In reading, a lonely quiet concert is given to our minds; all our mental faculties will be present in this symphonic exaltation.
With this quote in mind, how much has the experience of reading changed over time and what does the experience look like in the age of digital technologies? Some think that text reading is going to meet its expiry date as most of the experiences today are drastically visualized. Moreover, reading a book either on a printed page or even on the screen for a long period of time has turned out to be quite a challenge for a lot of people. Imagine the bodily experience of reading: all you have to do is be seated while your eyes are moving across the page or the screen. Certainly, you can follow the line with your finger or scroll down the screen or flick between the pages, but for the most part you are still and your eyes follow an orderly line.
When Mallarmé first used blank spaces in his text Un Coup de dés, he tried to go beyond linearity. By using an unconventional typographic layout, the eyes were engaged in more than just following a line, having to go back and forth in the text, jump across blank spaces, scan through the page and search for some order.
Since then a lot has changed in typographical variations and screen mediated reading added more dimensions to this experience. However, as Serres noted, the developments are still strongly limited to the format of a ‘page’. In his book Thumbelina, he attested the advent of the printing press, the beginning of page domination. New technologies could not yet go beyond the page and the screen only reproduced the page with different features added to it. The linear format persisted for millennia.
The virtual reality experience of reading, however, breaks with the limits of the page and changes the format in which the text is presented. Reading with a camera requires more effort on the part of the reader. The disrupted linearity causes the reader to be enclosed with words. She has to move not only her eyes but her whole body to be able to read, searching for the words by walking, moving around, or looking up and down. In order to read a text with a camera, one needs heightened attention, constantly distracted by the moving words. She does not know where and when the next word or sentence is going to appear. The linear page gives place to an omnidirectional space.
This virtual experiment pushes the boundaries of reading to create a novel reading experience. Text can also be embedded in a visual setting rather than in a blank space, which adds other elements and further complicates the experience. The CREW team tried to embed the texts of the Dutch author Tonnus Oosterhoff inside a visual setting. After being exposed to a set of sentences that flow in every direction, the reader –called an ‘immersant’ – finds herself inside a huge room, with a dog looking at her and words appearing everywhere: on the wall, on the sofa, or coming out of the dog’s mouth. She has to explore the space by walking and looking around, searching for both for the next sentences and new places to move in. Being ‘inside’ the text and visual setting this way, engages the reader completely.
At the same time that the person is immersed in the text and its new spatial demarcations, she is detached from her physical surrounding of time and space. For her to complete a nine minute recorded immersion-session, an assistant is needed to watch her steps and as some parts of the video need tactile contact with the immersant, the assistant’s role is crucial for the experience to be successful.
The video is recorded with 4 cameras from different angles, providing the immersant with the possibility of rotating 360 degrees . Only the intentional presence of the cameraman and some unintentional technical problems remind the reader of the virtual aspect of this experience.
Having said all this, it is fascinating to observe how two immersants in the same room, their heads turned towards each other, are captured in a completely different space. The virtual is a personal space that the immersant does not share with others, even if these others are only meters away. Going back to Mallarmé’s quote, reading is still a lonely quiet concert, yet it is a very different experience of quietness and loneliness, one in which not only your eyes but all your senses are captivated by the technology and disconnected from the surrounding. Is this going to be the future of reading? Is this something authors will have to start thinking about when writing their text? And are we not only getting more and more trapped in our personal worlds and highly individualized experiences with virtual reality technologies?
Samira Beigi received her B.Sc in Information Technology and M.A in Philosophy of Education in Tehran, Iran. She is now working on her PhD thesis at the University of Leuven. She studies how the presence of digital devices influences the way we perceive the world in human interactions, new art form and the educational system.
CREW is a Brussels based art studio. Their artistic performances focus on digital experiences and the way new technologies change human’s perception of self, his imagination and in general his existence.