Three Short Meditations on Interface



In a generation or two we will realize that the perception of reading as a solo activity had a short-life, lasting for no more than a few hundred years. And nothing tracks the changes better than the size of margins.

Well before Gutenberg perfected printing, scholarly books functioned as mnemonic devices. Professors and students stood around a table containing the one available copy and used the text as a jumping off point for discussion. They used the copious margins to record their commentary. As reading evolved  into a solitary experience, the margins diminished accordingly. For example, look at these two versions of Copernicus’ de Revolutionibus, a first edition (1543) and a current example.

The first edition has lots of room for annotation, the recent, almost none.

De_Revolutionibus_manuscript_024r     Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 1.37.17 PM

It’s not surprising, therefore, that as we see a return to social forms of reading, we also see a significant shift in the size of the margin. For example, here is a screen from the NY Times online with a very wide margin designed to accommodate an evolving culture of public discussion.




Comments Below, Comments Beside

In the early days of blogging and web commenting, the commentary ended up in a space below the text. This arrangement replicated and reinforced the hierarchy of print, with the author sending wisdom to the crowd below.

Beginning in 2006, however, we start seeing experiments placing reader comments in a margin to the right of the author’s text. One of the first was an early draft of McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory (now published by Harvard University Press).

gamer theory

Designed in this way to accommodate Wark’s innovative non-linear writing style, many people realized immediately that the hierarchy of print had been subtly but importantly subverted as the author and the reader now occupied the same vertical space. Interestingly, you can see this in the discussion that unfolds as Wark and the readers increasingly interact as relative equals, working collaboratively to deepen their understanding of a complex topic.


The Difference Between the Water Cooler Discussion and Close Reading: 

The inherent value in enabling commentary to emerge inside of rather than around a text.

Goodreads and other online sites devoted to books enable what might be called asynchronous water cooler discussions. Someone makes a general comment about a book and the next person either responds or starts a new thread. There is value in such discussions but it’s not the same as being able to zero in on specific bits of text. In the first case you are essentially doing everything from memory, making it difficult to cite and go deep into the text. One thing that seems to happen when you enable readers to tie the discussion to specific bits is that the conversation tends to keep focus, allowing people to make syntheses which are not as easy to come to in generalized water cooler discussions. Here are two screen shots, the first showing a commentary in Goodreads ABOUT Huxley’s Brave New World, the second a discussion INSIDE of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Without commenting on the value of the commentary in either, one immediately sees that the discussion in Brave New World is not particularly cohesive, with successive comments not necessarily building on one another. In the second we see concerted effort on the part of readers to work through a problem together.






2 thoughts on “Three Short Meditations on Interface

  1. Fascinating post, Bob. I’m also struck by the possibility of digital tools to create margins as needed, or to scale them based on context. For example many sites now tuck comments away unless requested, or show only a few responses among hundreds. Other sites, especially blogs, allow users to select different views that give more weight to the margin or the main text, depending on preference.

    It seems to me this flexibility is itself a radical departure from print norms, where the margin (and the rules of engagement) are generally fixed. I’m very fond of your work on McKenzie Wark’s book. The more we think about the margin, the more it troubles the whole boundary of the text itself. If the author and the reader become equals in discussion, how long before the margin becomes a new book, a new kind of text?

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