follow the gamers — my piece in the april Wired

This month’s Wired has an article by Steven Levy on the expected impact of the iPad. The article includes a sidebar with thirteen comments from various people including me. The editors cut my first paragraph which contained some crucial context so I’ve reproduced the whole thing here:
Although we date the “age of print” from 1454, more than two hundred years passed before the “novel” emerged as a recognizable form. Newspapers and magazines took even longer to arrive on the scene. Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.
Twenty-five years ago, when I founded the Criterion Collection and Voyager, my imagination reached only as far as multi-media — enabling authors to express ideas with a more complex palette that included audio, video, text and graphics. The CD-ROMs of the early nineties hinted at these possibilities. However, with the advent of the internet, particularly the web browser, it’s now clear that locating works in a dynamic digital network promises even more fundamental changes.
Although we grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in her garret, the most important thing my colleagues and I have learned s from a series of experiments with “networked books” is that as discourse moves off the page onto the networked screen, the social aspects of reading and writing move from background to foreground. This transition has profound implications for readers, writers, and publishers, as traditional hierarchies flatten and online communities proliferate. A book is on its way to becoming a “place” where readers congregate, sometimes with authors. Lest this sound far-fetched, Motoko Rich, who covers the book industry for the New York Times, took note of this trend on January 24th, writing that “Reading might well have been among the last remaining private activities, but it is now a relentlessly social pursuit.”
The arrival of the Apple, Android and Nokia tablets ups the ante for publishers. Simply moving printed texts to the tablets (as they have with the Kindle) will be of value, but within five to ten years the most successful publishers will have enthusiastically embraced new multimedia-based forms. More importantly, they will have figured out how to structure these works as vibrant communities of interest.
My sense is that this time around it’s not going to take humanity two hundred years to come up with the equivalent of the novel, i.e. a dominant new form. Not only do digital hardware and software combine into an endlessly flexible shapeshifter, but now we have gaming culture which, unlike publishing, has no legacy product or thinking to hold it back. Multimedia is already its language, and game-makers are making brilliant advances in the building of thriving, million-player communities. As conventional publishers prayerfully port their print to tablets, game-makers will jump on the immense promise of these shiny, intimate, networked devices.

4 thoughts on “follow the gamers — my piece in the april Wired

  1. Bob Stepno

    Your reference to the centures between Gutenberg and the first novel echoes Mitchell Stephens’ speculations about fast-cut video as a storytelling medium in his (print-only?) book, “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word.”
    Personally, I’m still waiting for a flat panel with a cool-running cpu and an emulator to let me run all those OS-9 Voyager discs I bought in the 1990s. Add an authoring system and a collaborative online community… and I hope the device will have Mary Lou Jepsen’s transflective color-indoors, reflective-outdoors screen.

  2. Don

    Bob. I may be making a fine point here, but an important one to me (a writer).
    The novel is a new form only by the narrowest of definitions. Novels are stories and stories have been around since the beginning of time.
    How a cave dweller (15,000 years ago) or publisher (today) exploits stories may be, as you say, media dependent, but it has little to do with the arc of narrative, the hero’s journey or the nature of humans need to experience fiction.

  3. Mike Booth

    I found your remarks about the possible networked future of literary creation to be positively mind opening. None of that had occurred to me. But then, back in the 80’s when Word Perfect came out I said, “Word processor? That’s preposterous. You don’t ‘process’ words. You write them!” So much for incisive foresight.

  4. Amadio Arboleda

    The “age of print” in Europe dates from 1454. The age of print in China, and subsequently East Asia, dates from about 700 years before that. Gutenberg’s invention was a logical new follow up to China’s invention.

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