Lessons from the Typewriter

As technology fragments books, we must avoid fragmenting culture

May 23, 2012


For the first time in decades, we are living through a moment in which the book is being reenvisioned and reenlivened, creating richer cultural expressions that paradoxically may be less universally accessible than before.

The 21st-century author can choose from an array of writing tools. Computers allow us to create stories much like those in our past, comprised primarily of text that unifies a narrative arc. But unlike the past, we will write these complex and intricate stories in a world far more complex than the one we left a few short decades ago, in which typewriters struck uniform black letters on white sheets of paper.

The changing book

When you examine old books, particularly those from the late 19th century, you notice that fonts varied widely; typography and illustrative graphics were playfully used; chapters and paragraphs were set off with enlarged markers that excited the eye. Images too captured the art of expression. In other words, book designers crafted unique products on behalf of small publishing houses that believed artful presentation must reinforce each author’s achievement.

During the rapid growth in publishing after World War II, the average trade book became significantly standardized: A handful of preset dimensions determined page size, typeface variation dwindled, and the practice of laying out a book became more constrained.

The past 25 years of internet expansion has gradually taught us how to build easy-to-use tools for authoring documents. Design is reemerging as a central element. Screens invite us to touch, poke, and move what we are reading, watching, and hearing, and provide us a world far more captivating than the most glorious manuscripts of the European Middle Ages.

Newly revised standards for the web—HTML5 and CSS3—though immature and not yet fully defined, are encouraging young designers to think about ways to construct books, magazines, and stories for tablets and mobile screens. Mixed-media publishing platforms such as Scalar, from the University of Southern California’s Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, enable scholars and other writers to create web-based productions that combine sound, video, and text that stretch our definition of “book.” New companies like Aerbook and Vook are creating authoring platforms that assume rich media is part of the narrative, and can output apps as easily as ebooks.

Today’s story might be a game that is “read” with others through network consoles connected across the world. It might be an assembled set of links to websites that otherwise would have no fraternity with one another. Or it might be an app that runs only on a specific tablet or phone. It could also be a mobile phone–based, sound-driven, high-stakes drama set in a twilight graveyard filled with zombies, monsters, and demons.

Platform access

Many writers will invest in learning to use one set of platform tools—Apple, Amazon, or Android authoring software, for example—then build the most compelling stories they can for iPad, Kindle, or Android. Alternative versions may perhaps appear in other environments, but they will be lesser products, debased from the original by automated conversion tools.

Publishers and libraries have no compelling reason to provide gateways to Amazon, Apple, and other content delivery platforms, especially when new tools are emerging all around us to challenge proprietary culture. Software developers are extending open-source blogging platforms to support new types of collaborative authoring.

As our stories now expand across more senses—with touch, sound, and moving image—they conversely reach a narrower marketplace that is increasingly proprietary and lacking in universality, something the simple typewriter automatically gave us once it became standardized at the beginning of the 20th century.

The evolution continues

We’re approaching a widespread disconnect in which we will not be able to read, experience, and share the same stories. When an ebook authored for one platform is not available on others, our society will no longer be able to share a cultural narrative.

Libraries have been part of the social compact for more than 100 years, enabling the sharing of scarce goods such as books on behalf of the larger community, providing refuge from the unequal burden that wealth and poverty bear upon us. If access to books becomes more and more compartmentalized into proprietary stores, libraries will discover that the works they can procure for their communities will be reduced to remnants of a previously ubiquitous culture, now abandoned to boutique collectors, much like the LP.

This transition may be inevitable, and it suggests libraries will do well to help their users become empowered creators of storytelling in their own right—using common and accessible tools that promote openness. Libraries will have to transform into places that help citizens become full-fledged creative members of their communities, both producing and archiving personal stories. They can help communities digitize their history, shape their culture, and publish this wealth of information on the web for all to see.

With the power of story, libraries can enable communities to preserve their heritage. Let’s build the new generation of typewriters that will help these stories get written.

PETER BRANTLEY is director of the BookServer Project at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library offering free universal access to books, movies, and music.



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