Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When More Interactive is, Um, Less Interactive

Regularly scheduled programming has recommenced. We are having some technical difficulties, however, and random pictures of cute babies may accidentally be spliced into future posts.

So... the iPad is here. I won't even make name jokes. But its introduction has brought out more of a certain kind of comment that makes me cringe a little. Maybe you've heard it, or something similar...

"I can't wait! Ebooks will make everything more interactive, and there will be links and music and video in my books! It's so supercool that books will be evolving into something even better! Interactive, oh yeah!"

It's not that I'm down on ebooks. They're not really my thing, but if it suits other people, well, that's great. They have my blessings. And it's not even that I'm against books with "interactive" elements. I could see this as a viable and interesting genre. I think of the way graphic novels have blossomed in the last couple decades, and I can see a similar niche for the interative book.

What troubles me is this idea of replacement I hear bandied about... the idea that these interactive books will somehow be superior to the ones we have now, and will thus soon replace them (and writers, I guess, will have to become writers/programmers/video editors). And what will set these new and improved books apart, of course, is this idea of interactivity.

And oh does this vex me a little. The word "interactivity", I think, is misleading, at least in one sense. Yes, the book might be more interactive in a physical sense. A link to click on, a button to push... but are we really getting excited about pushing a button in this day and age? The basic fact is that the more "interactive" a text becomes in this sense the less interactive it actually becomes for the reader.

The true value of literature, I think, is that the reader is the co-creator of the story, for it lives only in a fusion of the writer's words and the reader's imaginative perception. It is interactive on a deeply human level. The written word requires this fusion to make itself real. Music, film, theatre... these exist outside the audience. They are what they are. Yes, there will be slight variances in perception from person to person that will shape these experiences. But for a story... it doesn't really exist until translated within the reader's mind, shaped by each individual's unique consciousness.

Endless studies have shown the difference in brain activity between watching television and reading. The first is passive, the second active... and so when we talk about "interactive" books we are actually talking about books that are being forced into an ever greater passivity, a passivity that is disguised by the "interactivity" of pushing a button or clicking on a link. For every element of interactivity we add, we interrupt what John Gardner called the fictive dream, that seamless sense of the story made real within the mind, the words becoming translucent as the brain creates the story. Interactivity breaks that imaginative fusion between word and thought. The mind resettles itself as observer rather than participant.

Would interactive books draw non-readers in? Perhaps. But if what they wanted was alternate media experiences, wouldn't they just search those out? And would they be drawn to the text or the interactive experiences? And would it be necessary to keep increasing such passive interactivity in order to keep these "readers" coming back? Why keep the text at all?

Again, I'm not entirely against the concept. I believe there's a genre here waiting to happen, a mixed media form that can make use of both forms of interaction. But this idea of evolution or replacement bothers me, for it seems a devolution in many ways.

Anyone else cringing at this idea?


Ms Kitty said...

Interactive books? Reminds me of children's books - the pop-up book - bright colors and cleverly folded paper.

Ever read one with a plot? A real story-line? No?

Because the pretty whiz-bang becomes more important than the content. There just isn't time write a fabulous story THEN to juice it up with video and music. Unless the author becomes a team member. The first editorial pass that deletes the opportunity for something technical will, of course, cause the whole thing to stop working.

I suppose that YA will adopt it - but I don't see adult level reading jumping on the bandwagon any time soon.

Ink said...

Choose Your Own Adventures for everyone! How to find your own happy ending...


Ms Kitty said...

Exactly! They were a fad for a while - but didn't last very long.

BTW - the news of the baby is just wonderful - hope you get some sleep eventually.

Ink said...

Little guy is actually sleeping pretty well the last few nights... fingers firmly crossed. And toes, too.

Jane Steen said...

I can see the value of making some kinds of books interactive. I like the idea of an interactive nonfiction (biography for instance) where there can be links to extra photos, maps, relevant music and so on.

Sometimes this might work in lit genres. Maps and illustrations for historical fiction, perhaps?

On the other hand, what's the betting that "interactive" is going to evolve into some kind of advertising, overt or subtle? Ugh.

Perhaps paper books will survive as POD editions that you can have bound with matching leather bindings IF YOU LIKE. Let me fantasize for a moment... the return of decent bindings with gorgeous stamped leather and stitching... or even the classy imitation kind popular with Bible buyers. Then you can have your fictive dream WITH bindings that stay open while you're drinking your cup of tea. I'd pay for that.

The Sesquipedalian said...

As Jane Steen said, I could see the value in non-fiction. My kids had interactive Eyewitness DVDs when they were young that would probably translate well to such an interactive book format. But I absolutely agree that in most cases making interactive fiction would just serve to move the reader from a participant in the story to a mere observer.

Oh, and congrats on the little one. I've been a parent for over 20 years and every day has been an adventure. Enjoy the ride!

Ink said...

Parenting is a fun ride. I'd say more, but my three year old is repetitively kicking a cupboard for no apparent reason...


The Sesquipedalian said...

I hope you have really good seat belts when you hit those teenage years. Now that's a wild ride!

On second thought, I'd recommend air bags.