A Clay Tablet Is Not a Book

On: October 19, 2010
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About Mareline Heijman
Prior to the master New Media, I've completed the ba Media & Cultuur at the University of Amsterdam. Interests: virtual reality, identity, future, creation, the way new media shapes us.


Mcluhan believed the medium to be the message. When we are trying to understand the effects of the medium, we ought to analyze the medium. And when the medium changes, the message is bound to transform.

Who’s utopian vision is it to carry all your files, music, films, images and “books” on an exterior device? More and more we’ve incorporated the notion that these media is in fact ‘us’, or a reflection; a part of ourselves, if you will. Our personal task is to collect and select. Where Marx states that commodities carry identities, now these commodities are getting increasingly intangible. Our carefully selected collection can be connected to our social life through social media. The connection of devices that carry e-books and social media lies within possibilities of the future. I just don’t get why potential customers fall for the separate e-reader trick. Indeed, there are several justified motivations to use digital texts rather than traditional paperwork. But we all know that e-readers are not necessary. If we were a little more patient, brands would come up with devices that are made for reading; plus everything else. The Ipad is a premature example of this. Although an Ipad itself already can be seen as a big Iphone and so on. Did you know that e-books can be read on the pc and on the laptop as well? We have to understand that consumer technologies are not merely products of a teleological act of development. Releases of products to the markets are artificially controlled. Eventually these are subject to our expressed needs: that’s the mechanism of supply and demand.  But it’s the job of marketers to manipulate our needs. How to resist? It seems like we can’t simply be patient. The fall of religion came with the rise of a “Here and Now” mentality. Emancipation emphasized the idea that if you want something, you owe it to yourself to go and get it. Women feel empowered in the act of consumerism, proudly paying for the shoes on their feet. How more I start thinking about this, how more it feels like we’re caught in the web of marketers and capitalism as a whole. Let’s return to e-books.

For one: E-BOOKS ARE NOT BOOKS. I believe that a book can only be called a book when it resembles a general concept of a book. No matter how much it’s tried to mimic a book onto a display, it’s clearly not the same. With the e-book format mimicking the traditional book as much as possible, it’s tempting to romanticize all the advantages of the e-book over the paperbacked version. One might say: I can carry my entire stash of titles around at all times, it’s light weighted, better for the environment (which I personally highly doubt) nevertheless; and several other improvements are in attendance, such as the easy scoop and zoom function, which is great. Easy access for ‘all’ is also very great. But we can’t see e-reading as merely an improvement to paperbacked books, it’s purely something else. While this piece of technology is disguised in a comforting good old book format (including page turning) this virtual representation of books can be less innocent than they seem. The so-called e-book will have various implications on a lot of issues. For example, our notion of the real will change when we use ‘books’ that are different then books but still called ‘books’. What about a hyper realistic state in which there’s no real anymore. Sounds scary. What about sentiment, nostalgia, emotional attachments to religious books. Books won’t show signs of decay anymore. If everything becomes digital, we as animals are the only evidence of evanescence in this world. What will that possibly do to our perception of eternity and time?

When we annoyingly closely examine the new medium of the written word we might extract the following conclusions. It’s not new. We’re already e-publishing texts for roughly two decades now. E-publishing is the abbreviation of electronic publishing. No printed books and articles need to be involved. Next to the novelty of e-books and e-readers, e-publishing also involves the highly integrated news offering websites and libraries and offline encyclopedias and dictionaries, in fact we can call all the digital substitutes for printed publishing: e-publishing. E-publishing is especially suitable for specific kinds and genres of texts. For example the faster publishing time is particularly beneficial in the case of news sites. Also it’s possible to update texts. Apparently there’s a major distinction to be made between online many to many texts and the supposedly safely fixed and stored e-books. I would say, that this distinction will break down completely. Who’s in control of the online content? Who can modify and delete, trace and target?

There are enough speculations about coming e-book applications, mostly concerning interactivity. Videos, soundbites, notes, you name it. Future apps will alter the e-book in such a manner that there’s no way we can still view it as a book. The whole reading experience will be different. It will mess up our current perceptions and what’s more, it will modify completely what we write about, how we write about it, who writes and so forth. If I remember correctly, books came about in the middle ages. Only a several centuries ago that is. Throughout the history of civilization of men, mechanisms of text processing have changed. And such, content has been in a constant state of flux. Now with books, content is bound to genre specific formats. How will popular fiction amend due to a future of e-books? Amazone is already calling for a new format: 10.000 to 30.000 words, roughly 30 to 90 pages: “Kindle Singles” are e-books with the content of a few chapters of a typical book. Regarding the amount of characters we might as well call the digital texts e-clays.

Even though printed books might not vanish entirely, the imminent surge of e-books will lead to a transformation of content. When e-reading becomes our primary means of acquiring texts, we must prepare ourselves for some changes. Please don’t get me the wrong way. This bit of writing doesn’t seek to motivate the statement that e-reading is wrong and books have to stay put. Everything is constantly changing and there’s no win in getting fixed on things that once were. What I’m trying to imply is that we have to stay aware on what’s happening and keep an eye on interests that come into play, to get the most out of developmental change. And get the most out of e-reading.


Mcluhan, M. (1964) “The Medium is the Message” The New Media Reader.

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