Are E-books just a transitional technology?

On: October 19, 2010
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About Cristina Reyna
Cristina Reyna New Media Master Student 2010/2011 Cristina was born in Colombia, she moved to Belgium to study in the Catholic University of Louvain, since then she has been involved in women rights issues. She works in the field of development, migration and peace.


“At breakfast Sal reads the news. She still prefers the paper form, as do most of the people. She spots an interesting quote from a columnist in the business section. She wipes her pen over the news paper´s name, date, section and page number and then circles the quote. The pen sends a message to the paper, which transmits the quote to her office.” Marc Weiser, The computer for the 21st Century, 1991

Almost 20 years ago Marc Weiser was already presenting the future of the e-readings in an article about the ubiquitous computer. He foresaw that digital technologies would become so much part of every single act of life that no one would perceive them anymore.  Computers are a transitional technology; they still demand too much attention forcing people to adapt to them. In a more mature stage and to transcend in time, computers should adapt to human beings.

Coming across this article it seems for me the missing link between the printing paper and the E-Book. In fact, if e-books can open us the door for free access to publishing and reading, they are still in the stage of transition, we are reading on digital the same we read on paper, so the  public can only see the advantages in its free access but not yet in its potential in terms of added dimensions or interactivity .

Learning to read and write in three dimensions

The Renaissance brought the revolution in painting shaping the third dimension. In Las Meninas Velázquez captured this third dimension, expressing in a magnificent way a revolutionary painting. With the light, the geometrical and the color perspectives Velázquez suggests a new revolutionary language in his painting, he even suggests a 4th dimension introducing the time, each person in the painting is captured in different instants of the moment when the King entered the room.

In the same way as the Renaissance brought a revolution and was able to open another way of observing a painting, e-reading could be part of the revolutionary era of the New Media, but in my opinion, the reader is still in the Middle Age, the reading is one-dimensional and so are the e-books. One is transferring the reading from the printing to the digital, but not really using all the advantages that the digital publishing can offer us. To give a futurist example, when Harry Potter opens a book he can see the illustrations moving, the family in the photos is waving hands and he can even talk to them. Of course this is the magical world of a fiction tale, but it seems to me not so far from what it could actually be.

The fact of reading either to find a data or to enjoy ourselves in a fiction, the distracted browsing the morning’s newspaper, the careful read of the medical formula, the revision of a lesson in a notebook before the test; all these readings required the same neural and physiological abilities. These skills are not “natural”; they are the product of the evolution of the human being, they also change the reader’s mind. One will need another digitalized generation in order to acquire a 3D reading skill.


Some arguments against the digital reading would say that the greatest strength of the paper lies in the fact that the mind settles into a state of tranquility passivity resulting in more accurate reflections. This state is much more difficult to achieve when reading in digital format where the information is infinite and where there are many activities available at the same time.

Modern minds are demanding other kind of attentions than only reading long news, or dense academic  readings, the mind is having more and more difficulties to keep for long time attention on the same issue, zapping or browsing is part of our current way of reading.

E-reading still has challenges to overcome; it could offer better conditions than the paper reading. One should be able to read in the garden or in the beach without sun reflecting or sand harming the delicate screen, in a long flight without running out of battery or under the tree in a village without electricity.

The digital paper with interactive sounds and images, pad and tabs that allows us a 3D lecture, a digital pen allows one to circle on the paper and not lose notes, are technologies that could overcome these challenges, and perhaps e-reading is just a transition between the printing read and the ubiquitous computer proposed by Weiser. A 3D reading will then make the revolution.


Marc Weiser, The computer for the 21st Century, Palo Alto Research (1991)

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