Monday 13 April 2015

GUEST POST: The Hand, The Eye, & The Machine - Abigail Thomas


Haptic Reading; Objectifying Words

The loss, or importance of the haptic in reading has been mentioned a great deal in the media and scholarly articles over the past few years while covering the rise of the e-book and ereading. Haptics is simply any form of interaction involving touch, and if we look at it in that way, we have always had a hand-object-eye interaction with the written word, even now with e-readers and tablets, our hands are still key to interacting with the world of the word. And so it was even when, after the industrial revolution and the dawn of a new age, inventors and thinkers started to dream up fantastic devices to propel us into an era of reading through machines.

In Florida, Admiral Bradley Fiske developed the Fiske Machine in 1926. His machine, which was put into limited production, was a hand held device that you put up to your eye in order to read. The reading material “is produced directly from typewritten manuscript by photography and is so microscopic as to be undecipherable with the naked eye”, and loaded into a rack that runs the miniature pamphlet past a magnifying lens. The operators hand would have to be used to load the rack, just as we turn pages of a book, but this mechanisation of reading embodies a drive, at this time in history, towards reading in new ways, and an objectification of written word.

Image: Fiske Machine (circa 1926)

Having recently been to the Ian Hamilton Finlay exhibition at Kettles Yard, Cambridge, I am aware of this objectification being taken up as an artform alongside the concrete poetry of the 1950's and 60's; in Haptic Poetry. And although Finlay was certainly not the first or last to use this form (Kurt Schwitters, Bob Cobbing...) his work has a presence that runs beyond sculpture into poetic objects that can be touched, even sometimes held, instigating a relational connection between the object and our own bodies.

Image: Peras/Pears, by Ian Hamilton Finlay & Richard Grasby (1981) 
(Beauty and Revolution: The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Kettles Yard, 2015)

A very current trend that pairs the body, or more specifically, the hand with reading is the smart watch. An extension of the smart phone, smart watches are worn on the body, combining smart phone technology with that used to gather data in sport and fitness gadgets. Not only can you read on it, interacting with the screen using your fingers, it can, in turn, read you.

Sony FES e-paper smart watch

Kinetics; Movement in Reading
Bob Brown, an American avant-garde writer and poet, in 1930 wrote a call for books to escape their binding, text to leave the page behind and for readers to “see words machine-wise”. He wanted reading and writing to catch up with the rest of the fast paced, future-forward thinking age he lived in and so proposed his reading machine. What he was envisaging was a futuristic form of information retrieval; a way of reading that was more optical, kinetic, and more akin to a projection of text as light beaming onto the eye, rather than the solid printed word that readers eyes had to rove slowly across a paper page to read. An electronic interpretation of his machine is available on where you can control the speed and direction of the text's scrolling movement. 

Image: Bob Brown’s Reading Machine (1930s)
(Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine, Roving Eye Press, 1931)

In 'The Text That Reads Itself', an article by Mark Sanderson in the book 'The Book is Alive!', 2013, Sanderson explores word animations, cyber poetry, and kinetic typography. In this form of reading, we the reader are led through an interactive cyber space, often pushing buttons or clicking a mouse to generate the next sequence of texts and images on the screen. Even here on the ethereal electronic page we interact with our hands to allow our eyes to follow.

Image: still from 'Story Problem', Terri Ford & Erik Loyer, 2001

We may have replaced card, paper and ink for plastic, glass and light as containers of, or platforms for the written word, but the hand and eye are still integral to the reading of that text as they ever were.


Books The Readies, Bob Brown, Roving Eye Press, 1930
Beauty and Revolution: The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Kettles Yard, 2015
'The Book is Alive!', ed. Emmanuelle Waeckerle & Richard Sawdon Smith, RGAP, 2013


Bob Brown’s Reading Machine & the Imagined Escape from the Page, Thomas, Abigail, Post-Digital Publishing Archive, 2012
Reading Machine Invented to Abolish Bulky Volumes, The Miami News, March 30, 1926 

1 comment:

  1. Where do we really draw the starting line when it comes to smartwatches? Like smartphones, there have been hints of a mobile device that can do so much more even before Apple put out the very first iPhone. To mark the starting point, we'll have to define what a smartwatch is. We'll try to keep it simple. It's a wearable device that hooks up with a smartphone for added functionality. Alternatively, it can connect to the Internet directly but still exhibit smartphone-like behavior. This rules out many older devices in the early 2000s. And, of course, it needs to look like a watch, which excludes smart fitness bands.