There has been much discussion recently on the future of book design. Much of the debate centers around whether explicitly defined packaging such as EPUB or EPUB3 is necessary to contain an ebook, as opposed to “books” that live on the open web as networked resources. Obviously there are advantages for commercial publishing firms to preserve the constraints of packaging in order to sell goods (as opposed to services), and there are also good arguments for the portability and preservation of an author’s expressed intent. My own prejudices tend to run towards an assumption that authoring for the web, particularly as growing HTML5 support permits more advanced rendering and user interaction, will ultimately be a more compelling design experience.
This debate often carries an embedded assumption about what it is that we are authoring. Both EPUB3 as a specification, and HTML5 as a set of web standards from which EPUB3 is itself defined, provide for media embedding and sophisticated interaction. However, because a great deal of rich media can be produced online, and highly interactive media usually requires network access to avoid excessive storage demands, there is a conjecture that future online, web-native books will be inherently media intensive. In contrast, the belief that container-based ebook design (such as EPUB3) will trump web-native digital books assumes that most reading will utilize locally stored content on reading devices without a reliance on continuous network access. Local reading strategies often implicitly posit that digital books will continue to have a traditional narrative structure, with heavy reliance on text.
But a simplistic linkage between the sophistication of content and its nexus is not warranted. Both online HTML5 web sites and EPUB3 e-books can embody straight text or interwoven media. Either can stretch the boundaries of our expression of design, because both are ultimately tied to the same sets of standards. Therefore we should not necessarily assume that web-based books will hew to more media-complex experiences. Indeed, a recent spate of innovative publishing startups, including firms such as medium and svbtle, share an assumption that most of their material will be in text, with minimalist graphics to distinguish authors or content sections. Despite a love of being “wowed” by design, I also have written about the durable lure of text-centric narratives, which are both straightforward to author and capable of conveying imaginative and information-rich concepts.
Yet, I’ve started to question my own biases. This summer, my child along with three others received a mini-course on U.S. history. In each week’s session, they were tasked with telling a story about what they learned: the discovery of America by Europeans on one hand, and the Bill of Rights on the other. Instead of co-authoring written stories or individual essays, they collaborated to produce two short videos using an iPad and Apple’s iMovie. This was amazing to me: with minimal guidance from a Gen Y teacher, within a single week these young kids taught themselves to produce and edit a short video on a complex topic with a storyline, sound effects, and music samples on a device that didn’t exist a few years ago. For them, choosing video over writing a story “just made sense” – they could not even imagine an alternative. If someone would have suggested this was possible when I was as young, I would have thought they had dropped acid.
There is a profound change taking place in media literacy. Rather than being riven by angst over the future of immersive narratives, younger people are delightedly swimming in a sea of diverse choices. Whenever they have access to tools, they are having a wonderful time using them. This summer an older relative questioned whether children were able to focus for long on any one topic, and if concentration was faltering because of the internet; all I could think about was the coordination and effort that went into four kids producing videos on a tablet computer. How they are creating may be different – out of this world for us oldsters – but as they say, the kids are alright. The question of whether we will have packaged, downloadable narratives or interlinked web-based structures is so much sturm und drang that will be answered for us. Our children are telling themselves stories with the tools we are leaving behind for them.