Pixel, Type and Text: Technological Change and ‘Electronic Reading’

This article was originally written in late 2005 and submitted as a paper as part of my Master of Design studies at UTS. If you use this article please acknowledge your source. Note, what were previously footnotes are embedded in the text surrounded by square brackets.

Recent developments over the last few months (that is, July 2009) will be followed up in a subsequent post.


As humans with a desire to survive there are two options open to us, to change our environment or to adapt our behaviour to suit the environment (Porter 1980). The first option involves technology and by extension technological change. The different societies, or social environments, that exist or have existed have always had some combination of the two options and the Western social environment has adopted the first option strongly over the second.

This paper will look at technological change in ‘electronic reading’ with implicit and explicit reference to EPISTLE [Economic, Psychological, Institutional/political, Social, Technological, Eegal, and Environmental impacts]. The history of ‘electronic reading’ is very short, being of no more than a few decades. Further it makes no sense to consider it in isolation from what is generally known as reading. Thus after a brief discussion in general terms of technology, technological change and EPISTLE, we will begin our analysis at the point where reading first became possible, the invention of writing.

Technology, Technological Change and EPISTLE

In discussing technological change and electronic reading I would like to begin a brief discussion about technology and technological change in general. Let me begin with some definitions of technology.

When people think of technology it is often in the sense of referring to things, ‘machinery or gadgetry, as an economic factor of production, as know-how’ (Sclove 1995), and these individual technologies are then characterised by what they were primarily intended to ‘do’. However, technology can be defined more broadly. Girifalco puts it quite succinctly; ‘technology is the corpus of knowledge and the set of techniques by which we manipulate and control the physical world to satisfy human wants’ (Girifalco 1991). The difficulties with defining technology such terms is that the latter is very human-centric, that satisfaction of human wants is the raison d’être of technology and can lead to a blindness to broader issues, including those that may impact on humans. The first definition is perhaps more problematic because it can lead to different technologies being considered in isolation from each other, and does not encourage consideration of the effects different technologies may have when they interact, particularly if it happens unexpectedly, or even what happens when technologies interact with society.

As Porter has shown technology does interact with society and vice versa (Porter 1980). Further he shows that it is this interactive interdependence that drives technological change, which in turn drives societal change, and so the process continues through time. For much of history humans have lived essentially within an infinitely large environment and the rate of technological change has not been beyond our ability to adapt [I am thinking here of the totality of humanity. Obviously, it is possible to see on localised levels situations where civilisations have failed to limit the rate of change and have suffered complete societal collapse once the local environment was exhausted and destroyed. The Mayan civilization in the Americas springs to mind as an example]. However, as Manzini has discussed the ‘global village’ now extends to every corner of the planet and we are coming across limits, not only of the biosphere but also our ability to cope with change (Margolin & Buchanan 1995). Technological change is becoming able to cause larger and larger impacts on the totality of human society.

Consider the impact of Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs). ICTs have lead to a massive acceleration in and impact of the globalisation of business. It has given potential access to an unprecedented volume of information that, due to the cost of infrastructure, is largely denied most of humanity. However, it has also lead to things such as the apparently uncontrollable internationalisation of paedophilia [This latter statement is based solely on my daily observation on news media over time and not any real and quantifiable evidence].

Returning to the definitions of technology for a moment longer. What neither definition allows for is the idea of ‘polypotency’ (Sclove 1995). The former because it is too narrowly purposive, and the latter because it is too all encompassing. Polypotency refers to the fact that technologies have many latent social effects and meanings, many of which may be psychological and only tangentially related to the primary purpose of the technology [Sclove uses the example of someone using a hammer describing polypotent effects including affirmation of self-respect, the mythology of the American frontier and the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary (page 20]. It is not unrelated to Porter’s arguments about the interaction between technology and society.

Hence the need for the kind of analysis that EPISTLE offers. Interestingly, concern for the greater effects of technology is not new [To me this sort of consideration seems somewhat of an anathema to the Judeo Christian idea that God gave the earth and everything on it to mankind for him to exploit. It is perhaps why that Western society is only now beginning to reluctantly consider these ideas again when is becoming painfully apparent that we are beginning to run out things to exploit]. In his work Phaedrus Plato recounts the story of a meeting between the Egyptian king Thamus and the god Theuth who invented, among other things, writing. In the story Theuth is particularly proud of this invention, as he believes he has found the means to improve the memory and wisdom of humankind. Thamus replies that the inventor is not the best judge of the benefit or otherwise to those who will use the invention and goes on to say no, in fact, by inventing writing they will no longer need to use memory at all and may become more forgetful and also by simply having access to knowledge does not necessarily make one wise (Plato 1999).

What then, is EPISTLE? EPISTLE is merely an acronym relating to holistic considerations of Technology Assessment/Environmental Impact Analyses (TA/EIA). Thus in referring to EPISTLE one is, in fact, referring to an analysis of all forms of societal impacts that technology, existing or emerging, may have. As a tool it is potentially extraordinarily powerful in predicting the impacts of emerging technologies and or technological change. However, there are difficulties.

Put simply, humans and their societies are dynamic and very complex. Predicting the impact of technological change is therefore very complex and very time consuming to perform and in the long-term that answer may be unknowable until the impact can be analysed with the benefit of hindsight. Looking technological change over time can help improve accuracy but with all the competing inputs it is still essentially a chaotic system. Added to this is the problem of who should perform the analysis. As Thamus pointed out, the inventor is not necessarily the best person but may be the only person who understands the technology sufficiently to do so. Then again, as is increasingly the case with modern technology clusters, there may be no single person or even group with sufficient understanding to be able to perform the analysis adequately.

Pool uses the example of the failure of the O-rings that caused the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger to illustrate this point. It emerged that there had been concern amongst the engineers as to the performance of these rings in below-freezing weather. However, the shuttle is a very complex device and the interactions between the individual pieces more so, so the engineers could not predict that it would fail. They raised their concerns but the decision was given to proceed, with disastrous results (Pool 1997). As we have subsequently seen this event and subsequent investigation, has not prevented the loss of a second shuttle and crew as a result of a different and, at first glance, insignificant event, a small impact of some ice on the thermally resistant tiles of the wing.

This is not to say that this kind of analysis should not be performed. It is becoming more critical that, as technology impacts become larger and more significant, that this kind of analysis be done. It is just that it is important to remember that the results may not actually reflect what transpires.

And so we move on to an EPISTLE type analysis of electronic reading.


At this point I wish to represent the scenario which opened my verbal presentation on this subject.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a student some years hence. You must go to the library to collect material for a research project. The last thing you put into your bag before you leave home is an electronic reading device. Let’s call it the eTome.

While waiting to be packed your eTome has done two things, via a wireless Internet connection, it has downloaded today’s Sydney Morning Herald and it has charged itself, by absorbing energy from the ambient light.

On your way you take out your eTome. It is about as big as an average, mid-size paperback book. You open the two hinged panels and activate it by voice command. You find the Sydney Morning Herald and begin to read. The text appears sharp and clear. So that you can look out the window of the bus you put on wireless headphones and have the device read to you, which it does, in your own voice.

Your trip is successful and you walk away with printed material and electronic books and journal articles downloaded onto your eTome. The files of these books and articles are structured in such away that not only do they contain the text of the book but also copyright limitations meaning that you can only output a certain amount as stipulated by copyright legislation, the borrowing period, typographic and voice information.

The Road to Electronic Reading

You will have perhaps noted that in the above scenario I have barely referred to reading and not at all to ‘electronic reading’. This is because the term ‘electronic reading’ is, in fact, a misnomer. Most of us do not read electronically, we read as we have always done, with our eyes (the exception being the blind who may have some form of text to voice conversion software on a computer – the nearest thing to genuine ‘electronic reading’). When we talk about electronic reading we are generally referring to reading electronically stored text from some sort of electronic visual display device on which this text has been rendered. It is this crucial interdependence to which the EPISTLE analysis presented in this paper will be applied.


Before we can read, ‘electronically’ or otherwise, we have to have something to read. What we may generally call text today began as writing. I would argue that it is one of the most significant technological advances humans have ever performed. While Thamus may lament that it removes the need for humans to use their memory it allows for the, reasonably secure, storage of accumulated knowledge (information) beyond the human generational timescale. Not only that, it allows for the dissemination of information that has been written on to a sufficiently transportable medium.

The single most important thing, to my mind, that writing allows for is complexity. Humans no longer need to remember everything that was known, they just had to know, more or less, where particular information was recorded for later retrieval if and when it was required. This allows for the more specialised contemplation of knowledge and the development of more complex systems of society, for example, and the institutions that make up complex societies. Our societal structures today could not and would not exist without the technology of writing and the technological change that has gone on within it. Thamus was wrong about writing causing the loss of wisdom, a general form of wisdom was lost perhaps to the individual, but in its place grew a more specialised wisdom that in conjunction with the combined ‘wisdoms’ held within a societal grouping far outstripped anything Thamus could possibly have imagined all those thousands of years ago.

The story of writing begins tens of thousands of years ago with the appearance of rock/cave paintings (Jackson 1981). They seem to have appeared at a time when food gathering knowledge had progressed to such an extent that early humans had time out from basic survival chores to begin to entertain more conceptual thought patterns (Lewis-Williams 2002). As time progressed these paintings developed into pictograms and further to ideograms that represented both and things and more importantly ideas. Combining ideograms allowed for more complex ideas to be expressed and with this the first writing systems came into being. This occurred some 5,500 years ago (Jackson 1981). Ideograms are unwieldy for yet more complex ideas and long narrative [The Sumerians from which we have the earliest examples of writing systems had some 2,000 ideograms. Even today the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans have many thousands of ideograms]. Thus over time the ideograms through simplification became ever more detached from the objects they originally represented and the numbers of ideograms required for written communication was reduced. Together with technological advances in writing materials and recording surfaces the hand letters we have today came into being.

During this process we see one of the great impacts of technological change on humans. In pictograms and ideograms there is no direct connection between symbol and sound (a pictogram of the animal we know of as a horse in English is instantly recognised as a Pferde by the Germans and a cheval by the French, conversely several different pictogram designs of a particular object may have the same word associated with them). In other words spoken language and written language are, or were, distinct and independent creations. With the separation of symbol from object as the development of letters progressed simple vocalisations came to be associated with the shapes. In the process of doing this written and spoken language became tied together. The bond is so tight that many people find it impossible to fathom that the link between the sound of the letter and visual representation of the letter is completely arbitrary.


I now move on to a brief discussion of books. If writing is the process of recording information/data/knowledge then the book is a storage and retrieval system for the information recorded within its pages. It is also a highly efficient and effective one. Books in the format we recognise today first appeared around the second and third centuries AD. Since then the basic design has not changed. Prior to books information was variously recorded on; stone, not very transportable; papyrus scrolls, fragile and not suitable for long texts as only one side could be written on – the verso being required for protection; and parchment scrolls, less fragile than papyrus but the same space efficiency issues. Long texts had to be recorded on several loose scrolls allowing for the possibility that they could become out of order or worse separated and lost (the twenty four ‘chapters’ each of Homer’s Illiad and Odessey are a link to the twenty four scrolls that each originally comprised).

Books on the other hand, the codex form of parchment page gathered and stitched together, allowed for very long texts that were still relatively easy to transport, kept in true order and, with the addition of covers, more protected from the elements and wear and tear than ever before. Thus knowledge could be spread more effectively and reliably than ever before. The book form had one other great advantage over scrolls. In a book long texts are in effect broken up into short sections, pages, it therefore becomes possible to refer quite precisely to specific parts of even a very long text. With the technology of writing recording it into the efficiently organised, easily retrievable, protected and transportable technology of books, knowledge, and the possession and control of it, really had become power.

For the first 1,000 years of the existence of book technology control of knowledge was relatively easy. The reason for this is that each and every book had to be written or copied by hand. Whoever had the time to devote the months required to produce each book, controlled knowledge. There were relatively few who could do this because it required wealth. The most consistently wealthy organisation was the Roman Catholic Church (kings had a tendency to get into wealth draining wars). By the time printing technologies appeared in Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Church was the over-arching political organisation. The effects of this political influence are still with us today, not just in the literal existence of the Christian religion, but in our political and legal institutions, our moral codes and our attitudes to the environment as both guardians and exploiters of it.

With introduction of printing, and paper making, technology from the East and then the successful invention of moveable type by Gutenberg the world was to change dramatically (Meggs 1983) [The key invention of Gutenberg was not that of moveable type itself, which happened, unsuccessfully, in France some years before hand (and moveable character ideograms in China before that). Gutenberg invented the process by which moveable type could be cast and recast with absolute consistency to critical tolerances so that an even printing surface could be consistently obtained for hundreds of individual components]. It can be inferred from the choice of subject material, the Bible, that Gutenberg wanted simply to make the printed word of God available to a wider audience. What was to happen was that in the time taken to produce one copy of one book one could produce first tens then hundreds, thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of copies. The impact was enormous, nothing more than a mass democratisation of knowledge. Would the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Scientific Method, the Industrial and Information Technology Revolutions have been possible without this cluster of technologies? New institutions, like public libraries and large-scale public education, came into existence. New industries and professions created—paper manufacture, type foundries, compositors, typographers, graphic designers, advertising, journalists, newspapers, teachers, publishers. New legal concepts came into being, like Copyright [The British Statute of Anne in 1710 was the first modern concept of copyright that accorded exclusive rights to authors and their publishers for a period of time. Prior to that European governments granted monopoly rights to publishers. This created, in effect,  a licensing system that allowed for some censorship control of books. It was also assumed that publishers owned printed works in perpetuity, a further constriction to the flow of knowledge (Berry & McClion 2005)]. As more people had access to knowledge so did society create the capacity to, and ability to drive for, technological change.

Not only technological change, when knowledge is published in large quantities it becomes largely out of the control of political institutions. They may be able to reduce its accessibility but it can never be withdrawn completely. This then provides both the knowledge and the freedom for the society to question and challenge the very political system itself. However, any such challenge may not necessarily result in an improved system, just a different one. Knowledge is neither neutral nor necessarily benign. In the capricious hands of humankind it has brought about great good as well as great ill.

Type itself quickly came to represent aspects of the societal changes that began to wrack Western social systems from the end of the middle ages. Blackletter the type form used by Gutenberg in his bible grew out of Northern European medieval calligraphic traditions. The Latin or Roman types came from a Southern European calligraphy and came to represent the modern aspirations of the Renaissance. From this polarity that stemmed from the ancient rivalries between Germany and its neighbours others followed; Protestantism and Catholicism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, mysticism and rationality, and so on through to the racial purity versus racial diversity as espoused by Hitler’s National Socialists (Bain & Shaw 1998). Gutenberg, if he had been able to foresee the results of his technological innovations would in all likelihood been both amazed and appalled.

Electronic Books

Let us now return to the scenario. In it I refer to electronic books. In January of this year an article appeared in The Australian borrowed from another newspaper in which the writer referred to electronic books (‘E-paper is one for the books’ 2005). In fact, neither is a book in the sense described above. The first is an electronic data file that in the case of the scenario includes, among other bits of information, a long body of text that might once have been written or printed and then bound into a book format but otherwise, to all intents purposes, no different from an electronic copy of a letter or even a bank statement [The way I used the term electronic book is the same as it is used by electronic book file vendors such as eReader.com and Amazon.com]. The second is an electronic device that was created to display this kind of data file. What this seems to be showing is an actual interaction between technology and language as a result of a technological change. The idea of the electronic book probably reached the consciousness of the general public with the online release of the Stephen King novella, Riding the Bullet, in 2000 and the technology is sufficiently different from printed book technologies that it is taking some time for the language to coalesce into a set of distinct terms. In the mean time society takes it’s models of the past/present and tries to fit the present/future to them. The results are, as one can see, ill-fitting and confusing.

Electronic Books are part of the cluster of technologies that we know as Information and Communication Technology (ICT). As a result many of the EPISTLE issues that are relevant to ICT apply to electronic books. ICT is vast and complex and its interaction with, and impact on, every aspect of society, Western/First World at least, equally so. On the one hand it has created the potential for an immense explosion of information and with the possibility of democratic access the likes of which even printed books could not hope to mimic. This information is truly trans-national and extremely difficult for individual governments to control. This has created legal issues, which in the main are nationally contained, like intellectual property rights and copyright violations – how can you punish infringement that has taken place in other countries, this leads to political/institutional issues in the need to create international agreements and treaties and mechanisms for dealing with criminal behaviour that occur outside/across national boundaries. The availability of electronic books via the Internet has an economic impact because it may result in the contraction of the local publishing industry. This in turn has social and psychological impacts as people lose their jobs and their lives become less stable as they search for new ones. Maybe they are forced to move, which then brings in envir0nmental and further social issues through increased demand for transport systems. This further impacts on economic systems and has legal issues as unstable societal structures and poverty lead to increased crime. Societal instability has political and institutional consequences through changing demand for services, medical, educational, welfare, and who takes responsibility for providing them, the cost of which again creates further economic issues and so it goes ricocheting back and forth and society as a whole is forced to adapt continually to the new and changed circumstances. In the midst of this, technology continues to do its bit to provide solutions where it can and the process continues as new and unexpected impacts begin to bounce around the society.

This is not to say that these impacts are entirely negative. If that were the case then the technology would be abandoned. Electronic books combined with the internet have wonderful potential for education, particularly in the field of distance education (Shiratuddin et al. 2003). The linking of academic libraries gives students access to vastly greater resources at much lower cost for the institution than ever before. All the individual libraries become one enormous library. Moreover the storage capacity of the individual libraries is greatly increased as electronic book files take up far less space than printed books. This has in turn two environmental benefits. One being less paper is required generally for the storage of knowledge. The other is that the library buildings can hold more without needing to be physically enlarged. These are, of course, offset increased energy use required to maintain the electronic storage systems.

There are additional educational benefits. Reading devices, such as those available today, however imperfect, all have one thing in common, the ability to hold many books within a single device. This is great increase in physical p0rtablity. In theory, at least, book production costs would be much lower with the removal of the printing component, lowering the costs of particularly small run titles like academic titles. Lower production costs may also mean that publishers may take more risks with marginal or special interest titles.

Does, however, the apparent ease of access and the very intangibility of an electronic book and the fact that it can be obtained from almost any location, make the information contained therein less real and therefore less valid and valuable and more easy to steal? There is a secondary impact to this benefit too. Being able to ‘go to the library’ from at home, say, removes some of the need for students to attend physically and so they lose the chance of social interactions, which in turn lessens the potential for the flow of ideas. It has a further psychological impact of increasing individual isolation and what does this do the perceptions of the value of the education the student is receiving? [Even such conveniences as online enrollment can create this effect. Certainly this is the way I felt starting this semester. Online enrollment has definite advantages in terms of saving time (though at the moment this is arguable given the poor design of the enrollment system). However, having enrolled online there was a strong sense of dislocation when I actually turned up for classes, it just didn’t seem real at first. I mean the classes were real enough but I felt a very strong sense of detachment, a lack of community and camaraderie with my fellow students. I can only put this down to not having gone through the laborious ritual of face-to-face enrollment.] At every turn one is faced with the maelstrom of societal impacts and interactions that the EPISTLE analysis attempts to identify.

On the other hand, and this is why the availability of information made possible by ICTs was qualified earlier, this information is less accessible than it has been for a long time. Once a person has obtained the skills need to read they can pick up a book, open it, and the information inside is available to them. The information is essentially analogue. If that same person receives an electronic book on a CD, say, no matter how well they can read, looking at the disk will not reveal the information in the electronic book stored on it. The information in an electronic book is digital, not in the sense that it is bits of binary data which it is of course, but in that it needs to be decoded. Similarly the vast amount of information available on the internet is only accessible/decodable when one has access to a raft of ICT technologies, computer, modem, electronic display (screen), keyboard and so on. While it is true that there are many people on this planet who have limited access to printed books there are many more who have little or no access to ICTs. Even in a developed country such as Australia where it is safe to say almost 100% of the people have read at least part of a book at some time in their lives access to information through ICT is much lower, for example in 2002 only 58% of the population had accessed the internet at least once (ABS 2005).

In addition to the financial constraints imposed by the need to purchase decoders, there is no guarantee that electronic books will be any cheaper to purchase than printed books. A quick summary of some online bookstores revealed the following; The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is currently being offered in electronic form for US$13.46 at eReader.com and for US$14.97 at Amazon.com for the printed version leaving a price differential of only US$1.51. The Sony Librie, one of the more advanced dedicated electronic book decoders, is available for around US$600 which means one needs to buy more than 397 printed books before the financial benefit from purchasing electronic books can be achieved. Having said this it is still early days for commercially available electronic books and the lack of price differentials we see today probably have to with low volume sales because the technologies are still in the ‘early adopter’ phase. It is to be expected that price differentials will improve over time as technological hindrances, some of which are discussed below, are solved and the technology penetrates deeper into society.

While it is true that commercial interests have always played a part in access to information, which books get published and which don’t, there are additional controls that can be placed. These controls can be placed in the very files themselves through the use of software switches, great for preventing illegal duplication but they can also be used for preventing long-term ownership, thus requiring a file to be repurchased, or even to allow the centralised and forced withdrawal from circulation of titles deemed to be contrary to institutional interests. Then there is the issue of proprietary file formats that mean that titles may only be viewed on certain devices. These issues are already occurring with the Sony Librie (Kottke 2005).

The Sony Libre
The Sony Libre

Proprietary file format may seem commercially counter intuitive as they would appear to limit the potential market. Unless of course the format wins out in the end and becomes the new standard. It is just that during the battle many titles may be lost. Also, it is worth remembering that markets are sometimes big enough to support multiple proprietary formats and in this case availability can be limited when titles are not released in all available formats. The computer game industry is one example. Another is the American mobile phone system in which the country is divided between three incompatible technologies.

Accessibility issues, such as those mentioned above, will eventually be addressed. Western society values knowledge and information and so eventually the legal and institutional frameworks will adjust to address the new challenges. Until formal structures are created human ingenuity and inventiveness will find, perhaps less orthodox, ways to overcome these barriers to access.

There is a further issue for consideration in the case of electronic books. Who will look after the information when it gets old? Old information may be out of date, unnecessary and not relevant for the time being but it still may be important for historical purposes. We have examples of information available to us that were created at the very dawn of writing systems that we can still read, though we had to relearn how to do it (the Sumerian cuneiform tablets). Yet within my own design practice I have electronically stored information a decade old that is completely inaccessible to me. It is inaccessible due to technological change within the computer industry combined with my own lack of foresight. I did not make the effort at the time to ensure that the information remained compatible with current technologies largely because I did not consider it to be important. However, I now realise that because it was not important then and may not even be so now this is no guarantee that this will be the case in the future. With printed books this is less of an issue for a much longer time frame.

Even so, society is reacting to this unanticipated impact. Unanticipated only in the sense that apparently no body took the time consider it a possibility. Private organisations such Google are beginning to archive electronic material (webpages). Some have even started to digitise analogue material for storage in preparation for a possible future without printed books. I am thinking here of Project Gutenberg (Project Gutenberg).

Electronic Book Decoders

Having considered issues surrounding the files of electronic books we now move on to consideration of the book decoders (EBDs). There are two issues of crucial importance in the design of the decoders, the representation of the information visually and modes of use. These are the issues that will determine the success or failure of a device. Let us begin by first considering briefly the mechanisms that the human brain uses for reading, or more exactly, word recognition.

The most accepted model for understanding how humans recognise words is the ‘parallel letter recognition model’. This model says the eye skips along a line fixing on a point usually slightly to the left of the middle of each word, though smaller words may be skipped altogether, and views the surrounding letters in groups. The fovea, the clear centre point of our vision, processes only the surrounding few letters and the parafovea, with much lower acuity, up to twenty letters on each side. This process takes place in discrete time frames of about 200-250 milliseconds (Larson 2004). It is possible to infer from this that if letter forms are clear, individually distinct and consistently rendered the process of word recognition will happen with much greater ease. Indeed, throughout much of the history of writing and printing of words letterforms have indeed been rendered thus. Other than on screen, we view our words, whether it is as combinations of letters, or pictograms, as a combination of smooth curves and lines that are sharply defined against the background.

Modern display technologies do not meet these requirements very well. The standard display screen resolution is 72ppi (pixels per inch). At this size the artefacts of the screen construction are clearly visible and significantly disrupt the accurate rendering of letterforms at normal reading text sizes (8-12 point). Recent software ‘work arounds’ such as ‘hinting’ and Microsoft ClearType (Platt 2002) have improved rendering type letterforms on screen however though they are less jagged and the lines and curves are smoother they have also become slightly blurred. [Hinting does two things with text on screen. Firstly, it anti-aliases the pixels a little so the jaggedness is softened because the neighbouring pixels are darkened slightly (resulting in the letters looking slightly out of focus). The other thing it does is adjust the letter spacing slightly so that the letters ‘fit’ better to the architectural construction of the display device. ClearType was developed for LCD screens and takes the anti-aliasing to a sub-pixel level by adjusting each of the three colour sub-pixels individually.] It has been suggested that this is one of the primary reasons that people still find it difficult to read long texts on screen and that the ‘paperless office’ produces more paper waste than the ‘paper office’ (Schilit et al. 1991). The relatively recent development of ‘electronic-paper’ has begun the process of addressing pixel resolution (E-ink Corporation, 2002). This technology operates a display screen at about 170ppi though only in black and white at this stage (which in some respects is all that is required for text). The Sony Librie mentioned above uses this technology. [By way of contrast, the standard resolution of a reasonable quality laser printer is 600dpi (dots per inch are used in printing, this is essentially the same as ppi), newspaper resolution are better than 1,200dpi and quality offset printing is better than 2,400dpi. At 600dpi it is still possible to see the dots on the edge of a letter form using a normal magnifier, above about 1,000dpi it is not.]

In considering modes of use we need to recognise that there are basically two ways in which we read, passively and actively. Passive reading is, for example, reading for leisure and is mostly linear, start at the beginning and turn the pages one at a time until the end. Active reading has more to do with gaining knowledge, learning and research. It is more complex and often involves different ways of navigating the text, different modes of reading, skimming, linear and non-linear. It may also have more than one text under consideration at the one time as well as bookmarking, annotating text and making additional notes. With printed books we achieve this navigation through various activities; riffling and turning pages, tagging and writing on pages, having several books open at once as well as sheets of paper for notes. The construction of a printed book aids navigation too. The fixed design of a book and the fact that it is possible to actually see the edge of every page at once, as a stack, means we can by pass a lot of detailed searching by remembering, for instance, that a particular passage is about the middle of the stack on a page with a certain figure at the bottom. These behaviours work well with books because they were developed because books are the way they are. They seem the natural way to do things but they are still learned behaviours. Unfortunately, not all translate well to EBDs. The challenge for designers is to identify which behaviours will translate with and without modification and add these to the strengths that smart electronic devices (Keinonen 1996) can have, for example, in organising, searching and filtering.

There are two other aides to reading that are supplied by books. The first is the typographic design and the second, the actual size and design of the book. Though very few readers are aware of it the typographic design of a book forms a crucial part of how easy text is to read. Good typographic design ensures that the visual flow of the text matches the logical and structural flow of the meaning of the text. Currently, for electronic books, the page with full typographic information is fixed, in the form of a PDF file or the opposite with little fixity as a ‘.txt’, ‘.doc’ and even html file. The former maximises the potential benefit of typographic design and the latter, flexibility of display surface.

The size and design, page layout and so on, give visual clues as to the type of book, for example, a text book, technical manual, literary work. EBDs, however, are not designed with particular book types in mind. They may not even be designed with any book types in mind but to be pocket size as in the case of PDAs. Yet they are required to function as all of these and others besides. This is a problem faced by designers of all sorts of information including the internet in general (Shaughnessy 2005) as device functionality increases. Rather than trying to standardise the device design what is need is probably something more along the lines of a file format that has the superior typographic control of PDF files with flexibility of ‘.txt’, ‘.doc’ or html files. This sort of solution would have application across a wide range of ICT display devices.

The Future of EBDs

So then could such a device such as the eTome exist? It seems certain that the need and wants of Western society to read from electronic displays will increase. It also seems that the ‘hard’ technological developments are on the way to solving some of the limitations of current technologies. Some other required technologies are already sufficiently advanced, memory capacities and delivery mechanisms for example. If the device is sufficiently robust, has enough well designed functionalities, such as voice control and text-to-speech capabilities mentioned and, finally, is portable, then yes, it could. It really must be truly portable to useful, thus having it able to power itself from available light via a photovoltaic surface is a definite advantage. In a world where energy will become increasingly expensive it is irresponsible, and may at some future date be illegal, not to have it generate at least some of its own power. And yet, with the functionalities described it would remain nothing more than a ‘smart product’ (Keinonen 1996). This raises the question; should dedicated electronic book decoders exist?

They will probably always be more costly than printed books and will never replace them entirely. Being an electronic device it is almost inevitable that there will be a sales driven upgrade path, unless there are major paradigm shifts in Western economic theory and practice. Regardless of any compliance to strict recycling and reuse guidelines there will still be consumption of resources with no guarantee that there will be a net saving of the resources overall. To my mind this suggests that a greater convergence of technologies would be beneficial and that electronic book decoders be truly multi-functional products rather than just smart. In this way the devices could take advantage of the gamut of electronic information available and not just to what is commonly referred to as electronic books. Moreover multi-functionality allows for variety of application and use and thus it becomes less necessary to second-guess the uses the future users will apply the technology to. The power of the knowledge at our fingertips could be more powerful than anything that has ever been available.

To return to Manzini, as designers involved in the process of technological change we need to design for quality and take care in what objects we bring into this world. To my mind EPISTLE conforms to his desire ‘that design culture advance a plurality of possibilities’ (Margolin & Buchanan 1995). If this paper has shown anything it is that technological change can cause massive change the likes of which may be impossible to imagine. Thus the potential new power available through electronic reading must be handled with great care. The human social environment has shown great capacity to adapt to technological change and if the process remains within our physical capabilities this capacity may well be limitless. However, our physical environment is a closed system. Closed systems have limits. If we let technological change take us beyond those limits the last adaptation of the social environment will be extinction.


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