This essay was first posted on our book design blog on July 5, 2011. That site is no longer active.
My daughter Mila, born on the second day of this year, will grow up in an era dominated by multi-touch tablets, with ever decreasing thickness and ever increasing capabilities. (Her adulthood likely will be spent with even more flexible devices for consuming information.) Eagerly I will introduce her to reading. Already she hears my voice babbling as I read aloud what she will one day read for herself. Her generation, however, is poised to encounter the stories of the world in manners that are as yet only partially known.
She will come of age in a time when writing is not simply textual (though the careful use of words will persist…must persist). The world of 2030, when Mila is in college, will view one form of writing as a composition elegantly mixing many elements, among which will be words, images, sound, and video. A critical aspect in the coming decades is that the careful use and mixture of those elements must exist.
What do we call these compositions?
Those are not the books we cherish today Those are not e-books. They most definitely are not enhanced e-books. Neither are they documentaries. Technically, the compositions will be contained in some type of app. Maybe they’re just websites. Ultimately, they’re simply stories: narratives for examining the themes that engage civilization, compositions through which we learn and share our experiences of the lives around us.
(And the twenty-first century form of storytelling is as much about the reader as it is about the author.)
A word loosely tossed around these days by media companies is content. Content is often defined by the container. Book necessitates text, perhaps joined by the occasional image. What about other containers? For instance, documentary films necessitate motion images joined with voice-over narration. With the iPad possibilities exist for a hybrid exhibiting capabilities not found in either print or film.
Feeding the reading space of 2030, through whatever magical hardware brand dominates the delivery of digital media, will be apps that are hybrids of books and documentaries.
If we think of the iPad, though, as supporting a new genre then we should step back to examine the whole experience of reading, even asking what is non-fiction? (For the sake of this discussion I leave fiction for another day.) Why do people read and spend time with non-fiction books? Ultimately, I suspect the answer revolves around learning. The desire to learn prompts us to read and, preferably, have an enjoyable experience while doing so. Similarly, that desire to learn in a satisfying manner drives us to view documentaries.
The challenge is in exploring how to leverage the tablet platform for storytelling. The iPad brings a new way of reading. Likewise, it carries forward a new way of writing.
While the publishing community scrambles for today’s solutions, the real burden is on all of us to ensure that tomorrow’s writers & editors understand the elements of style required for creating the publications that will dominate the mid-century. My daughter will be less than forty years of age in 2050. Aspects of the world will be unthinkably different then. Much will remain the same, but the way humans communicate through media will continue its long trajectory. Perhaps what we’re doing now with apps will someday appear as quaint as magic lanterns or the early years of cinema. Undoubtedly, the techniques of writing and composition in a tablet-based digital environment will evolve with time, eventually forming accepted practices that support different types of reading experiences.