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"I've been very obsessive about writing science fiction for far too many years. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have given up years ago."
- Charles Stross

Runcible  
  A book made of smart paper; every page is a flexible LCD (liquid crystal display) screen.  

This device is more than just a display device. It is a very powerful computer. I was impressed by the clever use for the spine, which not only connects the LCD pages, but also is the brain for the device. And shouldn't the "spine" of a book contain the nervous system of the book, just like a backbone should?

Smart paper consisted of a network of infinitesimal computers sandwiched between mediatrons. A mediatron was a thing that could change its color from place to place...

It had nothing ... on Runcible, whose pages were thicker and more densely packed with computational machinery, each sheet folded four times into a sixteen-page signature, thirty-two signatures brought together in a spine that, in addition to keeping the book from falling apart, functioned as an enormous switching system and database.

From The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson.
Published by Bantam Books in 1995
Additional resources -

The Runcible could effortlessly become any book you wanted. More than that, it was a full-fledged computing device. This is not Alan Kay's 1968 Dynabook, the model for most e-book hardware that you see today; the Dynabook was essentially a book with a single page.

MIT's Media Lab had a project called The Last Book to create the same book. The MIT information I can find is dated no earlier than 1997 - I don't know if Stephenson's Runcible preceded their developments or not.

We have only had flat screen LCDs on computers for 20 years or so; we have not yet achieved affordable flat-as-paper displays. And none of these displays offer the high contrast of ink on paper. Perhaps it is jumping the gun to speculate what will come next, but that is the province of science fiction writers.

Books, of course, evolved from scrolls. A scroll was a long, continuous strip of material that was, in many ways, cumbersome to make and to use. Books consisting of cut-up pieces of scroll (so to speak) were cheaper to make and had certain advantages. Chief among these advantages (from a computer geek point of view) is that a book is a random access device; that is, you can open it readily to the place you want. A scroll must be carefully unrolled to the appropriate point, which can be a very time-consuming process (as anyone who has watched a series of Torah readings at a bar mitzvah can attest!). Also, while you can only use one side of the material in a scroll, you can use both sides of the paper in a book.

It is an interesting side note that today we "scroll" a long web page or a long document on our short computer screen. Unless the author has provided us with a page index, we cannot access what we want without scrolling past unwanted material. A runcible would allow you to go directly to the part of the document you wanted. It would also preserve the excellent usability characteristics of books - as the MIT guys say:

"Persons familiar with a manual or textbook can find information that they are seeking with high specificity, as evidenced by their ability to remember whether something that was seen only briefly was on the right side or left side of a page, for instance. Furthermore their haptic connection with the brain's spatial map comprises a highly natural and effective interface, when such information is embodied on actual multiple physical pages."
I don't think that the dimensions of a runcible were given in the novel. A typical book of today is taller than it is wide because it was less wasteful to cut parchment (made from the hides of sheep or goats) that way in the early Christian era, when books (or codexes) were first used.

As it happens, Runcible was also an early system for mathematics on the IBM 650 computer.

I should also mention that in the Inspector Gadget cartoon series, which aired in 1983-5, Gadget's niece Penny had a special computer book that offered similar features.

You can also start the video at 0:16 for more views.

See also this review of the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Fold for a quick reference to the electronic book idea.

Comment/Join this discussion ( 4 ) | RSS/XML | Blog This |

Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Diamond Age
  More Ideas and Technology by Neal Stephenson
  Tech news articles related to The Diamond Age
  Tech news articles related to works by Neal Stephenson

Runcible-related news articles:
  - Reversible LCD: Two-Sided Electronic Paper
  - Toshiba SD-Book: An E-Book With Two Pages
  - Book-Style Interface For Web, TV, Radio
  - AND The Kitchen Sync
  - Two Page E-Book Makes Readers Flip
  - Courier Tablet Computer - Microsoft's Prototype
  - Courier Tablet Computer Video Reveals Features
  - Multi-Page E-Book Tablet Roundup
  - Text 2.0 Smart Text
  - Finally! Microsoft Surface Neo And Surface Duo Implement Excellent Courier Idea

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