The Age of iPad Superbooks? Not Yet
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the Internet is bringing about shifts far deeper than those we usually recognize. But if you’re going to spend an hour or two with Eagleman’s ideas, I’d recommend watching the video over at Fora.tv rather than buying this app.
For the iPad, Eagleman breaks his argument into eight chapters, and each chapter is divided into sections: the shortest has three and the longest has about a dozen. Each section is just a few paragraphs long, and when you flip between sections, a new illustration pops up either above or beside the text, depending on whether you’re holding the iPad in portrait or landscape orientation. Sometimes these illustrations are actually illustrative: for a section on crowdsourcing, for example, there’s cool 3D model of a molecule from Fold.it, a website where users compete to discover the most likely structures for complex proteins. Unfortunately, much of the art is insipid stock-photography stuff that adds no real information. A section on energy efficiency, for example, comes with a graphic of a light bulb shaped like a dollar sign. If you’re just trying to add spice to a website or give lecture audiences a visual distraction while you speak, this kind of stock art can be a decent solution. But come on—if you’re presenting a serious argument about the survival of civilization, it deserves a more vivid visual accompaniment.
There’s another element to the interactivity in Why the Net Matters: the navigation screens, which feature portentous circles linked by portentous, pulsating dotted lines. Here, again, there’s less than meets the eye—this is just a table of contents with a bit of gratuitous geometry and animation. In a short video at the end of the app, Eagleman says that he wanted to “introduce a new way of navigating a non-fiction argument: something where you could have interactive figures and random-access chapters and zoom in and out on the structure of the argument.” That sounds wonderful—I’d love to see a book that works that way. But rearranging your chapter and section headings into chains of circles does nothing to bring out the “structure of the argument.” It’s a prototypical example of chartjunk—Edward Tufte’s term for “interior decoration…that does not tell the viewer anything new.”
Okay, it’s easy to pen withering assaults, but obviously harder to say how I would have handled this material differently if I’d been in PopLeaf’s or Atomic Antelope’s shoes. I can barely use Photoshop and I don’t know Webkit, Cocoa Touch, Objective-C or any of the other tools that go into building an iOS app. I just know that what we’re seeing today in the world of interactive e-books is a mere shadow of what can be built for the iPad and other touchscreen devices. At the moment, designers of tablet-based books haven’t even progressed to the point where CD-ROM producers left off around 1996, just before the Internet killed off that promising medium. My concern is that New York Times readers will see a word like “superbook,” seek out these apps, and then have their expectations dashed so drastically that they might not stay around to watch how tablet-based e-books evolve—as they inevitably will.