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The Problem With the Web and E-Books Is That There’s No Space for Them

The Trouble with E-Books and the Web

books vs e-books

Imagine leaving your house to find that all your neighbors are gone, houses and all, replaced by a new stock of neighbors and their houses. You get in the car and begin driving to your favorite coffee shop, but the road is different, taking you to parts of town it didn't go to the day before. Imagine, furthermore, that each day is like this, a variant of Groundhog Day, but rather than time starting over, space gets reset, and all the spatial structure gets redistributed.

That initially sounds like a nightmare, but this world comes with an upside: you can beam any place you wish by simply naming it aloud. You can't physically find your way to the cleaners? That's OK -- just beam yourself there by uttering "Clancy's Cleaners."

That would be a strange world, indeed, one our brains did not evolve to accommodate.

And yet it is not fiction! It may not apply to the structure of our cities, but it does help describe a place we now spend more of our time: the web.

We don't navigate the web so much as beam hither and thither within it. Can't find your way to the ticket site? No matter, you can Google-beam directly there by typing in the name.

And not only is the web not spatial or navigable, but the new reading experiences within documents have lost their spatial sense as well. Html and variants used in e-books shift their location relative to other text depending on font and window size. Need to jump to that part of the book where they discussed cliff jumping? You will get no help from the local topography, but you can beam yourself directly there via a within-document text search.

The web, from its text-shifting sites to its entire large-scale structure, is navigated with little or no actual navigation, and a lot of teleportation.

In nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods -- and they are still over the hill and through the woods.

And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books -- the real ones, not today's electronic variety -- were supremely navigable.

My personal library serves as extension of my brain. I may have read all my books, but I don't remember most of the information. What I remember is where in my library my knowledge sits, and I can look it up when I need it. But I can only look it up because my books are geographically arranged in a fixed spatial organization, with visual landmarks. I need to take the integral of an arctangent? Then I need my Table of Integrals book, and that's in the left bookshelf, upper middle, adjacent to the large, colorful Intro Calculus book.

And once I have found the book, the static non-shifting text inside allows me find the right page and spot on the page. If books were uniform horizontal streams of text, there would be a dearth of visual cues for inside-the-book navigation. But books aren't like that. At a minimum, the paragraph structure creates large block shapes on each page, with different sizes, often unique in patterns. And inside each paragraph are words of varying size, sentences of varying length, and letters which dip down between lines here and there, all creating a look of their own. And most books also have figures, images, and tables, which provide marked cues for navigation to the piece of knowledge I possess. All these cues rely, though, on their fixed spatial placement within the book and on the page.

Our brain has astounding navigation capabilties, and libraries of books harness our brain's natural capabilities. The result is that my personal library becomes an extension of my brain. I possess all that knowledge. ...not in my head, but in the library wing of my head, which happens to not be in my head at all.

The web and e-books have upsides physical libraries do not, of course, but they are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don't yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential. We should embrace the new technologies, but utilize them in novel ways that take seriously the topography of the information.

Lest one believe these are minor issues, one must realize that our very ability to read as efficiently as we do relies upon the shapes of letters having culturally evolved to be good for our visual system. More specifically, as I have argued in my research, written words have come to have the fundamental signature of visual objects in the world, just what our visual system excels at processing. These writing systems designed for our brains allow us to read hundreds of thousands of words per day, whereas poorly designed writing systems would make reading impossible or impractical (e.g., imagine reading if words looked like barcodes, or fractal patterns, or neurons, etc.).

Getting the information medium right is not about eking out incremental improvements in human usability. When one finds the "sweet spot" for the design of the web and e-books -- which I am suggesting should be heavy on spatial navigability -- it may be that the web and e-books aren't just a little better, but are utterly transformative in the level of power they pull out of our brains.


Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books)