One key aspect about celebrating “Earth Day” is a call for people to reduce their carbon footprint. That includes recycling and either utilizing as few natural resources as possible, or wisely using what we have. People are encouraged, for example, to “think green and keep it on the screen;” that is, not wasting paper to print something. The “Earth Day” movement began in California, so it was interesting to see The Los Angeles Times’ 17th Annual Book Festival, held at the University of Southern California on April 22, practically celebrate the printed book. The festival took an interesting approach to the future of publishing with its panel, “Future Books: Media in the Digital Age.” It looked to the past to help gauge the practicality of what many see as the growing acceptance of e-books.
Moderator Holly Willis, Director of Academic Programs at the USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy; Anne Balsamo, professor at USC’s Annenberg & School of Cinematic Arts and Director of Learning, Annenberg Innovation Lab; Steve Anderson, Assistant Professor of Interactive Media at USC’s School of Cinema-Television and Associate Editor of the journal Vectors; and Catherine Quinlan, Dean of USC Libraries, collectively offered dialogue on the dual excitement and anxiety surrounding the future of reading. But, they centered mostly on the past.
Balsamo showcased examples from her experience developing the interactive museum exhibit “XFR: Experiments in the Future of Reading” created by the group RED (Research on Experimental Documents) at Xerox PARC in the late 1990’s. Accessible through the Designing Culture website, many of these provided a dose of retrospective humor, like the future-from-the-past vision of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie Brazil: XFR’s Tilting Tables, for example, or the Reading Eye Dog, which “translated” the printed page, and as Balsamo mentioned, was designed as a dog since interacting with a canine seemed markedly superior to interacting with a humanoid robot. (Sometimes, people seem to be able to relate better to dogs than other humans.)
Anderson scanned some of the new media from his book and website Technologies of History, in particular in his project “Technologies of History Interactive,” a composite of experimental film, television, video games and digital media that explores how we relate to the historical events of our lives.
Quinlan closed the panel with a discussion of the library’s challenge in storing, preserving and ensuring access to digital media, such as Anderson’s project. As she mentioned, “the more recent the medium, the more quickly it rots.”
This may seem like typical California tree-hugging experimentation, but I can see the greater purpose. You can’t fully grasp your future unless you thoroughly understand your past. New technologies are great, but only within the context of the people who use them. People loathed, even feared computers a generation ago and scoffed at Bill Gates’ outrageous idea to make them personal and intimate by putting one in every home. Even in the early 1990’s, few could have imagined how Microsoft and the Internet would change the American landscape. Today, few people have e-readers, including me. But, just a decade ago the concept of reading a book from a computer screen on your lap sounded as ridiculous as the personal computer did 20 years earlier. We’ll see where all that ambition takes us in the ensuing decade.