The Book (for lack of a proper title)

Yiran Sun

The Technology

The e-books are not particularly technology-heavy artifacts. In fact, its only central technology is the e-ink display, which works by relocating black and white pigments through clear fluid in a plastic sheet when charged negatively or positively. The other important part is the chip on the circuit board, which processes information and tells the e-ink display sheet which part is to be charged in what ways. On top of these are features like USB/WIFI/3G connections, the battery, the touch screen and the light guide, but none of these are essential to the e-books, especially the last two.

The traditional paper books, on the other hand, incorporate technologies such as papermaking and binding. While books in earlier times were hand copied, the mass-produced version of the artifact came with the implementation of the printing technology (the substrate).

Central to both the e-books and the paper books lays the ancient function of inscription, which have been implemented in technologies like the backlit display, the papyrus, the parchment, the ink, the clay tablets, and so on.

All of the above-mentioned formats of books are highly combinatorial in technologies, as is the case with almost all media. None of the formats is “one” particular technology innovation, despite how some marketing campaigns have attempted to make them appear.

The Mediation

Besides the technological combination, the e-books also combine both the book function and the screen function.

The book function is formed when the ancient inscription function has been implemented through social institutions such as religion (scriptures), law (codes) and education. Because these social institutions form the backbones of the society as we know it today, the book function has gained much power and prestige as the medium of transmitting and preserving human knowledge.

The screen function itself is not as old as the book, but it has its root in the representational surface function, which is perhaps as old as human cognition. It is also empowered by social institutions like the state and university (which gave the screen its initial legitimacy). Most of its power, however, came from the hardware and software that lies behind it. Software then, gained its power through the people who create and use them, through human generativity.

The Interface

Most major e-books on the market today strive hard for creating immediacy through the imitation of traditional paper-based books. They share a similar size, a similar layout, even a similar page-turning mechanism. Humans have been socialized into such kind of representation of symbols and knowledge/ideas through various implementations of the representational function and the book function, and have developed the mental model to navigate through the system (in this case, to know where to expect things such as index and text content across different technical means).

Affordance wise, like earlier paper books, e-books at its current stage does privilege text over images over video contents because of technological limitations (the residual image caused by pigments that float in the middle and the low refresh rates). However, with technological progress and further combination with other technologies, that would no longer be the case in the near future.