Still Looking for the First Real Ebook

When Gutenberg printed his first Bible with moveable type, he took great pains to make it look as though it had been copied by hand.

The makers of the first dramatic movies tried hard to make their work as much like stage plays and novels as possible.

The early talkies were wall-to-wall dialog and orchestra because, well, there was sound.

When color started to appear regularly in films, the screen was a riot of hyper-saturated hues, as if to make sure you wouldn’t forget you were watching a movie in color!

When post production people started to use computer graphics for special effects, we suddenly found ourselves watching movies that were more about CGI than characters.

In each one of these cases, new communication technology was defined by the preceding technology, either by trying to reproduce the earlier form, or to make sure people were aware that you were using the latest technology. As a result, the stories tended to take a back seat to the machines. It took about a decade before storytellers learned how to use the technologies as effective storytelling devices without the need to demonstrate the technology itself. In other words, it took time learn to use technology in ways that no one was aware the machines were even there because the story had all their.

Where are we with ebooks? Well, if they were movies, 2012 would be about 1904. In other words, we have not yet seen the definitive ebook. By that I mean a self-contained digital communication that provides a satisfying artistic experience that is a result of inherent properties of the digital technologies used to create it. It isn’t an electronic “version” of anything else. It doesn’t derive its power from recalling to mind another medium.

I want someday to be walking out of a movie theater and hear people say, “Yeah, but it wasn’t as good as the ebook.”

What we have at this point appears to be one of two things: First we have a lot of books preoccupied with reproducing the preceding medium, i.e. ebooks that try as hard a possible to be like paper books in the same way early movies tried to reproduce stage plays on the screen. The second is ebooks (or some variant thereof) that are electronic gimmicks, gadgets and novelties that feel more like parlor tricks than the experience of a great novel or movie.

Where is the Melias, the Griffith, the Eisenstein of ebooks? Where is the ebook equivalent of The Great Train Robbery, the movie that defined storytelling in feature films? The question is not rhetorical: if you know of an ebook that speaks powerfully and clearly because of — not in spite of — the attributes inherent in its electronic format, please share it and let us start to build on it.

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2 thoughts on “Still Looking for the First Real Ebook

  1. Frankly I don’t get the 1920’s technology/creative comparisons. This is not where we are in 2013. Rate of change of technology has changed the sums. There is now such a thing as globalization. Al Jolson in “blackface” in the first talking movie is not a good technology change comparison. The differential of technology and social development 87 years later cannot be compared. Montage has interesting analogies in digital content today but it is now vague academia. What about life-changing books that deliver learning experiences to children in developing countries in their language and allow them to earn a few cents to feed their families? The computer/tablet as teacher is proving to be an incomparable instrument in poverty elimination. But that is probably not as interesting as the evolution of technology or great philosophical thoughts. What are you looking for? The facts are the value of e-books on devices is more humble than the significant media changes of the past. Bandwidth, devices and content only have the potential to stop millions dying of poverty and malnutrition in isolation. Personally I find this the greatest thing that has ever happened in human history, and it is eBooks in many “strange” languages that will make it happen.

    • You make good points, Richard. The immediate impact and importance of ebooks as you state them are real, tangible and potentially world-altering. This is true especially in non-fiction. There is no doubt that the technology facilitates a whole new level of communication of the content we currently have. But I see that as an initial phase, one that will change as we see content that is specific and unique to the new media.

      Marshall McLuhan theorized that the advent of printed type actually changed the neurology of how literate people see and experience reality. I stand by my sound in movies analogy because I see it still happening as right-brain dominant creative types try (or don’t try) to adapt to increasingly technical media. Many of our great creative minds are hopelessly lost when it comes to things as simple as email or word processing. I continue to think they have something to offer — something of real significance — but I worry that the accelerated rate of change leaves them in the dust and puts pure technology in the driver’s seat. It is the creative, emotional right hemisphere that gives value to the capabilities and competence of the left hemisphere.

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