Saturday, October 3, 2009

Relaxing with a Book in the Age of Digital

When I was a kid, I was (pretty) convinced that everything I was going to do for entertainment would be available to me in my pocket - or at least through some sort of magic panels in the walls of my home. This was back in the late 60's early 70's, so most people just assumed I was nuts. (Of course I also thought I'd be living on the moon, so they were sorta right.)

I blame Star Trek for these thoughts. People walked around the cardboard sets of the Enterprise with little "memory cards" (ok, painted pieces of wood) that they would place into ubiquitous slots in walls or desks and entertainment, information, communication, etc would appear on the nearest wall panel. When walking around the surface of a planet (or, more appropriately, the redressed backlots of Desilu studios), they would put their little wooden memory cards in their tricorders to get the same information. (Incidentally, when you are 10, a binoculars case makes an excellent tricorder.)

Now, of course, that scenario is pretty much my Life In Information. (Actually, I'm willing to bet it's pretty much the Lives of Information of all you folks that read blogs like this.) My home is wired for gigabit ethernet, which is wired to the outside world at whatever speed Comcast decides to give me for the day. My body is bathed in wifi signals capable of 300Mb/s transmission, and the little memory cards in my phone, laptop, camera and camcorders contain portable files that I just haven't moved to my house network yet. Whenever I wish I can call up information, communication or entertainment on panels throughout the walls of my house, or on portable devices when I'm not at home.

Gone are my CDs, DVDs, albums, photographic prints, and other paraphernalia of the era of physical media, which - for the record - lasted from 3100 BC until, oh, a maybe few years ago. 5000 years, give or take a few decades, is a good run for any technology trend, dontcha think?

One of the last pillars of the era of physical media to fall is the printed word. There's a myriad of conversations going on right now, of course, about the fall of newspapers and magazines - and as much as I love my beloved weekend New York Times, I easily made the transition to nytimes.com.

However, the one form of printed word that seems to be taking forever to make the transition from atoms to bits is the book. Ironically, this was the first physical-to-digital medium that came under attack back when the internet was young. It made sense that it should have been the first to go, since even Moby Dick can be compressed down to about 200K when converted to a text file. 200K was the perfect size for dialup modem transfer rates of the day. So, what happened? After music, television and now high-definition film has made the move, why has it taken about 15 years before anyone was considering digitally consuming literature seriously?

Back in the day, electronic books (eBooks, or digital books, or whatever you want to call it) were displayed first on computer screens, and later on PDAs. While there were adherents to this, they were mostly the bleeding edge crowd - people who didn't mind ruining their vision by staring at small, glowing screens of maybe a few sentences. It was a horrible experience, and a terrible way to read. (Society has a short memory, and it seems to have forgotten about this period of eReading - as is evidenced by the Kindle Reader for the iPhone. The type of folks that would use this little glowing perversion of a book are the modern day equivalents of those of us in the early 90's that would stare at books on our Palm Pilots. Good luck with that.)

The Kindle, Sony eReader, Plastic Logic and others have improved upon the experience by making use of a display screen from eInk, which manipulates physical particles to display text on a screen. I've written about this experience before, but in short eInk technology duplicates the reflective properties of paper almost exactly. The effect is astonishing, and reading Moby Dick becomes a pleasure again.

So, why are Amazon, Sony and others hiding their sales figures? Obviously because the success of these devices is moderate, not groundbreaking as it was with the iPod's conquering of digital music. The reasons for lackluster sales are many: licensing deals with publishers are still strange (the publishers still think it's reasonable to charge 80% the cost of a physical book), the eReaders themselves are still too expensive (think printer ink, Sony and Amazon), and the DRM issues are still too restrictive (why the hell can't I read something I bought on the Sony Reader store on my Kindle?). Marketing around these devices has also been terrible - there's still confusion in the market as to why someone would want a single purpose device that doesn't display color images when they have their laptops, macbooks and iPhones. The explanation is simple (i.e. my rant on reading long form content on glowing screens), but I rarely hear any of these companies come out and talk about it.

Nonetheless, all of these reasons are really just business problems which will get sorted out...but even when those problems are solved, there is still more to the story on the slow adoption rate, and it may be emotional and very hard to duplicate digitally. It's really complicated. Ready? Here is it is...

People like books.

Books are big, bulky, a bitch to move from home to home, they get lost at the beach or when you lend it to a friend, and they smell mildewy if left out in the backyard overnight. None of that matters.

People like books.

People like books more than they like DVDs, CDs, record albums, liner notes, or anything else that the digital revolution has supplanted. They line our walls, they tell people who you are and what you are about when they walk into your house, they have author's signatures, they just feel good when you pick them up and hold them. It's entrenched in us. In our culture. In all cultures. The oldest thing that you can call a book (no, it's not the Bible, chill the eff out) is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, at around 2150BC. Books have been used for trade, for securing power, as seats of knowledge for kings, and have been the source of global memory since long before the internet. (Award for the Greatest Information Crash Without Backing Up has to go to the sacking of the Ancient Library of Alexandria.)

So, there is an emotional tie here that is going to be hard to move past - and I include myself in this mix. I have whole-heartedly embraced the eBook: you'd have a hard time prying my Sony eReader from my hands - its more convenient, takes up almost no space, makes my business travel load a hell of a lot lighter, and my book consumption has gone WAY up in the last few years since owning it. But....I like books. They still cover my walls. I still schlepped them from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Pasadena to Boston to LA to San Francisco, and all the intercity moves in between, over the years. It was expensive. It was a pain in the ass. Yet, I still did it. We all do it.

What kind of marketing does it take to move past thousands of years of emotional attachment to a bulky, inefficient, easy to destroy form of media? Honestly, I don't have one of my glib, well-you-just-do-this, technology-will-solve-it answers. I just pose the question.

Update:

So I put the Star Trek reference in as sort of a joking referral to what a proto-geek I was growing up, but it turns out - Star Trek was precognizant about the durability of books in the human condition as well. Check out the clip below from the episode "Court Martial," starting at about 3:30 as Kirk's lawyer explains why he doesn't use computers.


1 comment:

MikeTrap said...

I'm with you. They can have my books when they pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Now... the Mac Tablet? That's another thing entirely...