Electronic paper

When paper is blackened by ink in a printing press, we have the seeming transmutation of form into essence. This observation wouldn’t stand much scrutiny, of course, but it holds true in the sense that when a book is printed, the material world is permanently altered: there is now a string of words that exists in the physical world. The words have gone through several stages of abstraction in the author and editors’ head, they have glimmered on screens and travelled back and forth attached to emails, and finally they have obtained their own co-ordinates in the three-dimensional universe - they are somewhere.

Electronic readers of the “primitive” sort do no such thing. When we read a book on our laptops or phones, or on any of the earlier LCD screens, the words are briefly animated, suspended in electricity. We can fancy that we are being offered a glimpse of the electronic text itself. It is a vision, rather than an incarnation. We are looking at the electronic text itself, transfigured into visible letters through the permeable membrane of our screen. Indeed, the diodes of our screen are simply the humble cousins of the microchips that hold and process the text itself.

The promise of electronic ink was that it would be as comfortable to read as paper itself. That the text would not flicker before our eyes, that it would not even require electricity to keep the words alive before our eyes. It would, above all, be matt, lit by its ambient, with none of the incandescence of other screens that, like that of ghosts, only serves to underline the ephemerality of what we see. 1

When we turn a page on our Kindle or on any other reader that uses electronic ink, a new page of text has been created, words have been given permanent physical existence. The ink has travelled more subtly to assume the shape of letters on the page, and the page itself is an intricate nest of chambers that obscure and reveal that ink but a page—as ontologically secure as any that comes off the press—has been printed. Unlike the electronic performance we get from other screens, electronic paper is an indifferent artefact.


  1. 1The distinction has been somewhat muddied, though only superficially, since the introduction of back-lit electronic ink readers and Apple’s Retina screen, with its own phenomenological claims.