Monthly Archives: July 2009

Why Creating A New Word For Reading On Screen Is A Terrible Idea…

Multi-column layout: better than a poke in the eye with a sharp pixel…

Dan Bloom is a journalist who currently lives in Taiwan. Over the past few days, he’s generated a flurry of activity on this blog, my Inbox and on FaceBook, with a suggestion that we need to create a new term to describe the activity of reading onscreen. He suggests the term “screening”. (See the comments on my previous post: Paper Dies – But Reading Lives: The Richness of Future Web Reading )

Dan was also very enthusiastic about the multi-column layouts I’ve been experimenting with on my website, and wants to know if there are free templates anywhere he can use, for example so he could read his email in multi-column.

He asked for my opinion on the term “screening”. So here it is:

Creating a new term for reading onscreen is not only unneccessary, but actually counter-productive.

However, Dan’s heart is clearly in the right place, so rather than just respond with another in a string of comments, I decided to escalate the topic and make it the subject of this post. (It’s my party, and I’ll blog if I want to…)

First, the term “screening”. IMO, that’s like admitting defeat – that somehow “reading on screen” is different to “reading on paper”. It’s not. Yes, there are differences today. Reading on screen is not as comfortable as reading from paper. But it can – and should – be. Once it is, then all the advantages of digital information really start to pay off.

Imagine a conversation between two people, fifty years from now…

“How did they communicate information back in the old days?”

“Well, they’d plant trees. After 30 or 40 years of growth, they’d cut them down and transport them in hydrocarbon-burning vehicles to a place called a pulp mill. There, they’d mash them up with a load of chemicals (when they were done with the chemicals, they’d dump them in the nearest river).

“Then they’d roll and press the pulp into long sheets of “paper”. They’d transport those (again, in hydrocarbon-burning vehicles) to a printing works, where they’d use huge machines to put dirty marks on the “paper”, fold it, cut it up, and transport it (more trucks) to the readers, or “bookshops” where people would go to buy the information they wanted or needed.”

Anyone really believe we’ll still be doing that, 50 years from now? For any kind of information?

In the early days of automobiles, they were noisy, smelly and unreliable. In some parts of the world, you weren’t allowed to drive one on the road without a man carrying a red flag walking in front of you as a warning to other road users.

People said the automobile would never replace the horse as the primary means of transport…

As far as reading onscreen is concerned, it’s still the early days. It took about 400 years from Gutenberg to the Linotype machine. We’ve been doing onscreen reading for about 25 years – and it’s only been even halfway bearable for about 10.

We don’t need the man with the red flag any more, but the automobile is still noisy, unreliable – and stinks.

There’s no reason it should be that way. All the technology we need to make reading great on a screen already exists, and could be implemented within a year or two. But the technology companies who make Web browsers, and the people who create Web content, have decided that fighting battles over market share based on “features check lists” is more important than stepping up and implementing a comprehensive plan to make real improvements for everyone who reads on the Web.

Technology companies don’t “get” the importance of fixing reading on screen. Journalists do. That’s why I’m really happy to see someone like Dan stirring up the waters here.

Journalists should be giving technology and media companies a hard time, along the following lines…

  • Reading and writing are still the primary means of human communication (because text is easiest to create).
  • Reading and writing are moving from “making and viewing dirty marks on shredded trees” to “making and viewing digital information”.
  • Reading onscreen is still inferior to reading from paper.
  • What’s your plan to make reading onscreen just as good?
  • What’s your schedule for implementing that plan?

I’d like to see the answers they give.

Now, on the subject of templates for multicolumn layout. The short answer is: I don’t have any, although you’re welcome to use any of the HTML and CSS markup from my website.

But at the risk of repeating myself yet again:

  • Multicolumn layout is much more suited to the screen than single-column (because of the way human vision works)
  • However, it can’t work without Pagination (who wants to scroll down to the bottom of one column, then have to scroll a long way up to the top of the next?)
  • There are many different sizes and shapes of screen. Information has to be paginated “on the fly” for each device
  • This requires adaptive layout. It’s not rocket science – you can see it at work today in applications like the New York Times Reader. But no-one’s doing it on the Web yet, although it’s easily possible.

Fixing reading on screen is vitally important for the human race. You can instantly create the Library of Congress in a village in West Africa. Digital information can be easily translated into minority languages. Books will cost less. Information can be kept up to date. And so on, and so on.

I happen to believe that the first Web browser to do this properly will leave all the others sitting in the dust, wondering just where their market share disappeared to.

I see plenty of “features lists” from the browsers. What I don’t see is strategic, long-term vision.

Paper Dies – But Reading Lives: The Richness of Future Web Reading

Title page from the 1543 edition of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporus Fabrica

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed it’s been pretty quiet for the past few days…

On the other hand, the more alert among you will have noticed that “The Book I’m Reading Now” at the top of the blog was Elizabeth Eisenstein’s groundbreaking work, “The Printing Press As An Agent Of Change”. It’s a magnificent analysis. But it’s a huge reading task – well over 700 pages, very dense. It’s not a casual read; you do have to work at it.

I first read it about ten years ago, while I was doing the intensive research work for The Magic of Reading, but it seemed like a good idea to read it again. The first time, I was more concerned about reading issues per se, but this time it struck me that I’d watched ten years of Internet development since then – and taken part in eBook, eMagazine, eNewspaper and Web development myself.

This is why I like to read books more than once. The book you read is never exactly the same as the author wrote. Because the “real” book goes on inside your head, you always bring your own life experiences, perceptions and state of mind to it. And those are constantly changing – which means you never read the same book twice.

It’s also a good reason to ignore the critics’ view of any book, movie, piece of music or art. Their background is very different to mine – or yours…

There was another good reason for re-reading Eisenstein. A recent blog post by Clay Shirky talked about “thinking the unthinkable”, predicting that the death of newspapers is now certain, although no-one yet knows what will replace them. Shirky referred to Eisenstein, pointing out that the first result of Gutenberg’s technology was a fair amount of chaos, and no-one could have predicted exactly how things would turn out.

Well, it was very interesting. I found myself reading Eisenstein in a very different and much richer way than before. Here’s an example. One of the most influential early printed books was Vesalius’ De Humani Corporus Fabrica, a textbook on human anatomy.

I kept coming across references to it in the text. So much so that I really wanted to take a look at it for myself. In pre-Web days, that would have been a task. But I found a link to a beautiful Flash-based version created by Northwestern University in Illinois, complete with a high-resolution picture of the title page – a great piece of art in itself. Check out the pickpocket being caught in the act in the bottom right of the picture – and the coat-of-arms with the three weasels (Vesalius’ hometown was Wesel in Germany). Jokes that still work after almost five centuries…

When I came across references to logarithms – invented by John Napier, a fellow-Scot (but with a better grasp of mathematics than me) – I could go on to Wikipedia and find out more.

John Napier (1550-1617)

I kept doing the same thing, over and over again. Come across a reference, put down the book, go to my computer, do a Web search (I do like Bing, BTW, that’s become my default search engine), find some good links, spend some time exploring them. I could sometimes spend an hour or more on the background reading before going back to the book.

In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.

This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.

However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…

I would have liked both: A Kindle version of Eisenstein for portable reading, AND my great MacBook Pro laptop (running Vista) for Web searching and references.

I came across a blog post the other day by someone who had recently read Eisenstein and said it didn’t really get interesting until after the first couple of hundred pages.

He must have been reading with his eyes (or mind) closed. Here was this woman, Elizabeth Eisenstein, single-handedly taking on most of the Renaissance historians, art historians, theological historians etc. of the past couple of hundred years – and eviscerating them. I kept seeing pictures of Joan of Arc in my mind (almost the right period). This is one brave, tough lady, who by herself changed the perception of the impact of printing on the world.

As I said, don’t expect an easy ride – it’s hard work. But if you stick with it, hopefully like me you’ll end up awestruck. Read the combined volumes 1 and 2 – it’s available (but a pricey $61.20) on Amazon in my Recommended Books widget.

BTW, for the past couple of months I’ve been running FireFox as my default browser. Since I run it on Windows, I get ClearType. And it really is very good. I prefer it to Internet Explorer for one main reason – I can “skin” Firefox so the browser chrome is less intrusive on the eyes. I’m using Anycolor, and the dark gray menus, address bar etc are a lot better. Someone also quietly fixed the bug I complained about a few weeks ago. When you put FF into FullScreen view, the bottom of the screen used to leave uncleaned garbage pixels at the bottom – some kind of repaint bug. Anyway, it’s gone now, and FF behaves really well going into and out of FullScreen.

Internet Explorer’s a great browser. But it seems to me that the team I left really has its work cut out if they intend to recover lost market share. If I was a FireFox user, I could see no good reason to switch back to IE – especially if I’d installed Firefox 3.5. And it seems readers of this blog are voting with their feet in much that way – 48.1% of them are Firefox users, with IE users totalling 26.96%. If those figures start to be repeated across the Web, then IE is in deep trouble…