by Mark Rooker
part two

The age of the book is almost gone.

George Steiner

Disembodied SOULS 

Today, we are seeing the next stage in the evolution of the word and society--the leap from the printed word to a digital form. The translation of the printed word into bits of data promises and threatens to create another fundamental change in the shape of human knowledge, because once a book has shed its physical BODY through its translation into bits of data, it can be infinitely copied at no cost and no loss of quality, distributed instantly almost anywhere, transformed/ translated at will, and combined or recombined into forms and ideas difficult to achieve in print. In short, these bits free the MIND of books from the restrictions inherent in having physical BODIES, and are therefore widely seen as the next logical step in the evolution of the word.

Because of this phenomenon, many people are already proclaiming the death of the printed word, though the rumors of print's demise seem greatly exaggerated. Book sales at the major chains are still recording rapid growth and high profits. However, the codex does seem destined for a sort of forced semi-retirement. The new media are just too powerful to be ignored. Indeed, there are already digital replacements for many types of documents that were traditionally the exclusive domain of print. There are encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, magazines, catalogues, and junk mail available by the gigabyte in digital form. Many of these digital replacements are even better than their printed equivalents, as through their ability to flexibly process information, and to be updated instantly through electronic communications, the new media are very well suited to replace printed forms of data. Literature, however, seems to be a different matter.

The new media, with their freedom from the physical limitations of the printed text, hold promise of vast libraries full of digital texts. Indeed, for decades futurist writers have been creating visions in which anything one wants to read is only as far as the nearest computer. They predict electronic libraries where fiction, biographies, non-fiction, histories, references, news, children's entertainment, and any other type of audio, visual, or textual work humankind has ever produced is instantly available. However, that promised library has yet to grow much more than the reference, children's entertainment, and newspaper/ magazine sections, judging from what is available on the World Wide Web and on CD. One has to wonder where all the literature is.

We are coming to the end of the culture of the book. Books are still produced and read in prodigious numbers, and they will continue to be as far into the future as one can imagine. However, they do not command the center of the cultural stage. Modern culture is taking shapes that are more various and more complicated than the book centered culture it is succeeding.

Television, computer database, Xerox, word processor, tape, and VCR, are not symbiotic with literature and its values in the way that print was, and new ways of acquiring, storing, and transmitting information are signaling the end of a conception of writing and reading oriented to the printed book and institutionalized as literature.

The printed book, therefore, seems destined to move to the margin of our literate culture…This shift from print to the computer does not mean the end of literacy. What will be lost is not literacy itself, but the literacy of print, for digital technology offers us a new kind of book and new ways to write and read.

Jay David Bolter
Bolter, 28

That is not to say that there aren't new forms of digital literature being written. A few hypertextual stories with multiple endings, coffee table books, and adventure games have been written to try to advance "literature" into the new media, but what about all of the books that were written for print? Except for a few important efforts such as The Gutenberg Project, there doesn't seem to be many people bringing printed books into the digital media.

One has to wonder why. One would think that there would be a great interest and potential profit in bringing existing printed literature into the new media, but few seem to be doing it. Granted, there are some obvious technological/physiological limitations to reading text from a computer monitor that potentially keep readers and publishers from enthusiastically embracing the new media as a vehicle for literature. However, there must be more dimensions to the issue than just the hardware involved. There are many differences between the two technologies and how they produce, store, and distribute the written word and these differences have the potential to make it difficult to bring literature specifically written for a printed media into a digital one.

I do not think that technologies are the only, or even the main, issue at the center of the debate. The kind of textual destabilization and experimentation apparently made possible by the advent of new electronic technologies-hypertext, electronic bulletin boards, the Internet, and so forth-are less a consequence of these new media per se than of the process of determining the appropriate and most desirable forms of their institutionalization. Indeed, I might speculate that the kind of experimentation that we are currently witnessing in electronic publication is a symptom of an underregulated or rather, relative to print, unregulated communications medium that has evolved alongside of or beyond the reach of current regulatory frameworks rather than a consequence of the technological possibilities opened up by digitalization itself.

Geoffrey Nunberg Nunberg, 28
But if you are not going to read books any more, or are going to read them in different ways, you must decide what happens when you do read them. You must know this if you are going to recreate that ineffable something in another medium.

Richard Lanham Lanham, 8
I believe it is important to find out what obstacles stand in the way of the digitization of printed literatures and overcome them through the graphic design process as much as possible. After all, what happens to all the books written for print if print really is as dead as the digital gurus say and we, as the facilitators of the written word's reproduction do nothing to bring printed literature into the new media? To do this, we need to evaluate and translate the BODY, MIND and SOUL of printed books within the context of digital media, and explore their relationship to the problem of creating digital reincarnations of printed literature.

The BODY of the Digital Book

Though the digital word lacks a physical BODY, it does have parts that serve many of the same functions as the BODY of the printed word. This digital BODY includes all of the hardware and software used to encode, display and communicate the digital book's content similar to how the BODY of the printed book serves to protect, ornament and communicate its content.

This digital BODY includes such things as the cpu and display, storage media, operating system, program architecture, interface, and navigational tools, typeface, and coding for the words themselves.

Each of these parts act as variables that infleunce the design and character of the book as a whole, just as the variables of materials, printing, and production processes influence the BODY of printed books.

In addition, the BODY of the digital word is influenced by the nature of computer code. This code has two parts: a first set of codes that record the thought, and a second set of codes that tell the first set what to do. For example, the computer code for the word "book" includes algorithms that represent the letters B-O-O-K, and others that tell the computer the typeface, size, leading, kerning etc. and the order in which those letters are to be displayed. Negroponte,18

This gives digital books a certain freedom from the fixity of the physical book. Once the word is set in print it is immutable. Indeed, many of our traditions of authorship, scholarship, commerce, law, and authority are based on the fact that setting a word in type is tantamount to setting it in stone. The digital word, however, is by nature plastic-- fluid-- transmutable. Instead of ink permanently and expensively set on paper, the digital word is constructed of simple electromagnetic binary impulses.

From this dual nature of digital coding, digital books gain great potential for variety in how the word is presented. According to Negroponte, since one set of codes tells the other how to behave, the potential exists for those codes to be interpreted in many different ways. From the same set of codes, the reader of the near future may have the option to have the book displayed as text, vocalized like today's recorded books, performed like a television program on a flat screen, or projected as a 3-D holographic performance. Negroponte, 71-74

More practically, with translation from printed media into digital, books gain audio, visual, and textual dimensions not easily achievable in print, such as recorded sound, animation, video, full color display, vocalization, and hypertexting. This gives book designers in the new media an extremely broad pallette with which to express their ideas, and the potential for revolutionary new forms of expression.

It also allows unlimited inexpensive reproduction and distribution. Like a printed book, most of the production cost of an electronic book is in producing the first book. However, the cost of the second book is vastly different between the two media. Since the digital book is made up of bits of electronic code that have no physical componnent, there is little cost involved in copying them. Once that first digital book is achieved, ten or ten billion copies can be produced for nearly the same cost. The only expense in duplication is in the electricity used to run the computer, or if it is a CD, in the materials needed to store the code and package it for sale. Furthermore, in the case of books distributed on the World Wide Web, there is little cost involved in storing and distributing the book. Compared to print, where literally tons of books need to be stored, shipped, stored again, sold wholesale, shipped again, stored again, displayed, and finally sold retail, the cost and labor involved in distributing a digital book is minute.

Another benefit it allows, is that each copy of a digital book can be mathematically identical or tailored to the end user. The fluidity and immediacy of digital coding give the author and reader a much greater ability to alter the BODY of the digital book after production. In other words, digital translaions of print books make it easier for the user to revise, add to, delete from, clarify, edit, and re-arrange the BODY'S parts. In print, reader customization means having to copy, dissect or otherwise deface the book. In digital form however, books can easily be altered by reader or author to suit, because some form of the code can be made accessible to each.

Translation into digital media also allows the potential for the increased immediacy and availability of texts. Free of the expense and physicality of paper and ink, and from the need for the transportation, distribution, and storage of physical BODIES, the digital word could be available at any time to anyone with the capability of receiving, decoding and displaying it.

The MIND of the Digital Book

The MIND of the digital book is essentially the same as that of its printed counterpart. This is because in the translation form printed word to digital it's the medium of communication that changes rather than the message itself. Both media are vehicles for the written word, so the words being communicated don't necessarily need to change in the exchange of one BODY for another. However, the incredibly malleable nature of the BODY of a digital book has the potential to influence the ways in which content is chosen, written, perceived and used within the new media.

For example, in their translation into digital BODIES, printed books gain flexibility in how the work is displayed within a single "book." In terms of the book's MIND, this means that the same book could potentially be read as plain text giving the reader the experience of being a first-person participant in the narrative, or viewed as a holographic performance, making the experience that of a third-person spectator. This has the potential of allowing the reader/viewer to tailor the experience of that work to their own preference, or experience the work in a variety of modes.

Also, with the translation from print into digital, and it's accompanying freedom from the physical BODY, the book's MIND gains several important things. First, they gain freedom from "temporality," which is the slowed pace inherent in print publishing that acts to regulate what is published. Nunberg, 27 When writing a book that may take a year or more to be published at great expense, a writer will probably craft the work differently than if it is to be produced within the week. Writers of immediate works like newspapers, can take more risks with what they write because they risk less. Also, publishers of print books risk great amounts of money with every book they sell. They speculate when they buy a manuscript, and when they set the print run of the work, that they will be able to sell the books they produce. Because of this, publishers are often unwilling to take risks on unknown authors, culturally or poilitcally marginalized authors, obscure or unpopular subjects, etc., because they may not turn a profit. With literature, the freedom from temporality that a digital media like the web affords, means that more books, riskier books, will be able to be published because there is less risk involved in terms of production and distribution. Furthermore, in the new media, anyone with access to the proper computer equipment can be both author and publisher. In the world of print, the capital and contacts needed to publish distribute and sell a book are prohibitive to all but a very few. With digital media, however, the amount of capital needed is (by comparison) extremely small, and the distribution network is in place and accessible by anyone with a modem.

Also, with the translation of the book into code, the author and editor also gain an increased ability to revise, add, delete, clarify, edit, and rearrange the book's MIND. In print, mistakes mean costly reprints or addenda, and new or changing information means printing new editions. The fluidity of digital text allows further refinements to the work even after its release, potentially allowing its creator to perfect it beyond what would be possible in print. Similarly, the code also potentially allows the readers to edit a work to their own taste, amend it, index it, anthologize it, etc., allowing a level of customization and control over the book's MIND that is not easily achieved in a printed book. In addition, the hypertexting ability of digital media, books gain greater potential for texts to be non-linear. Literary devices, such as multiple endings, which are clumbsy in a printed book, could work fluidly in a digital one. Similarly, works with a great number of characters, specialized language glossaries, or scores of footnotes, could also benefit from the indexing and linking capabilities of hypertext. Also, hypertexting would allow rapid and easy switching from topic to topic, text to text, and book to book in a free flow of ideas that would allow the reader to follow obscure paths and make unique connections.

Last, with the electronic telecommunications capabilities that are a part of most multimedia computers today, the MIND of the digital book gains the potential for global interaction and discourse within the context of the work. In other words, reading, which is traditionally a solitary and introverted activity, has the potential to become a social group activity. Through the telecommunications functions of the medium, there is the potential for people separated by distnce and culture to read and discuss the same book together.

While at first there seem to be many fundamental differences between the BODIES and MINDS of printed and digital media, in terms of the medium's ability to act as a vehicle for literature, they would seem to be about equal. The major difference is this: while almost everything you can do in one medium can be done in the other, most are a lot easier to do in digital.

please turn to part three

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