? Bookmarks are good, as is the ability to change the font size, the color scheme, and so on. Search is expected, but wouldn’t it be great if you could see a concordance of a book? C’mon, these were word clouds before word clouds. 

The Interactive Book

Kevin Rose of digg fame made a video in which he lays out some ideas for extending the interactivity of books.

Some of his ideas are interesting, but they raise concerns. 

First, he suggests that readers should be able to pull up character information and see where the characters are in a particular scene on a map. We could also call up Wikipedia pages about items in a book. I could get behind the latter idea, especially if we’re talking about Moby Dick or War and Peace. It is difficult to know how to pronounce those Russian names, or to keep them straight. What the hell is a samovar, and how does it work? Could I get a video? 

Rose’s other main suggestions have to do with social reading. He wants to see where are friends are in a book, to see their annotations. This could be distracting, but on the other hand, I admire the insights of some of my friends, and it would be interesting to solicit their opinions on particular passages in a book from within the book, and not have to type out or copy and paste a passage into an email. 

But what does all of this do to the reading experience? I know what happens on the web. If you are constantly tempted to connect with another human being or to look something up, you are not in the story, you are surfing the Web. John Gardner (author of the great October Light) wrote that good fiction involves the “creation of a vivid and continuous dream.” It’s tough to sustain a dream if the Internet is constantly snoring at you.

Never Mind the Books, Here’s the Apps? 

But what next? Maybe books aren’t the future. I do think they’ll be around for a long time because of the reasons outlined above. But more and more people will find new ways of consuming stories. 

Interactive fiction, sometimes known by its slightly too cute acronym IF, has been around for a while, but it hasn’t taken off. But it’s possible that it just hasn’t been done right. Many questions arise. When is a book not a book? When does it become a game? What is that line? Is a novel or a narrative something that by definition is controlled by an author? What happens when there’s no author pulling the strings? What if all the pieces are written by the author but there’s no proscribed beginning or ending?

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Those are called Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I read and loved them when I was a kid. And I played Zork, too. What’s the difference? Nick Montfort, a professor and writer at MIT, has written a book called Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. But it’s interesting to note that none of his blurbs are by writers of traditional fiction. Either way, Montfort is working on an IF-writing engine called Curveship. We’ll see.

It might sound conservative, but I think that what’s more interesting than all of this is if good writers explore a combination of prose narratives with original images and video and game-like elements that elevate the story. Can these hybrids add something new? 

Maybe the app is the future. It’s certainly a great delivery method — that is, entirely content agnostic (just like the book). Bob Stein, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, wrote an interesting post proposing that the app is the new book. We’ll see. 

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