I want to recommend something I recently stumbled upon (literally: using StumbleUpon, I found something praised on Slashdot and tracked it down to its source): misleadingly titled “Books in the Age of iPad” — my first thought, in the wake of all the iPad hype, was “I don’t need this” — it turned out to be a very thoughtful (and, for me, revelatory) meditation by a publisher and designer on what the possibilities posed by digital content mean for “for books-makers, web-heads, content-creators, authors and designers.”  As I read what Craig Mod had to say, I thought of a critical audience he didn’t mention: faculty.

He begins with Maximum Provocation:

Print is dying.

Digital is surging.

Everyone is confused.


But what he is saying “good riddance” to is definitely not books. It is to the “disposable books” (his term) — books that don’t need to be books. His other term for this is “formless content”  (content whose meaning is not determined by the container) as opposed to “definite content” (content whose meaning would change if the container did).

Complicated by further distinctions and examples (laid out in beautiful design, by the way), this is of course not an absolute distinction, but it is definitely a thought-provoking one. For those contemplating CUNY’s eBook RFP, for example, it may help to cut through all the confusion about devices and formats and so on. When we discussed that last week at the monthly meeting of the CUNY Committee on Academic Technology (a private group on the CUNY Academic Commons as well as a University committee), I was hearing considerations that to some extent crystallized as I read Mod’s piece. What among the material we would have our students read or look at is formless and what is definite content? Remember that the latter can be digital content, not just books. And there are still odder compromises and symbioses. When I first started using Project Gutenberg, one of the  attractions was using digital means to create historically accurate facsimiles of literary texts as they originally appeared.

Of course, I’m speaking from vantage point of my (erstwhile) discipline, and I think one of the great questions here is how this distinction would play out at different kinds and levels of instruction. For me, the critical thing that Mod’s piece reinforces is how technological change almost never confronts us “either/or” choices, but with “both/and” options — always more complicated. Just as the VCR and DVD did not kill movie theaters (but made us all think more about what to watch where and when), the opportunity to assign digital content as well as traditional print textbooks has ramifications that are going to require thought, and what Mod has to say may be of some help in thinking them through. It certainly seemed so to me.

  1. Boone Gorges (he/him) Says:

    Thanks for bringing Craig Mod’s piece to my attention, George. A great read.

    The comments section is brilliant, too, in its own way. Scan the first dozen responses and you see unfurl a miniature version of all of the arguments surrounding the rise of electronic texts: paper fetishism, the environmental impact of electronic reading devices, and so on. The sad thing is that most of the comments miss the key insight of Craig’s essay, which is that the availability of new media for the consumption of text should force us to reexamine the way that content (and the value we ascribe to content) relates to the medium of presentation.

    I can only hope that some of that broader thoughtfulness finds its way into the proposals that the ebook RFP will elicit.

  2. Footenotes » Blog Archive » What? No song this week? Says:

    […] to start things off.  Turns out that the death of print is on a lot of peoples’ minds.  Tributaries went at the subject this week by looking into Craig Mod’s thoughts on the matter.  There was […]

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