Johanna Drucker, Skeuomorphism, and Technological Indebtedness

“The promotional rhetoric presumes that books are static, fixed, finite forms that can be vastly improved through the addition of so-called “interactive” features. Testing those claims against the design of various means of text access and display in electronic formats one encounters a field fraught with contradictions. Electronic presentations often mimic the most kitsch elements of book iconography while for the longest time the newer features of electronic functionality seemed not to have found their place in the interface at all. So we see simulacral page drape but very little that indicated the capacity for such specifically electronic abilities.”

  • Drucker, Johanna. “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-Space.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Eds. Ray Siemens and Susan Schriebman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 11/14/2015.

This raises an interesting issue with digital versions of texts: Skeuomorphism. Many ereaders (from Kindles to iPhone readers to the Internet Archive, such as this copy of Joyce’s Ulysses) attempt to mimic hard-copy codex reading. The page drape and navigation – moving “through” the “book” from “left” to “right” – we must remember is merely a technological method chosen by some publishers as the codex first emerged, which could just as easily be top to bottom; and either way, it is entirely contrived and purely aesthetic in a digital environment. Doing so also requires page breaks, which, I have argued many times, break the flow of reading


moreso even than extra-spaced paragraph breaks, and give an illusion of unity to the text on a given page vs. the text on a subsequent page. If one is to use a new medium, why not design the navigational technology as most fitting for that medium? Particularly if page breaks in books are seen (as most of my colleagues see them) as either inconsequential necessities (if they disagree with my above argument) or necessary evils (if they agree) of the codex form rather than important elements of a text, why not use digital media to create a page-less (or mono-paged) text?

However, Drucker makes a very important point which suggests that such “simulacral” skeuomorphism perhaps is paying due homage to the indebtedness digital reading owes to hard-copy reading: “Understanding the way the basic spatio-temporal structure of the codex undergirds the conceptual organization of reading spaces is still important as we move forward with designing new environments for publication.” The structure of the codex has, indeed, wide-ranging influence on our conceptions of textuality and our methods of reading and writing. Pagination, alone, is wildly useful as opposed to its scroll-like counterpart. Pagination in codices has allowed for navigational tools – indices, glossaries, tables of contents, and of course methods of scholarly citation – which have largely come to influence our methods of structuring digital texts. Look at a Wikipedia page – whether scholarly or not, it is still one of the most-read websites online – and note the table of contents and categorization systems running at the top along the left and right margins, which allow for rapid navigation in search of specific information. These are, of course, easily accomplished through local href links in the HTML without any need for pagination, but their structure and technological function is nigh-identical with its predecessors in the codex. And, as Drucker notes, the very spatio-temporal structure we use for reading and writing is based on codex movement. Moving through a text one line at a time, page after page, is by no means a necessity to navigating a given text. Database structures clearly show that a large body of text can be split into a variety of sections which correlate (or link) to one another in any number of ways and can be accessed in nigh-infinite different orders. But because flipping back and forth through pages is a time-consuming hassle, the codex discouraged such a reading method unless it was absolutely necessary, such as in financial logs. And yet the digital environment seems to resist even our desire for it to mimic codices: as Drucker comments in an aside: “few of us read with such sustained linearity in a digital environment. We may read in that way [sustained scrolling from start to finish of a text] for informational purposes, but not for prolonged entertainment or scholarship.”

This, conveniently for the argument being made, provides a nexus point between Drucker, Michael Whitemore’s “discontinuous reading,” and Willard McCarty’s “danger of distraction.”

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