The future of reading

Into Orbit, Kosmograd on the ArcelorMittal Orbit: ‘Considered as a modern folly, I think it performs quite admirably’. A fine piece that considers provenance, media reaction, visual culture and architectural criticism: ‘Surrounding the structure is a totally unnatural crowd scene, a SketchUp rent-a-mob. Here Arup must take some responsibility; there’s no way that Hadid or Foster, for instance, would let an image like that out in public. Arup has misgauged that modern architectural criticism for the Dezeen generation is the about the consumption of images rather than the consideration of form.’

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This latter point is exemplified by the trajectory of the Serpentine Pavilion, now in its tenth year. Looking at the collected works is slightly disappointing; there’s no sense of progression, or even, dare we say it, innovation. Instead, the pavilion’s main function has been as a means of ticking a box and providing a safe berth for the otherwise ignored great minds of contemporary architecture. The results are increasingly perfect for our image-driven world, miniature icons served up as if in a chocolate box of fancy fondants. Chances are that the ‘lost pavilion‘, MVRDV’s doomed ‘Dutch Mountain‘, will soon blend into the others, and be remembered as if it were actually built. Just as past pavilions seem to crated up in some secret location, so the imaginary mountain can just fade into the topography of Hyde Park. A fictional history will locate it beneath it a likely-looking mound, a modern day Sillbury Hill that will one day be probed for old I-beams and empty bottles of Becks.

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The informed, illustrated essay, exemplified by the Kosmograd article linked above, or a post from City of Sound or BLDG BLOG or Design Observer or (insert your own area of interest here) on any given day, will soon become the dominant model of reading. Amidst all the speculation about how, when and why emerging technology will usurp old paper media, the answer has been staring us in the face for several years. It is the illustrated essay, rich in links and associations, illustrations, cross-referencing and, above all, engaging writing and thinking, that will thrive on these devices.

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As if to confirm the above. Berthier’s Door, BLDG BLOG on a piece of Parisian conceptual art, a door to nowhere simply inserted into a spare piece of blank urban fabric and unquestioningly accepted as part of the city. This kicks of a set of typical Manaugh-style musings, pointers for further reading and thinking. Half our life is spent using a mental clipboard, with thoughts that are copied and pasted into our mind and inevitably overwritten and lost. Imagine a form of super syndication, an RSS system that packages up posts as if they were hyper-dense magazine articles, or miniature non-fictions, short books or long essays, then displays them as a kind of iBook library, a cloud of assocations that can be as broad as you define. From there, you would go here, a piece on underground Paris at Untapped Paris, with a side-serving of China Miéville’s short story Reports Of Certain Events In London, onwards and onwards into the rabbit hole.

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There is an appetite for this. Granted, things is skewed in a certain direction, but our relatively singular focus only serves to illustrate just how much other stuff is out there. The weblog has allowed the short essay to flourish, for creative writing – and imagery – to proliferate at a time when attention has been focused elsewhere, on the micro-currents of modern trends and fascinations represented by tweets or the struggles to recreate the character of paper on screen, and get people to pay for it (see the new Times website, for example – it actually looks pretty good, until you hit the sign-in demand).

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It’s been a couple of years since Steve Jobs denounced reading, albeit in a way that served to bolster the impending arrival of new Apple technology (“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”) Of course, what Jobs meant was that ‘people will read if they use our product.’ Similarly, James Murdoch’s criticism of digitisation is underpinned by worries about the loss of control of potentially revenue-generating material. Controlling content and technology are still the prime considerations of major corporations, rather unsurprisingly. But given that this – the weblog – is proving to be the primary medium for short and long-form writing, there is much to be said for a platform that pushes this content out into new technology.

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Other things. NYC London seems to have quietly shuttered its doors / design at Neasden Control Centre / Design Noted / Brussels Sprout, ‘a free curatorial magazine on contemporary thinking and emergent art’ / What I Wore, a tumblr. Self-indulgent, yes, but real and authentic in a way that fashion magazines can never hope to be and even the likes of the Sartorialist can’t match / at home with Jean-Paul Gaultier / around the world with Henri Cartier-Bresson / Google Pacman costs businesses $120m.

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3 Responses to The future of reading

  1. enrique says:

    Like Martin’s piece on Kapoor, this post is also well-considered and timely. Like you, I do agree that the well-illustrated, well-thought out post will sound the death knell for print—if it hasn’t already. A question remains, however, as to how this will affect content. Much has been made about the change in media and platforms—much ink and code has been spilled about the significance of kindles, nooks, and iPads. We already recognize that some kind of threshold has been passed. However, with some exceptions, it is not safe to say that the “llustrated essay, rich in links and associations, illustrations, cross-referencing and, above all, engaging writing and thinking” is not that different from the kind of work that you would see in a print journal or magazine? Can we think of different kinds of writing that have emerged in the past decade or so? What has this writing done, and how has it responded to its attendant culture? Is it critical? Compromising?

    And this brings me to the use of images in “informed, illustrated” posts. Images do demand and reveal their own special knowledge. How can this be mined in the current climate? How can we use images as a critical vessel when our primary mode of consumption is the computer screen or hand-held device? On my site (which you have listed as a “weblog” instead of an architecture website), I always use images to illustrate and drive content. Some of the images I introduce are archival. Most are scanned from books. Almost all of my entries began as interrogations of specific images—plans, photographs, film stills, drawings—and yet my site still maintains a journal-like approach. I’m not sure how this will change, but the truth of the matter is that I do keep my slightly academic tone only because I know that in a single week, I get more visitors (presumably interested in issues of architecture history and theory) than journals like, say, Log or Grey Room do in a month.

    • things says:

      Yes, we’ll come back to the value of imagery another time. Because we now have less aesthetic control over the site than we used to (the limitations of our technical knowledge have been reached), we’re being a bit more cavalier with the pictures and less studious about the pixel placement. That’s why the idea of shovelling content into other forms of technology appeals – that brief but heady period when a weblog was not just a source of information but also a lovingly tended little patch of the web design has passed, it seems. At least for us.

  2. Michelle Young says:

    thanks for the link! cool blog!
    i went to check out berthiers door a week ago and posted on its whereabouts:
    http://untappedparis.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/berthiers-door-found/

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