Rich Gold likes to turn expectations on their heads. And he gets paid to do it. In fact, he gets to run an entire department devoted to what he calls, alternately, “speculative engineering” and “speculative design.”
At the recent Book Tech West conference in San Francisco, Gold was one of two keynote speakers. Because Book Tech chose, oddly, to schedule the two separate keynote speeches against each other, I can’t tell you anything about the other (by Adobe’s e-book guy Kevin Nathanson), but of all the talks and presentations I heard, Gold’s was hands-down the most energetic and fascinating. Clearly, Gold takes delight in tossing out ideas; his lively patter was full of them.
The Future of Reading
Rich Gold is the head of a multidisciplinary laboratory, called RED, or “Research in Experimental Documents,” at Xerox PARC. The subject of his talk was “The Future of Reading,” and RED has addressed this question in a number of unusual ways. The most highly visible is its exhibit last year at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, “Experiments in the Future of Reading,” which is currently on tour around the country. The San Jose exhibit featured such things as Very Long Books (physical walls o’ book), Very Fast Books (quick! – what was that word?), Deep Books (books you can “drill into”), and even Sensitive Books (tackling how people think and feel about different writing systems from around the world).
Despite repeated assertions of how boring everyone thinks his subject is (“Reading? Yawn”), Gold repeatedly made startling statements about what reading is and how we do it. First he pointed out that our mental image of a solitary individual sitting in a chair with a good book is just one aspect of reading — and not the way most reading is actually done. Reading is all around us; it’s in the air, sometimes quite literally, with wayfinding, signage, advertising, and even portable language — the stuff we wear on our own bodies. Reading defines where we are in the physical world.
Gold said humans have both bibliographic cultures and epigraphic cultures: cultures that read books or similar compendiums of words privately, and cultures that read publicly displayed words. (I suspect it’s a bit facile to call these separate cultures, since in our own culture we do both all the time. But recognizing the distinction is useful.) Bibliographic reading is mostly done on a horizontal surface, like a library table or a lap; epigraphic reading is done from a vertical surface, such as the side of a building. Museums, he pointed out, are essentially “large epigraphic reading experiences.”
He also delved into how much we can modulate the media we use to communicate: not just surfaces covered with writing but the air around us (when we speak, making sound waves), or pieces of paper (once we’ve written on it, we can’t easily unwrite our words), or computer screens.
Authoring All the Way Down
Gold showed a little matrix he uses to categorize the areas his group works in: Art, Science, Design, and Engineering. He drew a square with four compartments (see below); the top two were Art and Science, while the bottom two were Design and Engineering. He said there was a fundamental difference between the areas above and below the center line — a functional difference based on who the people engaged in each of those areas have to deal with most often. Those who work in Art and Science have to satisfy Patrons and Peers; those who work in Design and Engineering are more dependent on Customers and Users.
He used the term “authoring” a lot, and he questioned the idea of simple passive reading. As a practical matter, the company Gold works for, Xerox, is interested in producing “a book a minute” and getting that book into the hands of the people who want it. In the expected coming age of “ubiquitous computing,” when there may be no such thing as a separate “computer” but computational power is built in to almost every manmade object (like the three or four “computers” found in any automobile today), the distinctions we make now between e-books and print-on-demand volumes may simply not matter. Gold talked about what he called “total writing: authoring all the way down:” Instead of making up pure text and sending it out in the world to be treated or mistreated at will, the creator manipulates everything about the way that text is received, from the design of the page to, conceivably, the environment in which it’s read. To complement this, he spoke of “deep reading” — reading that engages deeply with the context as well as the text. (“We should have called it ‘total reading,’ but it turned out that someone already had the phrase trademarked.”)
Gold is skeptical of the currently popular idea of “convergent” reading or publishing. The symbol of this is the e-book, where any piece of text can be downloaded to the same reading device — the same medium — and be treated the same. Gold described one of his favorite books when he was a child, a book about elephants where the pages were actually cut into the shape of an elephant, so that the book itself was (when held or seen from the side) a little elephant. “You can’t put the elephant book in an e-book,” said Gold.
“Image, genre, media, and context are all authorable,” he said. This is what he meant by “authoring all the way down.” If he’s right, it’s a golden opportunity for people who can combine disciplines and work not only with “content” but with everything about the “context” of that content — with pretty much everything, in fact, within reach.
How We’ll Read
Rich Gold’s talk was the sort that makes you walk out with your head spinning. I know I, for one, could spend a lot more of my time in what he calls “speculative design.” The future of reading will include everything that’s gone before, but it’s going to include a lot we can’t even dream of yet. What better than to spend your days pushing the frontiers of the dream?