Stephen Baker

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Deep reading, slow food

April 22, 2010General

I was talking with Ed Lazowska a couple weeks ago. He's runs the comp sci department at U. of Washington, and he was speculating on the future of the iPad and the book.

He asked me if I'd seen a televised baseball game from the 1950s. The only way they could imagine a game back then, he said, was as a spectator. So they plunked a camera into the area of a box seat, and viewers watched the game as if they were sitting there, albeit in fuzzy black and white.

It took a while (and some new technology) to imagine and devise a new experience based on the strengths and versatility of the medium. With multiple cameras and replays, it was freed from the constraints of sequence and location. In the same way, we're eventually going to figure out that reading on a computer involves more than reproducing a book and its turning pages on a screen.

Red Barber, calling a game in the '50s

People will come up with all kinds of enhancements. And I'm guessing that most of them will make the experience busier and more lively. This, in turn, will fuel a counter-movement for traditional, deep reading--a return to that trance-like stage where we lose ourselves in a book.

This reminds me of a trip we took to Italy a decade ago. Our friends there were interested in the slow-food movement, a return to meals where service was slow and people lingered for hours at the table, savouring every bite, sip and quip. It was a little like reading Crime and Punishment, or maybe Bleak House (which I've downloaded onto my iPad). We had our kids with us, and "slow food" to them was about as appealing as the drip drip of water torture.

Speaking of returning to the old ways, I was recently reading Thoreau's Walden. No doubt he would object to the device I was reading it on, as well as most of the activity on the iPad, including Twitter. Get a load of this:

Our inventions, he writes in Walden, “are but improved means to an unimproved end.” He goes on to relate an anecdote about “the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey.”  (Here's another look at Thoreau and Twitter from Madison's Isthmus, where my son writes.)

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