“Future reading” by Craig Mod

Craig Mod’s tale of rise and fall of his enchantment over digital books.  A critical view on how current closed ebooks platforms controlled by Amazon and Apple contributes to stagnating digital books development.  Article from aeon magazine.

“From 2009 to 2013, every book I read, I read on a screen. And then I stopped. (…)

By 2009, it was impossible to ignore the Kindle. (…)

The Kindle was all of that and more. Neatly bundled up. I was in love.

(…) Granite, wood, wax, silk, paper, metal type, the Gutenberg press, Manutius’s octavo editions, Penguin paperbacks, desktop publishing software, digital type, on‑demand printing, .epub: the evolutionary path of ‘books’ has been punctuated by technological changes large and small. And so, too, with the Kindle.

(…) Containers matter. They shape stories and the experience of stories. Choose the right binding, cloth, trim size, texture of paper, margins and ink, and you will strengthen the bond between reader and text. Choose badly and the object becomes a wedge between reader and text.

(…) I was critical of Kindle typography and layouts from day one, but I assumed that these errors would be remedied quickly. My book notes felt locked away in Amazon’s ecosystem, but I assumed they would eventually produce better interfaces or export options for more rigorous readers.

(…)  But in the past two years, something unexpected happened: I lost the faith. 

The great irony, of course, is that I’ve never read more digitally in my life. (…) – news articles, blog posts and essays. (…)

But what of digital books? What accounts for my unconscious migration back to print?

 (…) All of the consumption parts of the Kindle experience are pitch-perfect: a boundless catalogue, instant distribution, reasonable prices (perhaps once too reasonable, now less so with recently updated contracts). (…) But after a book has made its way through the plumbing and onto the devices, the once-fresh experience now feels neglected.

(…)  The pile of unread books we have on our bedside tables is often referred to as a graveyard of good intentions. The list of unread books on our Kindles is more of a black hole of fleeting intentions.

But it shouldn’t be a black hole, especially not after nearly a decade. Aside from revamping digital book covers and the library browsing interface, Kindles could remind us of past purchases – books either bought but left unread, or books we read passionately and should reread. And, in doing so, trump the unnetworked isolation of physical books. Thanks to our in-app reading statistics, Kindle knows when we can’t put a book down, when we plunge ourselves into an author’s world far too late into the night, on a weeknight, when the next day is most definitely not a holiday. Kindle knows when we are hypnotised, possessed, gluttonous; knows when we consume an entire feast of words in a single sitting. Knows that others haven’t been so ravenous with a particular story, but we were, and so Kindle can intuit our special relationship with the text. It certainly knows enough to meaningfully resurface books of that ilk. It could be as simple as an email. Kindle could help foster that act of returning, of rereading. It could bring a book back from the periphery of our working library into the core, ‘into the bloodstream’, as Susan Sontag put it. And yet it doesn’t.

To return to a book is to return not just to the text but also to a past self. We are embedded in our libraries. To reread is to remember who we once were, which can be equal parts scary and intoxicating. Other services such as Timehop offer ways to return to past photos or past tweets. They, too, are unexpectedly evocative. Far more so than you might think. They allow us to measure and remeasure ourselves. And if a resurfaced tweet has an emotional resonance of x, than a passage in a book by which you were once moved must resonate at 100x.

(…) It seems as though Amazon has been (…) keeping external innovators away.

(…) Contemporary digital publishing stacks are mostly closed. As readers (…)  we have no control over what software we can use to read it, or what happens to our notes and other meta information culled from our reading data. Those notes I took in the tents while hiking back in 2009 still exist, somewhere, locked inside the Kindle ecosystem. I can dredge them up by going back in and raking through the books in question or pulling up the kindle.amazon.com website, which itself hasn’t had a significant update since it was launched six years ago. But they don’t exist, for example, as a simple text file, easily searchable, on any device or computer. Nor am I certain that they will continue to exist in coming years as Amazon changes the way its ecosystem functions.

Designers working within this closed ecosystem are, most critically, limited in typographic and layout options. Amazon and Apple are the paper‑makers, the typographers, the printers, the binders and the distributors: if they don’t make a style of paper you like, too bad. The boundaries of digital book design are beholden to their whim.

The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable. Physical things are difficult to copy at scale, while digital things in open environments can replicate effortlessly. Physical is largely immutable, digital can be malleable. Physical is isolated, digital is networked. This is where digital rights management (DRM) – a closed, proprietary layer of many digital reading stacks – hurts books most and undermines almost all that latent value proposition in digital. It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects. DRM constraints over our rights as readers make it feel like we’re renting our digital books, not owning them.

(…) As our hardware has grown more powerful and our screens more capable, our book-reading software has largely stagnated
Many of these digital concerns would be rendered moot with more open digital-reading ecosystems. Without proprietary DRM, we could copy and back‑up our books with ease. Even if Amazon stopped supporting Kindle (as Sony did with LIBRIé, as Yahoo! did with Geocities, and as countless other huge corporations have with their seemingly invincible products and communities), we could be certain that our books and reading data would still be accessible. With a proper API (an application programming interface, which allows one authorised application to read and manipulate data in another), entrepreneurs outside of Amazon or Apple could step in and offer more beautiful, efficient, or innovative reading containers for our books, leaving the bigger companies to do what they do best: payments and infrastructure.

(…) In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind. (…) ”

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