iBooks and Media Theories

In examining the iBooks app, many of the theories discussed in Media Theory and Meaning Systems prove applicable. Understanding the cultural function of the app requires knowledge of Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, Manovich’s observations of said theory in application to digital simulation, skeuomorphism, the computer’s existence as a metamedium, Eco’s notion of the cultural encyclopedia, and the concept of the digital-analog continuum.

The iBooks app provides an obvious example of Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, in which new media are not entirely new; they remediate prior forms of media. From this perspective, iBooks remediates the printed book into a digital platform. However, as Manovich points out, new media are not simply a remediation of previous media forms, they also provide, even necessitate, new approaches to the old media. For instance, in iBooks, one can change the fonts and page color, digitally search for words in the text and compile recurrences, share passages over social media, and copy and paste passages into different textual environments. Therefore, digital simulation alters our approach to reading text.

In addition to these new innovations, the iBooks interface simulates the appearance and functionality of the printed book, possibly to ease the transition from old to new media as in the case of the skeuomorph. These holdovers from print media include the simulation of the bookshelf, page turning, bookmarks, notes/marginalia, and highlighting/underlining. According to the logic of the skeuomorph, retaining older, and thus familiar, elements serve to provide a familiar context in the digital world during the transition phase; however, they are supposed to fade away as users become acquainted with the new system. This is evident in the case of the iBooks bookshelf, which once simulated the appearance of a physical, wooden bookshelf but now merely displays the books floating on the screen. Nevertheless, it is not clear at this stage whether or not some of these functions (note-taking, for instance) will ever be replaced.

Also, the iBooks interface prevents the reader from ever encountering a book in isolation. Even if the user has only downloaded one book, access to the digital bookstore ensures that this one book always exists in a network of other books. Although theories of Intertextuality long pre-date book digitalization, iBooks reinforces the interrelation between texts through displaying them within the context of an expansive digital library. In addition, the app’s existence on a digital device providing access to a plethora of other apps—that is, on a metamedium—further connects the simulated books to an overarching cultural encyclopedia. For instance, the ability to highlight portions of text and search the internet for relevant information enables the user to connect the text with an externalized (and digitalized) cultural encyclopedia, instead of solely drawing on prior knowledge (this is also an example of the extended cognition capabilities provided by the app).

Nevertheless, printed books still exist. In fact, I only read printed books, and not (I hope) as the result of technophobia or retro-fetishism. The continued presence (for now, at least) of bookstores and publishing industries attests to the inability (for now, at least) of digital simulation to entirely supplant analog media. Instead, we exist in a digital-analog continuum.