Essays

Malinche in the Digital Storytelling Chasm

I wrote this essay for one of my classes last quarter*. It’s kind of outside my scope of usual work (both in terms of my studies and my general hobby writing), but I really enjoyed it. I got to think about literature+tech and implications of e-books. Rather than letting this gather dust on my hard drive, I thought I’d share it in case it generates any interest. Note it is an academic piece, so I’m not gabbing in my usual, more conversational(?) tone. So here’s a peek into what I’ve been doing at school!

Literature once stood as an intervention in the attention economy, illuminating the pitfalls of the sociotechnical world, but technology is turning it into another competitor. Who will read classics verging on a thousand pages when Facebook, Netflix and Amazon remain a swipe and a tap away? The attention economy runs on the well-oiled wheels of distraction and instant gratification. However, the rise of new media does not herald the death of literature but the transformation of it. Just as music travelled through the mediums of vinyl discs, cassette tapes, CDs, and iTunes playlists without demise, writing faces a similar evolution. The invention of the printing press in 1450 formalized the concept of the book, which is now challenged by the advent of electronic literature and e-readers.

What role will e-books play in the history of reading and writing? Could they eliminate traditional narrative forms, such as lengthy epics, and give rise to new ones? In Malinche and the End of the World, Franco Berardi warns of the conquering automaton, drawing parallels to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In that historical event, Malinche “is the symbol of the end of a world, and also the symbol of the formation of a new semiotic space of world-projection at the intersection between two different codes” (Berardi 106). E-books are the Malinche of our literary times. They continue to use, with nostalgic reminiscence, understandable signs of the old world—page flips and bookmarks—while translating the printed word into the “superior” code of zeros and ones. They herald the rise of a New World, where story narratives become embedded in an immersive digital experience of humanity.

Much as Malinche bridged the gap between her native roots and the conquistadores, e-books stand between the collapse of the old literary world and formation of a new one, functioning as a translator and marker of the shifting code. The tension in the technology surrounding e-books highlights the conflict between the two worlds. This is prominently seen in the visual book metaphor, which designs the interaction with digital text to resemble physical techniques (Pearson 22). Digital imitations of page flips exemplify one debated use case: the computational cost of rendering page turns is high, and it offers the reader no functional value. Among digital document designers, some believe such embedded book metaphors are effective because of their visual and interactive similarities to printed material. Others judge the long-run model limitations will restrict new possibilities, as “it tends to lead designers away from the potential of new media capabilities, thus meeting with the functions of paper but never actually surpassing them” (Pearson 22). Some might frame the debate as one between traditionalists and visionaries, but a Berardian view reveals an attempt to understand an emerging world on the basis of old code.

While the book metaphor remains strong in digital documents today, it marks a transitional phase rather than a permanent stagnation. The inevitable progress of technology reading platforms will make the visual book metaphor more incongruous with the new medium, and document design will be forced to adapt. Consider the stages other technologies underwent, such as motor vehicles.

“For example, in the absence of any better proposals, the first motor cars were designed to look like carriages, which were, at the time, a very familiar sight. Over time, however, these carriage-shaped vehicles were eventually overtaken, and cars now bear little resemblance to the once primitive-looking early automobiles” (Pearson 100).

As a technology enters uncharted waters, its evolution takes it further away from familiar mediums, adapting it to maximize functionality and value within expanded constraints. For vehicles, progress entailed optimizing physical design given new horsepower and speed capabilities. For e-books, designers might increasingly leverage the combined strengths of physical and digital mediums. Potential developments could include: document design for multiple windows, improvements of inputs with no-touch gestures, indexing and linking annotations in fundamentally new ways, and more. As the shift to this new code commences, the semantic voids formed indicate the fast-paced transition that is occurring. E-books maintain terms like “bookmarks” and “pages,” despite their physical absence, in the linguistic scramble to define the current reality. The question is no longer if the old literary world will collapse into a new one, but how that world will look.

One of the markers of immersive digital storytelling will be the inevitable redefinition of the book. While the exact form of future writing remains open to speculation, examining how the medium controls the message offers clues on two levels: first, how the feedback loop between media capabilities and usage informs e-book design; and second, how the position of the e-book on connected devices shapes narrative content. In the case of the former, margins in print books illustrate a historical precedent of the feedback loop. Margins were initially meant to serve a practical purpose, enabling readers to handle books without staining printed parts of the page. As books became commodities, margins became places to write notes, something unheard of when books were a costly luxury (Pearson 13). The design of this medium preceded new usage methods, demonstrating the often-unexpected side effects of technology. Margins remain relevant in books today, and some are even designed for effective note taking.

In a contemporary parallel, research about digital reading patterns shape the design of Web pages. In her study of close reading versus “hyperreading,” N. Katherine Hayles points out the tendency to read web content in an F pattern, which in turn transforms design choices. Important material should never be relegated to the bottom right page corner, for instance. “Canny Web designers use this information to craft Web pages, and reading such pages further intensifies this mode of reading” (Hayles 70). This feedback loop can be extended to e-books as well. The visual book metaphor ensures similar reading habits to print, but as digital documents evolve away from that, designs might morph based on hyperreading patterns. James Sosnoski introduced the idea of hyperreading as “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading,” and examples include search queries, keyword filters, hyperlinking, juxtaposing and scanning (Hayles 66). As these concepts solidify, e-book designs might follow with built-in search bars, multi-window layouts and more intentional schemes to match reader habits.

The medium also controls the message in a broader scope: the positioning of the e-book in a world of connectivity leads to massive implications, such as the reduction of narrative length and potential breakdown of the book as a whole unit. E-books primarily reside on wireless tablets, making it a swipe away from games, shows, and social media. The transition from isolated print books to a medium with connectivity forces writers to compete in an attention economy where other digital goods often provide more entertainment and gratification. Ken Wissoker, envisioning the future of the book as a media project, urges authors to remain relevant with the times by adapting their content to the platform:

If, as an author, one assumes readers are reading an e-book on an iPad or other tablet, with their e-mail and Twitter stream constantly a click away—not to mention the rest of the Web waiting nearby too—what would one need to do to keep those readers’ attention? The book should be as tight and compelling as possible. Perhaps the same study that would work as a 280-page paperback should be edited down to 75 pages. What do you really need the reader to know? There might also be more of a premium on narrative and style to make the reading experience a more engaging one. (Wissoker 133)

Without naming it, Wissoker identifies the demands of the attention economy on writers: Conform, or become obsolete. The downsizing of narrative length may appear like an incremental change, but the truncation of a literary work changes the message. Readers have always drawn a distinction between a written piece and its summary, between Shakespeare and the corresponding Spark Notes. At what point does the summary become the message itself? When Wissoker asks, “What do you really need the reader to know?” he implies a fundamental shift in value, from substance and depth to brevity and style.

While Wissoker posits the reduction of length for tablet reading, he also predicts the value of long tomes given text searchability (134). Here, the assumed value is in reader discovery, which can be improved with more available text, rather than reading a work in its entirety. In this case, the influence the medium exerts over the message could foreshadow the breakdown of the book as a whole unit. When Neil Postman addresses the power of the written word medium, he says:

“writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist – all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading” (12).

Print locks the original form, structure and flow of content according to the author’s design. Digital media capabilities such as searchability, extraction and re-organization of book segments have the opposite effect, “unfreezing” the writing. This “unfreezing” is already seen in functionality like simple copy-and-paste and Kindle’s ability to extract and present highlighted quotes from various e-books. Taken further, Wissoker envisions the possibility of a playlist model, similar to iTunes or Spotify, where readers customize playlists selected from book chapters and articles (133). Just as the playlist model in music allows for listening to a song without its entire album, it can permit and strengthen the habit of reading only selections from a book. Another potential consequence is the genesis of new vocations. As Postman remarks that writing gave birth to logicians and historians, will digital media give birth to content re-mixers? Just as there is an art to mixing musical tracks as a DJ, a new type of skilled artisan might come into demand, one that mines the digital literary trove and creates thematic playlists.

The changing mediums and literary consequences ultimately have larger societal ramifications. An examination of literature’s digital New World cannot end with technical speculation, but should extend to the cultural impact, such as how knowledge will be consumed and disseminated. Books have been vital in the lifeblood of recent civilization, functioning as both an evidence and advocate of our common humanity. They shape the current “world,” which Berardi essentially defines as shared meaning in a community. As e-books take the stage and point to an evolution in electronic literature, the question becomes: How will meaning and shared values change in this era? In 1997, Richard J. Cox writes about the already heated debate over the future of the book. He concludes:

“Whether the book is a physical object or electronic shadow is almost beside the point. The real matter is that we understand, regardless of what might replace the book, the nature of information and knowledge in our society. It is what any society or culture is held together by, the book being a part of the symbols and memories of a society” (Cox 55).

While he rightly speaks to the heart of the matter, “the nature of information and knowledge,” the evidence does not allow us to dismiss the form of the book. The medium is integral in defining the nature of information. With the digitization of literature, the New World might be the endgame in the commoditization of books, which began with low cost paperbacks. Greater accessibility leading to information fatigue ultimately leads to reduced desirability. As a result, particular types of literature, such as scholarly writing and long novels, become increasingly archaic. Various conjectures about the cultural consequences ensue: the reduced prestige of academia, or a society designed around distraction instead of attention, living from notification to notification.

The path from e-books today to such a bleak world is possible but not definite. It is fitting to echo Berardi’s sentiments, that the collapse of the old world into a new one is inevitable, but the shape and language of the New World cannot be ascertained in this transitional phase. He asks, “Will pleasure, affection, and empathy find a way to reemerge of out their conjunctive framework? Will we translate into human language the connective language of the automated semio-machine whose buzzing is growing in our heads?” (Berardi 109). Berardi ends his essay with these questions, indicating that the conquering automaton might not destroy all that is good in the old civilization. While a mindless continuation down today’s path in digital literature could spiral into distraction and de-valuation of knowledge, another vision remains possible. Though e-books are the Malinche of our literary times, standing in this crucial chasm between traditional books and a digital future, we do not need to be Malinche, defined as either a traitor or victim. As e-books bring together writers, user experience designers, and engineers, thoughtful professionals can collaborate for a higher purpose than grabbing a slice of the attention economy. With more powerful tools at our disposal, we can uphold the tradition of the book as a vehicle of knowledge and public good. The medium might control the message, but we are the ones shaping and designing the medium.


Sources
[1] Berardi, Franco. “Malinche and the End of the World.” e-Flux: The Internet Does Not Exist, Apr. 2015, pp. 100-109.
[2] Cox, Richard J. “Taking Sides on the Future of the Book.” American Libraries, vol. 28, no. 2, 1997, pp. 52–55.
[3] Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin, 2010, pp. 62-79.
[4] Pearson, Jennifer, George Buchanan, and Harold Thimbleby. “Designing for Digital Reading.” 2014.
[5] Postman, Neil. Amusing ourselves to death: public discourse in the age of showbusiness. London, Methuen, 2007.
[6] Wissoker, Ken. “The Future of the Book as a Media Project.” Cinema Journal, vol. 52, no. 2, 2013, pp. 131–137.
* Originally written for Critique of Technology at Stanford, March 2017.

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