I just came across this great interview with Steven Johnson as part of a series entitled 'How We Will Read' that's being put on by the folks behind Findings (a startup which aims to help you bookmark & organize the goodness you find on the web). While the overall interview was great, I particularly enjoyed the following passage_
Q: "If you could move one feature of paper books to digital books, what would that be?"
Johnson: "Skimming. It’s a funny thing with print vs. ebooks; the digital age is supposed to be all about attention deficit disorder and hypertextual distractions, but ebooks lock you into reading them in a linear fashion more than print books do. It’s much easier to pick up a print book and flip through the pages, get a sense of the argument or structure, than it is with an ebook (or magazine.) It’s a very interesting interface challenge. I think it’s probably solvable, and I know many smart folks are working on it, but we don’t have a true solution yet."
Johnson hit the nail on the head with this one. In all their greatness and convenience, digital books still don't match the fluid user experience of their physical counterparts. Their 'digitalness' has changed the very way in which our brains interact with the content - ultimately reducing the overall flexibility/resilience of the information (and eliminating what had become a core feature of the preceding medium). In many ways, this example is the epitome of what Marshall McLuhan meant in his now infamous statement: "The Medium is The Message".
That being said, I love how Johnson refers to the problem as an interface challenge; because that's exactly what it is! The setback he describes isn't being enforced upon books by inherent limitations in digital tech, it's being enforced upon e-books by mere limitations in their current incarnation. As he points out, once a few talented interaction designers start tackling the problem, things will change. In fact, this video which Maria Popova (a.k.a brainpicker) shared today, seems to show that we're already making significant progress. I suspect it won't be long till e-books inherit the flexibility and flow of their physical counterparts.