September 06, 2010

The medium is still not the message


Over on the TeleRead blog, Chris Meadows points to Yet Another Public Handwringing about how ebooks are going to ruin everything. Author Deborah Willis asks, "Can something that is not bound, not made of paper, and not necessarily meant to be read still be called a book?"

And goes on to thrash the poor tattered strawmen of unholy hyperlinking and holy linearity.

I should have phrased it: Yet Another Public Handwringing that Mistakes Tautology for Thought (P.G. Wodehouse: "Nothing stands between us and victory except defeat! Tomorrow is a new day! The future lies ahead!"). But the "bound" part in particular caught my eye.

In any Japanese historical drama, there will be the inevitable scene of somebody taking a letter out of an envelope and snapping his wrist to unfurl the scroll (they're folded flat). Long letters end up looking like somebody held down the form feed button on a dot matrix printer.

Pages! What's this newfangled thing called pages?

Japanese is read right-to-left when printed vertically and left-to-right when printed horizontally. This distinction was cemented by the computer revolution. In old newspapers and signs, you can still find text written right-to-left horizontally. Now that's confusing.

Japanese word processors have vertical and horizontal display modes. Books (and manga) are mostly vertical. Most cell phones display horizontally. It is common to see both vertical and horizontal text used at the same time, for example, during television news broadcasts.

Native English speakers quickly adapted to reading manga "unflipped," that is, in the original right-to-left format (though the English text is horizontal). Any additional complexity presented by electronic displays is child's play to the adaptability of the human visual cortex.

And child's play compared to the visual complexity of an old-fashioned periodical. Remember those? Text surrounded and interrupted by ads, content distributed hither and yon, and accessed via link tables. Except the links are manual and you have to turn the pages yourself.

The medium is the same-old, same-old. No matter how much things change, it's still the message that matters.

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