Friday, April 13, 2012

The Age of the Cloistered Idea

Part One of the series Think Outside the Book.

Today I posted a Pinterest board for The Patriots of Mars. The board's empty, and will remain so until the book's out.

When the book is released, the board will fill with related quotes. These will actually be images, of course. Quotation-images  and Infographics are swelling concerns on the 'net these days. The Pinterest boards trafficking in quotes are some of the busiest on that service. Facebook has spawned a sprawling cottage industry trafficking in such things. Few attempt to make a point on Facebook anymore without leveraging an image, and that image usually involves type.

The old saw has it that a picture is worth a thousand words. In terms of 'message-capacity', if you will, a square inch of image packs more immediate punch than a block of text that size. And in a Darwinistic jungle of fast-moving messages fighting for limited attention, immediate impact can be crucial.

In this context, it's easy to understand Facebook's billion-dollar purchase of Instagram this week. Images are the future of the web, and text-images have great power.

For the first time in history, the average person can routinely communicate graphically. This was impossible via telephone or its electronic antecedents. It was possible via book, newspaper or television - but only for the few who were publishers or broadcasters. The only way for the average person to be graphically-empowered in his/her communications was to buy a Hallmark card.

This means people are becoming accustomed to thinking not just in words or numbers, but in terms of the capabilities of LOLcats, PowerPoint presentations, YouTube clips, and countless other message-image generator services.

It also means that folks buying books in this booming e-book market have a different mindset than readers had during the great paperback explosion of the 1930's.

In the past, reading as a skill remained the same regardless of the media. Whether it was a newspaper, book, or street sign, a reader went about his/her task in more or less the same way. But in a world of hypertext, two readers can come away from a paragraph with vastly different ideas, depending on which links they pursued.

The common assumption is that ebooks will increasingly contain links and interactive features such as YouTube clips. But that's not a new idea, nor is it what will differentiate e-books from all that came before.

This essay began with a mention of quotes from Patriots. We live in a world that sees and wants its ideas in pre-packaged quotes - not open-ended links. Ours is a world of processed goods and service industries, of Reader's Digest, Cliff's Notes, and an apparently endless supply of pundits to offer up platitudes a la carte. Our world wants its ideas packaged, and its options contracted - not expanded. Simplicity and convenience is the thought-merchant's credo, if (s)he wants to be successful. The future of e-books is not in opening up new doors via links to the wider web. Of course that will be (and is being) done, but that's not the Next Big Thing. (My upcoming Patriots is quite heavily linked, in anticipation of a classroom edition which will be even moreso.)

The true e-book has yet to arrive. What we have seen so far are afterthoughts - ghosts - from the print world. Occasionally, an ambitious publisher pushes out what amounts to a book-length website. These are not true products of the newly-emerging tablet medium. The e-book-to-come demands a new approach to creating literature  - an approach for which the term 'writing' seems inadequate. This approach will be so different that I don't have a fitting name to suggest for it. But I believe it will form itself around the public's love of the superficially cloistered idea-byte we call a quote.

While this new form has yet to be seen, we have seen its ancestors. We are quite accustomed to familiar song snippets slipped into new songs, TV or movies in order to lend them some of the meaning and flavor (and appeal) of the original. And some of us have seen the works of installation artists such as Jenny Holzer (pictured above).

The next installment of this series will begin to explore Holzer's lifetime of work and what it means to the coming writing revolution.

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