Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Senior Lecturer delivers TED Talk on 'the curious case of the 1930s e-reader'

Friday, 02 March 2018

Senior Lecturer delivers TED Talk on 'the curious case of the 1930s e-reader'

Dr Eric White, Senior Lecturer in American Literature at Oxford Brookes University, has delivered a TED Talk at The Royal Society in London.

He spoke on Bob Brown, a little known, but influential media figure from the 20th century. In his talk, Eric revealed the extraordinary life and work of the poet who invented a Reading Machine, which became the precursor to the e-book and anticipated innovations such as hypertext and wireless networks. The talk was part of the TEDx Whitehall event on Changing Expectations in Research Cultures.

Bob Brown was an avant-garde poet of ‘The Lost Generation’ - American literary exiles living in France in the 1920’s and 30’s, who were disillusioned with their country after the first World War. As well as being a poet, Bob Brown was a stockbroker and a major publisher. Indeed, he and his collaborators used their technical skills to create the Reading Machine prototype, which allowed for mechanised speed reading. It also revolutionised the use of language: the 'readies' (named after the 'talkies' in cinema) anticipated emoticons and text messaging, as famous modernists such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound experimented with the machine’s potential applications for writing.

This initial experimentation explored the interface between language and technology, as well as its effects on society. Brown was also an activist who insisted that the machine should be cheap and accessible to the masses. He believed it could therefore be used as an instrument for social change.

Eric has harnessed the notion of ‘the future casting its shadows’ by linking Bob Brown’s Reading Machine of the past to a present day Augmented Reality (AR) Reading Machine. Augmented Reality combines real-time views of the visible world with digital animations. The Avant-Gardes and Speculative Technology (AGAST) Project is a cross-faculty collaboration at Brookes with Technology, Design and Environment colleagues John Twycross and Fridolin Wild. It provides a platform for youth groups from marginalised communities to use AR technology to 'hack' the language used to divide public spaces in Oxford in innovative ways,

Dr Eric White is a Senior Lecturer on the MA in English Literature course at Oxford Brookes University.