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23 September 2013

New Frames in Electronic Publishing

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

We have always read, or tended to read, in rectangles. These have been the predominant frame for reading throughout history. Most ancient papyrus documents and scrolls were rectangular. The same is true of many of the walls where hieroglyphics and the first recordings of concepts were inscribed. Even cave art could show similarities, as some examples are huge, elongated, deformed parallelograms. Above all, the pages of books are rectangular, and their geometric forms have influenced and framed the characters we have used to draw out and set down our thoughts. In April 1921, the philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, reflected on the importance of the frame in painting (Meditations on the Frame), and perhaps what I am writing here is simply an extension of his work.

For some mysterious reason televisions, which were initially square and tended momentarily towards being circular, also ended up rectangular. We can now also read on them, but above all we are reading in the new tablets, mobile telephones and computer screens. The frame in these devices, almost without exception, retains this proportion and their design seems to be heading towards the golden rectangle. Why this form? Is the use of its dimensions driven by purely practical reasons? Perhaps the cause is more aesthetic than practical, as Marcus du Sautoy suggests in Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature.

The explanation, or one of them, is that images have tended towards the rectangle as the format in which we have best been able to concentrate our thought. Cinema initially set the pattern with its rectangular screens, and then television copied the format. Meanwhile – giving a ninety-degree turn to the cinema screen – the folio still governs in the reading tradition and thus promotes the vertical rectangle.

In recent decades we have moved from one frame to another. Until tablets and mobile phones arrived, we read and watched movies and the television in specific places. Now, as I see it, everything is becoming more natural, although the most natural way of reading in the mid and late 20th century was the book, and in many cases it will continue to be so. The key moment was when the gyroscope was applied to the screens of some devices. What, in the 20th century, involved a physical change to the visual platform is now becoming instantaneous. When a viewer stops watching some video on his or her mobile phone and turns the same device around to read a novel, a magazine or a newspaper, we are witnessing a crucial change in the history of reading.

And here arise some of the questions surrounding publishing in the future. I think a common misconception is that there is simply a coherent relationship between physical and electronic publishing. Starting from there we make an incorrect analogy with the physical book and its possibilities. The big questions about electronic publishing have, until now, been about publishing formats, copyright and marketing electronic books. All of these issues require more discussion. However, I believe that electronic publishing takes us to unknown worlds in the Gutenberg Galaxy. However, in the end, it all comes down to the act of reading, as Robert Bringhurst reminds us in What is Reading For?, and we must also direct our thought to other issues that may not have appeared to concern us. Today, publishers should not only be concerned about web programming, additions to traditional contracts or the file types that support the books of always. They should also focus their study on the composition and functioning of the new rectangles in which we read. This means that a crucial factor for publishing in the future is to understand the structure, clarity and power of the screens we use and the processors that manage them. Perhaps frames depend on the message more than we think and, therefore, publishers should also devise their own frames, but this requires a kind of knowledge they do not yet possess. In other words, unbeknown to themselves, mobile telephone, tablet and computer manufacturers are some of today’s new publishers.

Ángel Pérez Martínez

Research Professor, University of the Pacific, Lima (Peru)

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