Saturday, May 2, 2009

Technology Revolutions Redux

The future of the newspaper was the topic of a post I wrote about a month ago. Clay Shirky has written a great article on the topic which I featured in my blog. Recently, I read a corresponding article on the future of the book (or e-book). Steven Johnson wrote this one for the Wall Street Journal and I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it. The future of the book seems to me to look much like the future of the newspaper: smaller and smaller chunks of content sold piecemeal rather than as a whole unit, writing that is directed at least as much at ensuring that it hits the top of Google search results as about the content itself, not to mention the disappearance of a physical world of packaged printing.

I am proud to be a bibliophile. I love books and I love bookstores. I love the feel of books and I love having a nice satisfying pile of unread books ready to be savored. But, I also admit to being a gadget geek. I love my iPod Touch with its ability to download e-books from Project Gutenberg (free via Stanza) and now even from Amazon (not free) with their Kindle App. There is something to be said for the ability to have a library in my pocket. I am even toying with the idea of buying a Kindle 2, but that might be pushing it a little too much.

Given my dual loves, it probably isn't surprising that I feel ambivalent about all of this deconstruction of the book. I see e-books as simultaneously a step forward and a step back. Is the gain from broader access offset by the cost of a more fragmented attention span? Who will have the time or attention to read a five-hundred page work of history or a great novel? How will we cope with an ever-increasing number of book options available both digitally and in good old fashioned paper?

While the winds of change seem to be blowing us in the direction of fragmentation, I am actually optimistic about the future of the book. I think both the printed book and the e-book will continue to grow and complement each other. That is not to say that publishing will remain what it has been. I think the whole domain of printing-on-demand, self-publishing, and micro-presses will continue to grow. But books as we know them will not disappear any time soon. Remember the much-hyped "paperless office" of a decade ago? Office printers have never been so busy.

We are in the midst of a technology revolution and any sort of new quasi-equilibrium is still in the distant future. When it does arrive, we can be sure it will not be what we might predict today. That is the whole fun of living through a revolution. At least on my better days it seems that way. On my conservative days, I grumble and rant about how it just isn't what it used to be. But it never has been what it used to be and for that we can count our blessings.

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