Although the theme for this month is the juxtaposition of “page vs. screen,” the two objects do not necessary have to be natural opposites and there are fruitful projects that can bridge the gap. In electronic literature, this is apparent in works such as Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, which features machine-readable hieroglyphics that reveal kinetic poems once placed in front of an active webcam. On a material level, Beyond Page and Screen functions as an argument for engaging with the interface between page and screen rather than assuming they are two unconnected entities.
While the electronic literature community continues to pursue the avant-garde possibilities of hybridity between physical and digital media, eReaders offer a mainstream example of the convergence of screen and page. One of the core technologies behind the popularisation of eReaders is electronic paper, or e-paper (if you’ve heard of e-ink, that is the most popular brand of e-paper), a screen that simulates paper more effectively than its flickering counterparts. E-paper technology was initially developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s (along with many other innovations that fuelled the personal computer revolution) to offer a display that was as readable as paper but with the dynamism of the screen. There are several forms of e-paper technology which all share the same couple of primary goals: (1) reject backlighting to be easier on the eyes; and (2) “imprint” an image on the screen that would require no further power until the reader wishes to change the page. This trade off makes it difficult to offer fast moving transitions or dynamic content such as videos, but it is suited for reading long-form text. It was not until 2004, however, when Sony launched their first eReader that the technology was popularised for long-form reading.
E-paper is not the only aspect of popular eReaders intended to replicate the page, eBooks are positioned as a simulation of a book with pages. When we look at the colophon and copyright pages of these eBooks, they often refer back to a print edition rather than their digital manifestation. Although eBook readers often feature a progress bar that tells you mechanically what percentage of the book you have read, they often also include page numbers. This is something fairly unique to eReaders in digital media, as the page on a website, for example, can be scrollable and extend beyond the edges of the screen. Conversely, eBooks set fixed limits on the page in a similar way to print material. Due to the technical reliance on e-paper, chunks of text must be set and reset on the page in a discrete fashion, even when the reader wishes to make the text larger for readability. This is neither the staticity of the page or the dynamism of the constantly refreshing page on the screen.
The issue is further complicated by the numbering of pages in eBooks. Apple’s iBooks, for example, calculates the page on the basis that it is the unit on the screen at any given time. If a reader changes the font size, the page numbers are recalculated and the material previously on page 32 has now completely shifted. Most worryingly, this is the only location measure available using iBooks default settings! This is an interesting mix with the iBook’s landscape mode, that simulates the book with greater consistency than the Kindle, as it displays the two columns of texts as if it were an open page with a separate verso and recto. The Kindle, however, offers more precise location information with a percentage and location marker, along with a page number that may or may not correspond with the print edition.
One of the most egregious recent examples I have come across is the Kindle edition of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. Admittedly, the copyright page not only provides information of the eBook edition but also clearly states that the version was last modified on “2013-09-03.” These are useful concessions that go a long way towards allowing researchers to reconstruct the bibliographical conditions of the eBook. Aside from these affordances, the edition is a hodgepodge mixture of pages and locations that is more confusing than helpful. Location 1 and 1% both start at the title page but as soon as the pages start at the beginning of the first numbered chapter (after the introduction), the locations disappear. Following the conclusion (p. 331), the index, notes and afterword all appear without pages. Most absurdly, the index appears with the warning, “the pagination of this electronic edition does not match the edition from which it was created. To locate a specific passage, please use the search feature of your e-book reader.”
Clearly, eBooks are still maturing and many of these problems could be fixed with an invisible update on behalf of the platform designers and content creators. E-paper and eBooks work well as a convergence between page and screen but perhaps it is important for them to develop their own conventions and formation of the concept of “e-page” to remain a viable and consistent format in the future.