There is no longer room for doubt: the literature of our immediate future will be electronic. Our scientific and technical writing, our journalism, and our stories: all will be written and read on screens.
When Ted Nelson published the first edition of Literary Machines in 1981, the title itself seemed outrageous. Indeed, much of the literary establishment still fears electronic reading and worries that fine writing is somehow tied to the technology of chopped trees and carbon ink. Elsewhere, engineers look to the construction of elaborate simulacra, electronic imitations of paper books complete with leather bindings and imitation pages. These simulations will help readers adapt to the new forms, much as some early printed books tried to appear handwritten. But, as usability expert Jakob Nielsen recently observed, literal simulations of paper are a bad idea because "page turning remains a bad interface."
"It is an insufficient goal to make computerized text as fast as print: we need to improve on the past, not simply match it."
People often ask me about the viability of electronic books. Ten years ago, this was an interesting question; today, the answer is clear. There is no longer a credible argument against electronic books, and the arguments in their favor are clear, compelling, and overwhelming.
Arguments Against Electronic Reading
Although the arguments against electronic reading are no longer credible, old arguments are still in circulation. One oft-cited argument against electronic reading is the Bolter test:
Can I read it in bed? In the bathtub?
Paper books are currently lighter and more portable than computers, and so they're more convenient to carry and to read in bed. Putting us to sleep is not the highest aspiration of literature; advocates of the Bolter test elevate bedtime reading beyond all proportion. It is entirely possible, moreover, to build superb computers for use in bed; handheld, backlit screens (as in the Palm Pilot®) are nicer than books if your companion wants to sleep while you read. We can easily adapt computers to new sizes, shapes, and textures; if readers truly want the smell of leather bindings, leather-bound laptops can be made.
Students of usability have long known that people read more slowly on today's crude displays than on paper. Better screens will help, of course; 300-dpi screens, with laser-printer resolution, are already available. There is evidence, moreover, that people already find their screens good enough; manufacturers have noted, for example, that even demanding users (e.g. radiologists, who use their screens to interpret X-rays ) are now reluctant to spend money to go beyond today's best general-purpose displays. The difference between reading on screen and reading on the page is modest -- too modest to make a real difference to the future of serious writing.
Michael Joyce and Sven Birkerts have each separately observed that electronic books seem more ephemeral than paper: paper never changes, while the electronic page transforms before our eyes and yields to our touch.
This is the nature of the new medium, the new object. Print stays itself; electronic text replaces itself. (Of Two Minds, p.236)
The fixity of print is familiar, but that does not make it desirable. The essence of an electronic book may be as fixed as if it were cast in lead, or it may be as volatile as live performance or dinner conversation: electronic writing adapts to our needs, while print adapts to the needs of mass production. If the screen itself seems ephemeral to unaccustomed eyes, that will change as we grow accustomed to its surface.
A few writers, notably hypertext poet Robert Kendall, have worried that changing formats, changing software, and changing media will make it hard for electronic literature to reach future generations. For books that gain an audience and retain it -- books that always have a following -- this will not be a problem; it's fairly easy to update electronic work, to create new software or copy it to new media.
Work that lies in obscurity for a generation or two, on the other hand, will be harder to revive. But that difficulty will be dwarfed by the challenge they forgotten works will face in getting noticed at all. We remember more about Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt -- performers whose art is forever lost to us -- than we will ever know about a host of scholars and storytellers, their contemporaries, whose work survives in unvisited corners of research libraries. William Blake's poetry and painting were rescued from obscurity long after his death, but Blake inhabited in a compact literary world: readers looking back to his era from a later century had a far better chance of rediscovering Blake than our posterity will have of finding our own work. The challenge for today's writer is to get linked into the web of discourse before their work is lost; once forgotten, it is unlikely that the library catacombs will save us.
Finally, we might once have wondered whether hypertextuality -- the chief advantage of electronic writing -- would actually bring benefits to readers. Some once doubted, for example, that a complex and subtle argument could be compatible with the nonlinearity of hypertext. Kolb's Socrates in the Labyrinth, however, shows that arguments aren't really linear, and that even conventional views of discourse fit as comfortably with hypertext as with linear writing. Some feared that people would find hypertexts confusing, but millions of Web readers have answered that concern definitively. Researchers, preparing elaborate studies of how users got lost in the Web, were greeted with incomprehension: "Lost? What do you mean by 'lost'? I know exactly where I am: the browser says I'm right here."
A handful of critics have launched another argument against electronic books: they cast them as a tool of postmodern ideas, ideas with which the critics disagree. Much of the better hypertext fiction to date, to be sure, has a certain postmodern flavor (although Espen Aarseth argues that some of its postmodernity is modernism in fresh garb). An interest in structure, in fluidity, and in metafiction distinguishes the literary avante-garde of the past twenty years, and it is the avant-garde that is most often drawn to new media. But we now know that hypertext can accommodate elaborately braided plots (Victory Garden), finely-wrought short-short fiction (Lust), memoir (Moments), and a vast range of poetry, as easily as it accommodates the compelling experimentation of Joyce and Jackson.
We're all already reading screens. We write and read on screens, at work and at home. We complain of eyestrain and expense -- just as we once complained about print.
Nothing is less usable than shlepping across town to buy a book, or across the world to find a copy in the library. The quality of screens may not equal the quality of fine print, but we use screens because of everything they can give us that paper cannot
Most excitingly, hypertext adapts to the reader. Hypertexts speak directly to you, and need not be mass-produced at a factory. Hypertext links let reader and writer engage in dialogue, expanding the familiar dialogue of writing in new, subtle, and exciting ways.
Besides, don't have better uses for trees?