Or more subtly: reading online isn’t the same as reading on paper, yet we continue to treat the web as a distribution tool rather than as a medium with its own material constraints, both suited and unsuited to certain kinds of content. I’ve been thinking about this recently after I started reading a lot more scholarly writing online. Let me give a couple of examples.
Example one. Noah Wardrip-Fruin has written a new book called Expressive Processing, a revision of his dissertation work at Brown. The book will be published by MIT Press next year, and as an academic press publication it requires peer review. Noah realized that he’s enjoyed considerable intellectual benefit from comments on Grand Text Auto, a blog he co-authors. And so, since January he has been bravely posting the text of the book on that site, where it is being subjected to an experimental online peer review.
The peer review part of the project seems to be going splendidly. But here’s a problem, at least for me: I’m having considerable trouble reading the book online. A book, unlike a blog, is a lengthy, sustained argument with examples and supporting materials. A book is textual, of course, and it can thus be serialized easily into a set of blog posts. But that doesn’t make the blog posts legible as a book. For my part, I am finding it hard to follow the argument all the way through, despite the book’s excellent use of specific examples per-chapter and Noah’s top-notch writing. This isn’t Noah’s fault; he’s written what seems like a terrific book. But a terrific book for print, not for the web. I’m not sure I’ll be able to read it properly until I get the thing in my hands.
Example two. Online open-access peer reviewed journals are enjoying considerable growth and acceptance as a venue for academic publishing. Driven partly by young scholars and those working in digital media research itself, the argument for open-access online journals is compelling: these are articles people of all walks of life can actually find and read, while traditional journals fester, dead, in the mausolea of academe — if those crypts can even afford to purchase them from their greedy publishers. Nick Montfort recently called the latter form of productivity “anti-publication,” since it does precisely the opposite of making work public.
Over the last couple days I’ve been reading the latest issue of the online open-access journal Eludamos, a “journal for computer game culture.” The articles are of immediate interest to me, including one on Simulation versus Abstraction and Transformation in Sports Videogames Design by Fares Kayali and Peter Purgathofer. But once again, I’m finding it difficult to read a sustained argument in web form. A typical (print) journal article is around 8,000 words, and the Kayali & Purgathofer piece weighs in right around that figure. It’s enough material with enough density of ideas that it takes time to read, at least to read well. Even ignoring the horrific typography of Eludamos, just parsing these ideas on the screen ties my neurons in knots. But when I read similar work on the airplane, the train, or the couch I don’t have that sensation.
What’s going on in these two cases? Here’s one idea: in their drive to move textual matter online, creators of online books and journals have not thought enough about the materiality of specific print media forms. This includes both the physicality of the artifacts themselves (I violently dogear and mark up my print matter) and the contexts in which people read them (I need to concentrate and avoid distraction when reading scholarship). These factors extend beyond scholarship too: the same could be said of newspapers and magazines, which arguably read much more casually and serendipitously in print form than they do in online form.
I’ve often considered Bolter and Grusin’s term “remediation” to be a derogatory one. Borrowing and refashioning the conventions of one medium in another opens the risk ignoring what unremediated features are lost. The web has still not done much more than move text (or images, or video) into a new distribution channel. Digitizing and uploading analog material is easy and has immediate, significant impact: web, iPod, YouTube. We’ve prized simple solutions because they are cheap and easy, but they are also insufficient. In the case of books and journal articles, to offer a PDF or print version of the online matter is to equivocate. And the fashionable alternative, a metaverse-like 3D web of the sort to which Second Life points, strikes me as a dismal sidestepping of the question.
Instead, perhaps we should focus on a different question: what would it look like if we translate our interactions with particular kinds of print media online, rather than just moving the characters that comprise them from ink to pixels? Ereaders like Sony’s and Amazon’s are one possible solution, not without their own issues, but are there others?