Which is stronger: technology’s power to shape local culture, or local culture’s power to influence the way technology is adopted and used? If it’s the former, as I suspect it is, then technology becomes a homogenizing force, tending in time to erase cultural differences. If it’s the latter, then technology plays a subservient role; the uniformity of the tool does not impose uniformity on the tool’s use. Culture prevails.
We’re going to get some insight into this question over the next decade or so as e-readers – in the form of both devices and apps – spread and become even cheaper. As Caroline Winter of Bloomberg Businessweek reports, in two of the most prosperous Western countries – the U.S. and Germany – the adoption of electronic books has so far taken very different routes. E-books are booming in the U.S. Less than five years after the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle, e-book sales already account for about a quarter of all U.S. book sales, and that percentage continues to rise sharply. In Germany, where e-readers are also readily available, e-books still represent just 1 percent of overall book sales.
The difference is largely a cultural one. Germany, the birthplace of Gutenberg and his printing press and the home of the Frankfurt Book Fair, is very much a country of the book. Bookstores are everywhere, and readers are attentive not only to the quality of a book’s writing but to the quality of its paper and its binding. As Spiegel’s Aaron Wiener recently observed, “Books are simply more deeply ingrained in the German way of life [than in the American].” German readers continue to have a strong sense that reading from a printed page is superior to reading from a screen.
There are also economic differences. In Germany, publishers set book prices, and the prices don’t vary from store to store. E-book prices follow these same rules, which means that they have not undercut print prices to the same degree that they have in the U.S. But this policy, too, is rooted in culture: it is aimed at preserving the diversity of the book trade. (It must pain Eric Holder enormously to travel to Germany and see so many flourishing bookshops.) E-books are also taxed at a higher rate than print books, which enjoy a tax exemption in Germany – another manifestation of the book’s special place in the culture.
So what happens from here? In the long run, will the book markets of Germany and the U.S. continue to diverge, with the e-book becoming the dominant form of the book in America but the printed book retaining its dominance in Germany? It will be interesting, and illuminating, to watch. One small hint: Although e-books represent just 1 percent of the German book market, sales of e-books nearly doubled there last year. As Dominique Pleimling, of the Institute of Book Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, says, “everything may change very quickly.”