Wednesday 18 February 2015

Books, Technology and Non-Linear Narrative

With the changes that digital technology I have been interesting in how existing books could or have been given an interesting new electronic life. Literary works such as Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (a collection of hundreds of random snippets of ideas and thoughts) and ItaloCalvino’s Invisible Cities (a series of described cities, linked round a central narrative) may be even better suited to the digital realm - loosening the tether of linearity that holds them down in their printed editions.


A project which highlights the potential of the iPad as a technology is a book called The Waste Land, based on T. S. Eliot’s poem and designed by Touch Press for Faber and Faber.  The app simply and elegantly presents the full text of Eliot’s poem on the dazzling white LED screen.  Clicking on the text of the poem the reader can access an abundance of additional content; readings of the poems; annotations; Eliot’s original manuscript; a filmed performance of the text, and; photographs that relate to the poem.  Although the poem follows its original linear form, these additional materials add additional layers, creating a different kind of depth to the work.

Still from the Waste Land App

Although it could be argued that Eliot’s poem was created to stand on its own, these supporting materials provide multiple access points into the text, giving a richer understanding of the context in which the poem was written and clues as to how it might sound spoken aloud.  The abundance of materials also lends The Waste Land a sense of authority, an authority that the poem may no longer have to contemporary readers, over 40 years after the author’s death.

In recent years a buzz word has appeared that describes stories that are told across a range of media.  This word is transmedia and it defines a single story that may begin in one media form (such as a book) and continue through other media forms (such as blog posts, TV adverts, audio CDs).  Often transmedia has been used to create tie-ins and advertise products, however The Waste Land is a good example of how the technique may be used neatly within a single product to build on the original story and engage the reader.

In order to understand why these types interactive and immersive books are becoming popular, it is useful to understand the changes that have been happening in the way we read books and interact within the wider world.

In his essay If it Isn’t on the Internet it Doesn’t Exist, Mark Perlman remarks on a change he noticed in the way his students read books and scholarly documents, pointing out a tendency of students to skim the material instead of immersing themselves in it.  This trend was also highlighted by Sven Birkerts ten years before suggesting that advancements in digital technology were changing the way his students perceived the world. Birkerts marked out these perceived changes in terms of gains and losses:

“The gains for electronic postmodernity could be said to include for individuals, (a) an increased awareness of the “big picture”, a global perspective that admits the extraordinary complexity of interrelations; (b) an expanded neural capacity, an ability to accommodate a broad range of stimuli simultaneously; (c) relativistic comprehension of situations that promotes the erosion of the old biases and often expresses itself as tolerance; and (d) a matter of fact and unencumbered sort of readiness, a willingness to try new situations and arrangements.

In the loss column, meanwhile, are (a) a fragmented sense of time and a loss of the so-called durational experience, that depth phenomena we associate with reverie; (b) a reduced attention span and a general impatience with sustained enquiry; (c) a shattered faith in institutions and in explanatory narratives that formerly gave shape to subjective experience; (d) a divorce from the past, from a vital sense of history as a cumulative or organic process, (e) an estrangement from geographic place and community, and (f) an absence of any strong vision of personal or collective future.”

Birkets’ insight provides us with a rich and fascinating snapshot of the reader in the digital age, suggesting that younger generations may process information and experience in a very different way to their elders.  Noting his speculations about readers being aware of the “Bigger Picture”, accommodating a broader range of stimuli, having a fragmented sense of time and a reduced attention span, it is not difficult to see how the current incarnation The Waste Land may both be better suited to the sensibility of the contemporary reader, allowing them to engage with the content in a more holistic way.


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