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Presentation Details


Through Looking Glass Windows: Why the book of the future might be architecturally defined by the past

Penelope Lee.

In Lewis Carroll's 19th century book, "Through the Looking Glass," Alice passes through a mirror and into the 'looking–glass room' where she notices that what could be seen from the old room was "quite common and uninteresting," but that "all the rest was as different as possible." By reflecting on the architecture of the 'old room' of the printed book and the new 'looking-glass room' of the electronic one, this paper considers the how new technologies alter the book in ways that are as different as possible while appearing to be the same. Media theorist, Marshal McLuhan, described this paradox as the result of looking at the future through a 'rear-view mirror' suggesting that, like Alice, our perceptions of new media are often distorted by reflections of the old. Thus the old media of the illuminated manuscript was reflected in the 'new media' of Gutenberg's book, just as old print media is presently mirrored in the new media of the world wide web.

Nonetheless, looking at the past can offer insights to the present as well as distortions, for books of the Middle Ages were also represented in different media forms as they are today. According to Umberto Eco, a medieval cathedral was the great book in stone, where the narrative was carved in the walls. These were often made of porous stone enabling light to filter through them as it did through the texts contained in their stained glass windows. At the same time the book as illuminated manuscript, strove to simulate light shining through the text, rather than not on it. The significance of this becomes evident when we consider McLuhan's concept that, the medium through which a message is conveyed in some ways has more impact on the viewer than the message itself. We respond differently to media that reflects light, such as books, to those which transmit light the way computers do. He referred to this experience of media as either 'light on' or 'light through' a concept that addresses some important differences between the printed page of the past and the electronic one today.

Digital technology delivers the ultimate experience in graphic illumination, as the light of the illuminated 'page' of our computer screen is emitted from within rather than falling on the page from without. If the Gothic cathedral as an architectural space could be considered a book, might we not also consider the computer as an architectural space that is also a book? By drawing parallels between the 'light through' experience of the book in the Middle Ages, and our 'light through' experience of the book in the electronic environment of the 21st century, this discussion will explore new media concepts of what might constitute a book of the future. For, like Alice stepping through the looking glass, things might then be 'as different as possible.'


Penelope Lee  (Australia)
Part Time Lecturer in Design
School of Design Studies
College of Fine Arts, UNSW

Penelope Lee is a practicing Graphic Designer and Part Time Design Lecturer. She is currently investigating the impact of technological intervention on the architecture of the book for her Master of Design (Hons) degree at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW.

  • Book design
  • Illuminated manuscript
  • Text
  • Technology
  • New media
  • Computer
  • Cathedral
  • Middle Ages
  • Marshal McLuhan
  • Umberto Eco

(30 min Conference Paper, English)