“... the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there.”
Marco Polo, talking to Genghis Khan
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities
Note: This essay is the extended version of the talk I gave at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, UK, September 2011.
Over the last ten months of working at a startup, I’ve noticed that it’s very easy to lose perspective. That is, it's easy to forget to stick your head up and get context for the work at which your're cranking away. This is especially true while working on front-line digital content design problems.
The notion of a “new,” digital kind of book scares a lot of folks because there is such a rich fabric of romanticism, nostalgia and myth built up around the physical book. These qualities — romantic, nostalgic, mythical — are really indicative of emotion. And we don't want to lose that emotion. It's easy to forget this; I know I do. I forget how the weight of those myths (some real, some imagined) can and should be informing the work I’m doing now.
As designers working with ebooks, we are at a point of special convergence: many of the promises of digital books (promises that have been spoken for decades) are coming to fruition. Not the least of which being almost everyone carries with them a digital device capable of smartly displaying ebooks. But even more powerful is that all books in the world are being smooshed into a single point, and we finally have enough of a semblance of standards and distribution of devices to seriously consider interesting things to do with that point.
So I asked myself — how does one view the emotional weight of books in the context of our current excitement? And in asking myself this I found an image growing in my mind over the last few months. As I was doing the work of “now,” this image of the “past” grew stronger. That image manifested as a story — an imagined myth of the history of the book, converging with reality around the turn of the 20th century.
I'll be the first to admit that this is odd. But I found it to be tremendously useful as a framing device for the work I’m doing now. And my intent is to share this story as a model for creatively thinking about our kind of work — work that is so new, as to be shaping unseen experiences, but simultaneously connected directly with a weighty past.
Before the story, however, there are some ideas to keep in mind.
Our basic truths:
The current surface forms for digital books are far from perfect, but they work and are getting better with each device and software iteration. So, in my opinion, many of the critical future questions digital books designers will have to address don’t directly involve pure content layout. Future-book design is not merely about font sizes and leading. Instead, our hardest (and possibly most rewarding) problems will involve the intermingling of content and data.
Over the past ten months of working on digital content containers, I find myself keeping in mind — from a design perspective — three overlapping precepts:
There are already any number of startups working to tame unfiltered data streams.2 The easiest way to think about this is to consider the current Twitter timeline view — if you follow even a reasonably small number of people, it’s nearly impossible to regularly consume the entire stream. The net result is obvious: information overload. We are left with a constant sense of maybe having missed something. Hence, one of the primary roles for an iPad application like Flipboard becomes to evoke a feeling of having made tame, the unfiltered. In concrete terms: we must smartly curate raw streams. And raw streams of data are starting to grow wider and deeper just beneath the surface of almost all digital reading experiences.
Tom Armitage wrote a great post while he was working at BERG in London about the “quiet confidence” of the Kindle compared to the iPad.3
Attention-seeking is something we often do when we’re uncomfortable, though – when we need to remind the world we’re still there. And the strongest feeling I get from my recently-acquired Kindle is that it’s comfortable in the world.
If this device is to replace, for many people, a book, it needs to manifest some of those qualities: safe, nonthreatening, no more distracting than a few hundred of pages of text intend to be. It needs a quiet confidence to make you trust it more.
I think the same concept of “quiet confidence” can be applied to data. Namely — in designing user experiences we need to produce data that doesn’t draw attention to itself explicitly as data.
These first two precepts are wrapped in the third — to corral data. Which is to say, the results of taming unfiltered streams and quiet data shouldn’t detract with the content experience.
As an example, Kindle public highlights straddle the edge of quiet — they’re there but can be turned off. And they’re also corralled — unlike hyperlinks leading away from the text, they don’t really lead you anywhere; they’re just a “Hey! Lotsa folks find this interesting.” sorta reminder.
The obvious followup question to all of this is: what do these data precepts have to do with digital books? Well, as it turns out, our reading applications are growing more data sophisticated with each release. They are collecting more information about what we do inside of a book. How long we read. What we read. Put simply: large, passive sets of metrics around our reading activities are being produced.
Peter Collingridge gave a wonderful talk4 at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in early 2010 about how his company collects and uses metrics around reading experience:
From the moment the very first printed book was sold, there has always been a relationship between publishers, readers, and marketing activity. It’s just been invisible. Short of breaking into people’s houses there is very little a publisher knows about a book after it is sold.
Now they (publishers, digital reading devices) know significantly more.
One result of the collection or sharing of reading metrics (both passive and active data) is the development of communities. Amazon's Kindle site is evidence that Amazon is clearly moving in this direction. Readmill is another startup looking to capture and surface the same sorts of community reading data.5 There are many others, of course.
Designers working on the future form of the book need to be aware of these emerging datasets. It’s only through an awareness that we can surface them without harming the reading experience. And data, in my opinion, “harms” the reading experience whenever it pulls the reader away from the text, or forces them to concentrate harder than they would with a physical book.
But, still, with all of this in mind, it's critical not to forget we’re working at the tip of the edge of a field with a tremendously rich past. Working on these startup-like problems can lead to lack of perspective. And lack of perspective makes us forget about the evocative experiences the physicality of printed books brought to reading. Matt Might has a wonderful illustration of what it means to get a Ph.D.6
Working in a startup context is pretty similar to working on a Ph.D. Startups are startups because they're pushing on the edge of some field. And if you're working with digital books, by default you're doing startup work. We have to make sure we don’t get stuck in that “knowledge nipple” in Matt's illustration — we need tools to zoom back out and remember the greater whole.
And so — the story. The myth. A framing, imagined, yes, but still a framing. There are many myths around books, but this is mine. And for me, this sort of exercise becomes a tool for grounding; stepping back; and if not seeing, hopefully feeling the whole.
In the opening quote — "... the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there." — Marco Polo was responding to Khan's question of “Why do you travel?” Khan criticized Polo of failing to bring back riches, just stories. And Polo's response is about perspective. Perspective was riches enough for him. As it turns out, Polo was never traveling anyway — his stories, too, were imagined.
Really, in presenting this, I’m asking you to consider your myth around the book. What emotion does the book of the past evoke for you? What does it mean for you as a designer? Is there a way to carry some of that feeling forward into the work we're doing today? There's a plethora of wonderful things digital brings to books, but they shouldn't come at the expense of the confident experiences already embedded within the idea of books.
Thousands of years ago and thousands of miles outside of the port village of Shanghai, in the strange hot cold deserts of the Gobi — the endless sea — deep in the heart of Mongolia, it was discovered.
At first, nobody knew what it was. It was too large to be immediately understood. The precise dimensions, while at the time unknown, ended up measuring roughly five kilometers long (north-south) by two kilometers wide (east-west), with a depth into the sands of nearly half a kilometer. The speculation is that it had been buried much, much deeper but with time the sand had shifted and the world had, slowly, lifted the object up from the desert floor.
Nobody knows who, exactly, was the first person to stumble upon a piece of it. But each village has their own theories and their own mythologies have evolved around the discovery. For some it was a child, others an old woman. There are tales of wanderers with visions and conquerors with nightmares.
Regardless, who found it or how it was found is of no concern. There is only now, the result of the finding, and how we arrived here into which we need to look.
From the point of first discovery to understanding the enormity of the object took nearly two hundred years.
Word spread slowly through sub-mythologies about this object — coarse and dark, sometimes poking through the sands of the valleys of the desert. Unnaturally straight, level. Over time, it became the focus of countless speculations.
For many generations it simply loomed in the contradictions of evolving mythology — a thing, a nothing, an everything. Something worth investigating or ignoring. Dismissed, considered.
Still, slowly the people found the edges. Mapping technology improved and information was shared. Lines triangulated. Expeditions sent to measure. To look for other instances. It was large enough to confuse generations but not large enough to be entirely impenetrable.
Once a general sense of the size was achieved, primitive technologies — but technologies none the less — were invented to move sand and earth more efficiently for the purpose of excavation. Thousands worked in concert over generations to displace what was covering this thing.
Finally, the earth alongside and above the thing was moved. The totality of the size of the object could be fully understood. From the crest of the Alashan Plateau on the outer edges of the Gobi, it was visible — stark, the contrast of its deep brown surface beautiful against the golden and light brown sands. Something demanding absolute consideration.
It was tremendous in volume, and looked to be covered entirely in a seamless layer of animal skin. The scientists of the time worked out that there was a hinge along the western long edge. And that maybe, just maybe if they could work out a system by which to apply force, the top layer could be moved about that hinge.
Again — calculations. A generation. It had now been hundreds of years since the first discovery of this thing. Its existence had embedded itself into the very fabric of the desert societies living near and around it. Stories of the object had spread as travelers moved along the silk road. Traders described the rough surface, it’s impossibility of form to family back home. You could find it in the ghost stories of children. In the bedtime chatter between parents. In the whimsical remembrances of the elderly. Songs were sung about it, to it and for it.
The great push to move about the hinge began. Consider the mere size of the object! How could this ever be moved?, many said. But still, the scientists understood the simple mechanics of a simple machine to multiply force. They understood leverage and pulley systems. Certainly, they thought, through mechanical advantage this could be done.
The calculation was that it would take 20,000 men of peak physical strength7 to move the top layer. It would take them a coordinated effort over a period of years. But these villages, these societies were now accustomed to these efforts, these sacrifices. They remembered the years of mapping. The expeditions to understand the breath of the thing. The generations of digging and displacement. Their cities were surrounded by the walls of excavated sand and earth that had once encased the object.
They had heard from their parents, and parent’s parents. From great gandparents and beggars of the desert. From mystics and scientists alike. From all of these people they had heard of the object. It had been a part of their lives, always present, always demanding attention, evoking questions. Providing no answers. Nourishing only a mythology of speculation. Else, nothing. And so this had become a society comforted by and habituated into sacrifice. With this in mind, the training began.
Boys were taken from families and sent to camps. These desert nations were building armies of pushers and pullers. A massive human can opener. At these camps, technologies of leverage were iterated on, tested. Systems by which to announce the PUSH and PULL across kilometers and kilometers of desert were devised. Everything had to move in perfect synchronicity.
Finally, they were ready.
Thousands of camps were setup around the object. Food supply chains established. Endless streams of water diverted to fuel the efforts. It was determined that the pushing and pulling would take weeks, if not months, to get the lid of the object to a state of total verticality. Because of the volatility of the desert — the hot and cold, the night frost, the unbearable afternoon heat — the movements would take place only at dusk and dawn, timed precisely to intervals of the moon rising or setting, during the hour in which the sky cycles into or out of nothingness.
Thousands of ropes were attached to the outer lip of the top of the object, ropes kilometers and kilometers in length. Each the diameter of a man’s thigh. They were draped across the burning animals skins, now beginning to fade from a dark to light brown as they had been exposed to the harsh desert sun for nearly a hundred years. Skins that screamed and screeched to the undulating temperatures of the Gobi.
Ten thousand men lined up on one side of the object. Two kilometers away, another ten thousand other men lined up with ropes. Wedges ground out from the bones of massive animals, now extinct — had been made extinct in the process of tool production — were in hand. Scholars draped in saffron robes waited anxiously, notepads held closely. Everyone was ready.
The signals were sent — combinations of fugue-like iterations of song, with specially understood points of phase overlap on which the pushing and pulling would happen. Under the first full-moon of the 6th month of this year — the year of the opening — beneath billions of bits of cosmic information, the song rippled out across the deep blue of the night that is so characteristic of an open, endless desert.
The men on the side of the hinge pulled, the men on the side of the flap, pushed. Wedges were inserted, a creaking that was said to be heard as far as the plateaus of Tibet was released from the object. A painful groan.
That first night they managed to move the top of the object almost a meter into the air before men were passing out, hands bleeding. They rested for a day and then again, the songs rippled out. Children remember those nights — the haunting music coming from far off in the desert. For months they moved the object centimeter by centimeter higher. A few times they lost their grip, men were crushed under the weight. Limbs were severed as the song would sometimes fall off rhythm and the efforts become uncoordinated. But they had trained precisely for this pain. For this exertion. For the sacrifice of opening this thing that had haunted them for generations.
After months the top of the object reached peak verticality and with one last heave, one last ho, the hinge let out of massive sigh — this time, of total relief — as the lid, the cover, if you can imagine, this vertical tower two kilometers high and five kilometers long, teetered for a moment as the first morning light exploded from the east, casting a shadow hundreds of kilometers long, as this object then came crashing down the other side of the desert.
Nobody had anticipated the force with which that object would attack the desert floor. Millions of pounds of animal skin, dried and smoothed smashed the sands with such impact, that all of the men on the side of the hinge who didn’t make it into shelter were killed. The sand ripped through the air like a trillion needles — evaporating nearly everything in its path.
Still — it was open. And this wasn't the first sacrifice to have been made.
Once opened, once the dust had settled, as it were — the scholars poured in en mass. Revealed beneath that top skin were perfectly smooth sheets of pulp with huge, thick marks of deep, black ink. The marks were multitudinous — billions upon billions of them. It wasn’t until months later, when someone looked upon the object from the Altai Mountains, that they realized just what had been unearthed — a fractal of information. The billions of tiny marks on each page, when viewed from afar, formed larger, individual marks. Stories embedded within stories. Each layer of pulp a page in a greater story, and each character on each page composed of a thousand sub-stories.
It took hundreds more years to get through the first few layers. Despite the best attempts at protecting the object, there were countless problems. Theft was rampant — large swarths of pulp were cut off in the dead of the night. Some folks revered the object, other loathed it. There were any number of attempts to destroy the entire thing with fire.
It wasn’t long before the nearby governments realized the pulp was useful for a number of things and so they began to harvest it. The excess of pages, once categorized and filed away to the best of the ability of the scholars were sliced into millions of pieces.
The stories became currencies, peopled used it for barter, you could buy a basket of rice for a pound of story. The more black ink the more valuable. At first it was trade through nostalgia — the value of simply owning a piece of the core of now nearly a thousand years of their own culture. The ethereality of their myth made tangible. Culture folding into culture. As uses for it grew, so did the value.
Clothes were fashioned from the stories. They wore the promise of the myths of their great-grandparents to the market, the temples. Ground in water and boiled, the stories made a fine, earthy stew. Little children slept between sheets of the stories. Above and below a piece of a piece of a story. Their new dreams mixed with the old dreams, sleeping between both the myth of the object — something about which now dozens of generations had dreamt — and atop the myths contained within the object, still unknown, still under scrutiny.
New traditions sprung up. New romanticisms. When babies were born they were given a piece of the story. As the children grew older they would carry the piece with them, and upon making a new friend, a new lover, an enemy they would compare pieces, see if they were adjacent. An infinitesimally small chance of rebuilding an impossible puzzle.
Time passed. Large pieces of the object were lost in wars. It took hundreds more years to understand the languages. The symbols in artists’ renditions of the larger pages — the macro story — were used to decipher the micro languages. Slowly the mythologies of the stories were united with the actual stories themselves.
They were reproduced. Commoditized. Through the age of mechanical reproduction all nostalgic quality of the stories was lost. The myths of the myths were produced alongside the actual myths. People forgot which were the originals, which were invented.
They became further atomized. The objects were called books. The age of mechanical reproduction gave way to the age of photographic reproduction and the books were reproduced once more. Made small, nearly invisible. Such so that almost all of them would fit atop a reasonably sized desk.
They were getting closer to nothing.
At first glance these microscopic books photographed and atop a table were more similar than ever to their idea of that object embedded in the desert so long ago. But the atomization process, while making them untouchable — the physicality of the content directly inaccessible to human senses — had compressed them into a single dimensional point in the eyes of our tools.
In this the book is no longer a package
— it’s information service.
Said of course in 1967, by, of course, Marshall McLuhan.8
What happened in the forty years following has been a mere formalization of this atomization. An attempt to agree upon and codify that single point into which all books — and content — have been compressed.
It seems as if we are now, once again, on the edge of something buried in a desert. There is the myth of what that object might be. There is a dissemination within our culture through devices and distribution channels of varying iterations on that myth. We see it everyday, all around us. And are presently building tools to excavate that object, but we’ve yet to find the right ones.
While similar in idea to that imagined desert book, the difference now is that the object or objects we’re pulling out are no longer just the stories themselves — they’re also our interactions with the stories. Each time we turn the page, a machine knows. Records. Triangulates.
New mappings are being constructed — for an object of which we don’t yet know the size. Of which doesn’t have a determinate size.
For these mappings, as designers and engineers, we’re building a container. We’re looking for a new form. And it’s frustrating and scary at times, but I think for everyone working in this space, there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be here now, at this particular moment in time, working on this problem. Searching out the future book.