Containers and their contents

hermitcrab

Clay Shirky comments on my last post:

Nick,

I’d like to add another item to your list: maybe books won’t survive the transition to digital devices, any more than scrolls survived the transition to movable type. (Scrolls and codices existed side-by-side when copies were produced by hand, but not when the latter came to be produced mechanically.)

We’ve had shared digital text for half a century now, dated from PLATO, and seen enormous experimentation in text formats, up to a multi-lingual encyclopedia with billions of words and down to real-time text bursts of 140 characters or less. Not once in that half century has anyone successfully invented anything that feels like the digital version of a book. Books online, whether in a Kindle or Google Books, are always (cue McLuhan) the old medium populating the new.

The online text formats that work don’t work like books: reference works that go online behave more like databases; the textbooks that go online behave more like looseleaf binders than bound volumes; blogs are more like journals, in all senses of that word, than books. Meanwhile, the stuff that tries to work like books mostly doesn’t work: every work of ‘wiki-fiction’ ever created is junk; NaNoWriMo treats book-length writing like a trip to the gym; blog-to-book deals are mostly novelty acts.

As an frequent user of e-books (and an enthusiastic co-signer of the ‘better for non-fiction than genre’ observations above) I’m struck by how current e-book formats are a terrible hybrid of digital and physical. I can’t edit inline or share copies easily, I can’t get just one chapter if that’s all I want, and the price is more reflective of existing publishers business models than of the actual unit costs of digital distribution of tiny gobs of text.

This recapitulates our mid-last-decade discussion about music, where albums shrank in salience after Napster, and the net-native musical units became the song, the playlist, and the stream. Similarly, the book, which half a millenium of rehearsed reverence have taught us to regard as a semantic unit, may in fact be a production unit: the book is what you get when writers have access to printing presses, just as the album is what you get when musicians have access to LP-pressing machines. Take away the press, and what looked like an internal logic of thought may turn out to be a constraint of the medium.

If this is right, then the twilight of the printed book will proceed on a schedule disconnected to the growth or stagnation of e-books — what the internet portends is not the end of the paper container of the book, but rather the way paper organized our assumptions about writing altogether.

I reply:

Clay,

Yes and no. Plenty of written works that once existed, by necessity, in the form of books are now morphing into new forms online. These tend to be reference works, manuals, and other things that benefit from links and from continual updating. That’s great. But these things tend to be sidelines to the mainstream trade publishing business.

The mainstay of book publishing is the extended narrative, either fictional or factual and almost always shaped by a single authorial consciousness and expressed in a single authorial voice. It is, in other words, a work of art. As you note, attempts to reinvent the narrative of the book in new hypermedia forms have been dismal failures. There’s a simple reason: they dispense with the art, which turns out to be the essence of the book’s value. Your desire to see cultural artifacts as mere technological artifacts, as “production units,” leads you to jump to the conclusion that because the narrative art of the book is resistant to digital re-formation, the narrative art is doomed to obsolescence. I think human beings are stranger and more interesting than you seem to believe. They enjoy, even love, the aesthetic experience of reading a well-crafted book. I don’t see any reason to assume they’ll abandon the object of that love just because it’s better suited to the form of a book than the form of a website/app/wiki. Photography didn’t kill off painting or drawing. And contrary to your misapprehension, the MP3 has not killed off the album. A record 100 million digital albums were purchased in 2011, and that number increased by another 15 percent in 2012, while individual track sales grew just 6 percent. People like albums; deal with it. Reducing aesthetic choices to “rehearsed reverence” is a form of nihilism.

One last example: cookbooks. Recipes are proliferating online, and by many practical measures an online recipe is superior to one printed on a page. It can, for instance, be updated, rated, and amended by other cooks. People search and use online recipes all the time. And yet printed cookbook sales are flourishing. The appeal of a cookbook, it seems, cannot be reduced to the practical value of a pile of recipes. And human beings can’t be reduced to utilitarian equations. Thank god.

UPDATE (1/4): More from Clay:

Nick,

Let me apologize in advance for the length of this comment; as usual your remarks defy a simple reply.

I’ll make a case here for the displacement of the artistic forms of the book (principally the novel, of course) as the shift to online reading continues, working by analogy first with the album and then the relationship between photography and painting.

You say “People like albums; deal with it.” I wouldn’t say otherwise, because any claim that people don’t would be trivially falsified by the existence of people who do, no matter how few. So I’ll make this claim instead: the album is no longer the central (or even a terribly important) unit in the consumption of popular music, in contrast to its position in the era of CDs.

You note the record 103M digital albums sold in 2011. This is the numerator. The denominator — total music sales — is 1.37 billion, measured as songs plus albums. In 2011, when someone decided to pay for digital music, they were deciding to buy a song 93% of the time, with albums making up the remaining 7%.

This is a nearly total reversal of the CD-dominated era, where where over 90% of music sales were album sales, largely because the recording industry could never figure out how to get album-scale margins from digital singles and CD “mix tapes”, despite listener demand.

Furthermore, many bestselling “albums” are synthetic collections of tracks never created to be listened to together — Big Beethoven BoxAbba Gold,Pure 80s: #1s. Whatever you want to say about the possibilities of the album as a cohesive unit of expression, Now That’s What I Call Music Vol. 43_doesn’t fit the model.

Then there’s Adele. As everyone writing about music last year noted, Adele was the breakout seller of digital albums in 2011, with 21 at the head of the pack, at 1.8 million sold. Unlike the case you made for Exile On Main Street,21 isn’t a complete work of musical thought. It is a bundle of popular songs, sold at a discount. Adele also sold 5.8M digital copies of the song “Rolling In The Deep”. The most popular song on the most popular album outsold that very album by 322%. People may like albums, but they don’t like them very much anymore.

To put this in historical perspective, overall album sales in 2011 were 4 million higher than in 2010, but 350 million lower than in 2001. Albums have achieved a state something like vinyl, so widely abandoned that they can now see high growth on a low base.

And this is just digital sales. Digital consumption has been worse — far worse — for the album format. The big music news in 2011 was not digital album sales, or even total digital sales. It was Pandora and Spotify, services designed to dismember albums (as the iPod also does, of course.) Contrast these with CD players, which enforced linear playback, providing only the >> control as a nod to user preference for something approaching random access.

The album has gone from the dominant unit of production to become a fraction of what gets bought, with many of the most popular being soundtracks and Greatest Hits collections. And albums as a unit of what gets listened to — all the songs in order, no shuffle or skip — is a fraction of that fraction. The album hasn’t been replaced, but it has been fairly decisively displaced.

This observation is general; talk of replacement rarely describes how shifts in media work. To your point about photography not replacing painting, I’d agree — “Ceci tuera cela” is too simplistic a frame. I’d also say, though, that when you look at the two media through the lens of displacement, the question looks quite different. If you randomly picked a person looking at an image right now, the chance that that person would be looking at a photograph is within epsilon of 100%. Facebook sees 300 million photos uploaded a day; the photographic corpus of Instagram plus Flickr tops 10 billion; to a first approximation, all image-making techniques have been displaced by photography since it went digital.

Despite this, painting has created a cultural space for itself where the product is very highly regarded, and its best practitioners well rewarded, but, as Kevin Kelly has pointed out, this is also true of calligraphers and sword-makers, some of whom are still working today. The ability to get hand-lettered wedding invitations doesn’t lead me to conclude that the inkwell has held its own against movable type. Calligraphy has been more decisively displaced as a medium than painting (and than the album), but less displaced than, say, vaudeville or cycloramas.

So proposing a spectrum of displacement as the interesting question, rather than “Replacement: Y or N?”, I’ll re-state my original observation. I think, as I take you to do as well, that print will decline over the next generation. Already the presses have stopped for phone books and encyclopedias, are stopping for textbooks and newspapers, and will increasingly stop for books of all kinds. And I think as that happens, the experience of reading books will be displaced by other experiences.

I also agree that the heart of what people are arguing about when we argue about reading is what happens to “the extended narrative, either fictional or factual and almost always shaped by a single authorial consciousness and expressed in a single authorial voice.” That’s an elegant formulation that I’m happy to adopt without caveat. (Similarly, I don’t believe in ‘narrative obsolescence’ — on the contrary, I think that stories, unlike books, are a fundamental unit of human thought, which is to say that in most cultures we know of, there were no books, but there were stories.)

What I do believe is that books, and in particular novels, have their form pretty decisively wrapped up in the affordances and limitations of print, from their length of ~50K-500K words, to the consistent use of prose, to the idea of delivering the whole bolus of text at once. I also don’t think that, given the native grain of the internet, those affordances and limitations are transferrable wholesale. (This is why I don’t think an 8% uptick in cookbook sales during a food craze constitutes much of a ringing endorsement for either print as a platform or the novel as a form.)

Narrative and the authorial voice will survive, of course — this blog wouldn’t work if those interests weren’t transferrable — but the surprisingly strong interest in essays, alongside the books’ lack of native support from the medium, makes me conclude that this preference for long-form reading owes more to Montaigne than Defoe.

If I’m right about this, the fate of the printed book will have less to do with competition from ebooks (at least in their ‘digital copy of print’ versions) than from competition with Longreads and New Inquiry for the time and attention of the reader of extended narratives.

I don’t think this makes me a nihilist. I think it makes me a McLuhanite, or an (Elizabeth) Eisensteinist, or a (Benedict) Andersonian, which is to say someone who thinks that forms of aesthetic expression co-evolve with their modes of production, and often don’t survive large-scale reconfiguration of those modes. (You will recognize this argument as similar to your own, fromBig Switch, albeit applied to cultural, rather than economic, organization where, curiously, you seemed quite convinced that utilitarian calculations wer pretty ineluctable drivers of change.)

The only way this would be nihilistic is if I believed, as I think you do, that the era of the book represented some sort of global maximum, against which any change is certain to be measured as loss. This is precisely what I don’t believe.

I am instead quite cheerful about the ongoing destruction of pre-digital patterns of life, because I think something better will come from it, as happened previously, in my view, with print, the telegraph, and the telephone. If I’m wrong, of course, then my arguments are helping usher in a new Dark Ages, a Bosch nightmare populated by Advice Animals with a soundtrack of Gangnam Style on endless loop, but so far, I’m liking my chances.

I have several reasons for thinking that the current round of destruction is clearing the decks for something better, but the main one is that historically, media that increase the amount of arguing people do has been a long-term positive for society, even at the cost of short-term destruction of familiar patterns, and the disorientation of the people comfortable with those patterns. I think we’ll get extended narrative online — I just doubt the format of most of those narratives will look enough like a book to merit the name.

More from me:

Clay,

Yes, people like songs even more than they like albums. They always have. (Radio long dominated listening and was always song-based; far more people listened to the Doors’ song “Light My Fire” in 1967 than listened to the very good album of which it was part.) And you’re absolutely right that, by making it possible, for the first time, for people to buy every song on an album individually, the net has radically changed the music market and people’s buying habits. At the same time, the album remains a valued and resilient form for pop music. Album sales are down sharply from their peaks in the 1990s and early 2000s (when sales were distorted by the introduction of the CD and a wave of vinyl replacement purchases), but they have now stabilized at their early 70s levels, which, arguably, was the end of the 66-72 high point of the album as art. And if we accept that a lot of albums are downloaded for free (and hence don’t enter the sales statistics), then we can assume that album “sales” are now higher than they were at the height of the album’s most fertile era. Moreover, if we take into account the fact that the average album includes about 12 songs, then it becomes clear that far more songs are still purchased as parts of albums than individually (even though unit sales of tracks are higher than unit sales of the track bundles we call albums). Even on streaming services, albums continue to be a popular form for listening (and sharing). Mumford & Sons’ latest album was streamed more than 8 million times on Spotify during the first week of its release. It’s also worth noting that even though people buy a lot of tracks, they’re almost all “album tracks” — ie, musicians continue to work in the form of the album.

Moreover, albums continue to be, contrary to your contention, central to the cultural discussion of popular music. People await their arrival, people listen to them, people talk about them, and reviews and essays center on them, even in post-Napster publications like Pitchfork and PopMatters and, yes, New Inquiry. The album as cultural marker has hardly lost its currency. (In fact, compared to the pop-cultural dominance of the single in the “Top 40″ days of the 60s/70s, the cultural salience of the album may have grown.) You point out that (a) a lot of albums aren’t very good and have a lot of filler, (b) greatest hits collections and other compilations represent a lot of album sales, and (c) even when people buy entire albums, they often pick and choose individual tracks to listen to. Correct, correct, and correct. But it was ever thus. All those things were as true in, say, 1975 as they are today.

Where I take issue with you is your attempt to dismiss the album as a mere historical accident, which has no real value beyond being a technological “production unit.” Even if the LP had originated as a purely technological event (which it did not), human beings, as both creators and listeners, turned it into an artistic form in and of itself. Musicians determined what the LP “container” became every bit as much as the container determined what they produced. As an artistic form, the album had, and continues to have, value, separate from and sometimes greater than the combined value of the individual tracks. Yes, the album is subject to the 99%-is-shit rule, but who cares? When any form of popular expression rises to the level of art, the audience for the art is always a small fraction of the audience for the pop. One way to look at recent trends in popular music is to say that digital distribution has freed the casual pop listener to do precisely what she/he has always wanted to do and really has always done: listen to popular songs. That’s great. But I would guess that the number of passionate pop fans, who listen to music for aesthetic satisfaction as well as entertainment, may not have dropped as much as you assume — and those people still listen to a lot of albums.

We are in complete accord that “forms of aesthetic [and other] expression co-evolve with their modes of production.” That can bring great new forms of expression. It can also diminish or destroy valuable older forms of expression, for economic reasons, for behavioral reasons, for various other reasons. Where nihilism enters the picture is when you say, sneeringly, that although “half a millenium of rehearsed reverence have taught us to regard [the book] as a semantic unit, [it] may in fact be a production unit: the book is what you get when writers have access to printing presses, just as the album is what you get when musicians have access to LP-pressing machines.” People’s love of books in general and serious novels and poetry in particular is not just a numb act of “rehearsed reverence” (a phrase that is incredibly insulting and demeaning) to an accidental production unit. Like the LP (but more so), the book, a creation of human beings, turned out not only to be a terrific container for distributing speech and then writing; it also, through an intertwined, mutually reinforcing, and unique combination of the mode of reading it encouraged (deep, attentive, immersive) and the modes of expression it inspired (deep, thoughtful, eloquent, emotionally resonant, experimental), actually heightened the potential of human expression, experience, and life. Let me say that again: the book heightened the potential of human expression, experience, and life.

I’m certainly not suggesting that uniquely valuable forms of media, or the modes of thinking or expression that they promote, are immune to destruction or alteration by historical forces, particularly ones driven by utilitarian concerns. But if such a medium is lost or diminished by technological or economic change, we shouldn’t simply say “who cares; other shit will come along” — the techno-nihilistic-philistine view — we should confront the fact that the form and the experience it produced are NOT going to be perfectly replaced by other stuff. If you see every form of expression as a mere “production unit,” then of course every form of expression becomes disposable. If you see the persistence of people’s love for the literary novel or the well-wrought album as mere “rehearsed reverence” (rather than thoughtful, meaningful personal choice), then of course you’ll find it hard to see the potential for loss in progress. But that’s so blinkered. I have no idea whether the literary novel or nonfiction narrative or poem represents a “global maximum” — whatever that means — but I will argue that each of those things is irreplaceable. Some things — emphasis on “things” — are actually worthy of respect.

UPDATE (1/6): An afterthought from me:

Clay,

You write: “This is why I don’t think an 8% uptick in cookbook sales during a food craze constitutes much of a ringing endorsement for either print as a platform or the novel as a form.”

I don’t know what cookbooks have to do with novels, either, but it struck me that in your response here we see something revealing. I don’t think you’d argue that there is an enormous quantity of diverse cooking-related content available in digital form, much of it very good: professional and amateur recipes, articles and profiles, blogs of incredible variety, e-cookbooks, YouTube cooking videos and lessons, images out the wazoo, restaurant reviews, and much else. And yet cookbook sales go up smartly. You dismiss this out of hand by attributing it to a “food craze.” But wouldn’t it be more interesting to ask yourself why people with a heightened interest in cooking and cuisine (and these tend to be relatively young, web-savvy people with an arsenal of gadgetry), would choose to buy lots of printed cookbooks rather than just satisfying themselves with the wealth of cooking-related content (most of it available without charge) online? Clearly, if what’s available online satisfied all our desires, then no one would bother to buy expensive and heavy cookbooks in printed form. The fact that people do, in the face of all that digital content, choose to buy printed books tells us – doesn’t it? – that there must be some uniquely appealing quality to the printed book that is not replaceable by digital content. Instead of asking, “What’s up with that? What’s the unique appeal of a printed book?” and then digging into that question, you choose to avoid looking at the phenomenon altogether. You dodge the interesting question because you’ve convinced yourself that there’s no inherent and unique value to the form of a physical codex, that it’s merely a fungible production unit, a (grimace) “platform.”

UPDATE (1/7): Kevin Kelly writes, via e-mail:

Nick and Clay,

I am really enjoying your unusually informative debate about the prospect of books and albums. Thanks for doing it in public.

Nick,

It would really help me (and maybe others) to understand your argument about the enduring role of books and albums if you give an example or two of a media that HAS gone the way that you don’t want books or albums to go.

What is an example of a “uniquely valuable form of media” that was “worthy of respect” but that was “lost or diminished by technological or economic change.”?

Do you think there has been a whole bunch of these in the past, or do you think (and fear) that books and albums would be the first?

If you don’t think that albums have been lost or diminished, what are the media worthy of respect you do think have disappeared at our loss?

I ask this because in trying to think what you had in mind, I could not think of a single media that has not expanded in some direction over the past 1,000 years because of the relentless growth in human population and leisure time.  But judging from your passion about this, you must have something in mind.

I reply:

Kevin,

Those are very good and complicated questions, and you’re right that you won’t find clear answers to them in my discussion with Clay, which has been (I’m talking about my own responses) fairly piecemeal, as I reply to particular points Clay makes. I’m more coherent on some of the questions (I hope) in my last 2 books, but let me try to respond, briefly, to your queries.

There are at least three different, but related, questions in play:

1. The fate of particular media industries and their products

2. The fate of particular media forms

3. The cultural value of particular media forms

The discussion was instigated by my post on the prospects for book publishing, which was very much focused on #1 but also had implications for #3. Most of my comments in the discussion with Clay focus on #3, because this is where I find myself disagreeing most strongly with Clay’s views (as I understand them). Clay doesn’t imbue particular media forms with much unique cultural value, whereas I do. I sense that Clay and I agree on a lot of aspects of #2.

So with that as backdrop:

What is an example of a “uniquely valuable form of media” that was “worthy of respect” but that was “lost or diminished by technological or economic change.”?
The oral epic poem, the symphony, the silent film with live musician accompaniment, the dramatic play, the short-form cartoon, the map, the LP. Most of these still exist, particularly on the consumption side, but they’ve all been diminished. And if we expand the definition of diminishment to “diminishment of cultural importance” (which is not the same as popularity), then I would also include the book and probably the movie. There are also some signs that the long-form videogame and even the website are in the process of diminishment right now (and I value both of those).
Do you think there has been a whole bunch of these in the past, or do you think (and fear) that books and albums would be the first?

I think there have been plenty in the past, but I think in the history of media we’re at a unique time today because pretty much every form tied to and inspired by a physical product is threatened with diminishment, if not outright loss.

If you don’t think that albums have been lost or diminished, what are the media worthy of respect you do think have disappeared at our loss?

Clearly, albums haven’t been lost. I do think they’ve been diminished, particularly as a form of creative expression, and will continue to be diminished, even though the persistence of their popularity (and I do think Clay misjudges this) suggests that, as a form of expression (the development of which was tied to a particular product) they have unique cultural value and hence their diminishment is a loss. I think this diminishment began, by the way, before Napster. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ve been using the term “album” to encompass both the LP and the CD forms of the album, which are themselves quite different. The LP, most obviously, is divided into two sides – or even, as with Exile on Main St., four sides – which introduced a very important formal concern that largely disappeared with the CD album. Up to now, the download album has largely kept the form of the CD,* for the simple reason that albums continue to be sold as CDs. The formal characteristics of the album may well change again should CD sales become trivial. It may be that, at that point, musicians will cease to produce collections of songs in any shape or form, but I consider that unlikely.)

It’s probably worth mentioning that I think the unique value of media forms lies not just in the modes of expression they encourage or inspire (in the creator) but in the modes of apprehension they encourage or inspire (in the listener or reader or viewer). I try to explain this, with regard to the scribal and then printed book, in The Shallows.

One last thing: I agree with one of Clay’s central points (about question #2), which is that the cultural or aesthetic diminishment of a particular form (the book, for instance) is often less about the transformation of that form into a new product (eg, the e-book) than about broader shifts in people’s behavior and desires as they adapt to broader shifts in media and technology (eg, digitization). It’s not just about what we read; it’s about how we read. Again, that’s a major concern of The Shallows.

*Double CD albums, like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or Being There, are an obvious, if rare, exception, as they undergo a formal transformation, losing their two-act quality, when they’re turned into downloads. Interestingly, Mellon Collie was released in a radically different form (different order of songs, addition of a couple of tracks) as a three-LP set than as a two-CD set.

Hermit crab photo by warrenski.

49 thoughts on “Containers and their contents

  1. Deborah

    Interesting dialog.

    Clay,
    As a ‘graduate’ of NaNoWriMo, and its fascinating proposition that if you just sit down and WRITE for 30 days, you may just end up with something worth reading. I DID end up with a story. (You notice I’m not calling it a book!) ;-)

    There is something rather… alchemical about the transition of a manuscript, whether hand written or digital, becoming an actual physical object. It makes it more ‘real’ to the author AND the reader in my humble opinion. When I printed out my novel, I could then share it with friends and family. My story had wings! It could move around from place to place!

    The other day, I visited a friend, and on his bookshelf crowded with paperbacks, I spied a leather bound volume of Walden. I practically leapt across the room to take it from its place and proceeded to fondle it and leaf through its pages with a certain reverence. I only put it back on the shelf when I had to leave, more’s the pity.

    I have a feeling, no kindle version will EVER have that effect on me.

    Nicholas,

    Thank you for posting these conversations. They make me THINK!

  2. Artemas Gruzdef

    Extended narrative of Homer’s Iliad was transmitted orally for centuries. And nowadays we have TV series House that is just like Conan Doyle’s extended narrative about Sherlock Holmes, only much more engaging because the container is so much better. There’s no need to reinvent 19th century novel for modern age. It has already been done.
    Or consider another type of book that was extremely popular in 19th century, sheet music for home entertainment (piano solo, piano four-hand, voice and piano). To listen to their favorite music at home (say, tunes from a recent opera), people actually played (and sang) it themselves. There isn’t much market for sheet music (or pianos) now, because we listen to recordings instead.

  3. Charles

    Obsolescence is a double-edged sword. The ebook might make the printed, bound book obsolete, but inevitably, the ebook format will become obsolete too. Perhaps instead of looking to the past, we should look ahead and see what potential future formats might preserve the essential qualities of printed books. Surely the essential quality is not production and distribution, or a financial model.

    But of course I am a hypocrite. I am currently considering whether to apply for an MFA program in Book Arts, which focuses on papermaking, letterpress printing, and bookbinding. So I feel like I am about to devote my life to constructing buggy whips, in order to understand future transportation system

  4. Henry Beer

    A compelling string that brings a couple of other things to mind. Remember when digital timepieces emerged? The enthusiasm they garnered, primarily from early techno-types, was short lived. As people used them, they quickly discovered that digits tell time in only one way. One has to actually read the numbers, which to a numbers person must have been some sort of dream come true.

    It quickly became evident to the rest of us that the other ways in which convential clock faces “tell us time” through relative hand position, hands pointing and the visual presence of the other points in the twelve hour day enabled us to visually calculate how much time to our next appointment, how much time we had left —all without using arithmetic–using only our eyes and our ability to use relative position to draw inferences. Telling time with a clock face turned out to be highly participatory and experiential, to the point where today digital time pieces have been for the most part retreated to gadgetdom. The exceptions are those people (athletes, scientists, engineers etc) for whom parsing seconds is of professional or personal importance. In doing so, one relinquishes the sensual aspects of a conventional watch face, as well as the other ways in which our watches tell us time.

    So in spite of the patently old school nature of the clock face (Roman Numerals!) the clock/watch face is deeply expressive and continues to be successful, useful and a never ending source of inspiration for time piece designers and their willing and enthusiastic customers.

    The second observation has to do with the Maker Movement, for lack of a better term. There is absolutely something to handling and manipulating a real object in real time. Some of the benefits, sensations and pleasure may even be beneath our perception–limbic brain stuff. Moments of physical connectivity that cause something to actually happen and the cascade of all the accompanying sensate triggers that are tickled remains perenially satisfying. This is true particularly in the case of those of us who spend most of our days “knowing” rather than “doing.

  5. Dale

    Wrong place for this, I know, but I cannot find a place to leave comments for your March 8 post “Bring Back Google Scholar” (http://www.roughtype.com/?p=1583#comments):

    Brought back Google Scholar to my page just now with help from this site. Just wanted to share a solution with a small script install:
    http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/134515

    Also wanted to say thanks in that post to @Robincamilletoo for pointing me towards Chrome’s URL bar shortcut for alternative search features.

    Sorry for disorganizing your blog.

    Cheers.

    Dale

  6. Cindy Wolff

    Nicholas,
    Thank you so much for your 1/4 reply! I will also passionately add how that much emptier our adolescences would have been without memorable album cover art to go with our purchases, along with liner notes and an occasional poster for your bedroom wall. It was not a “production unit”; it was an experience. If we applied the current business model to when albums came to be, they never would have been. How sad would that be?

  7. Josh

    One tangential quibble with something Shirky said: While “someone who thinks that forms of aesthetic expression co-evolve with their modes of production, and often don’t survive large-scale reconfiguration of those modes” sounds like a fair partial definition of a McLuhanite, McLuhan actually seemed to be pretty heavily invested in preserving much of the typographical mind-set that the book as a medium amplified.

  8. William Ockham

    You picked an interesting title for this article. Your fundamental failure (shared by most of your commenters) is to mistake the container for the contents. The entire “publishing industry” is built on this bizarre misconception. A physical book is not a product, it is a packaging material. Just because textbooks and romance novels are delivered via the codex, that doesn’t make them the same thing. It is as if spinach and beer would be considered part of the same market because they can both be shipped in cans or consumed fresh, but somehow bottled beer is totally different and thought of as more different from canned beer than canned spinach is.

    Your paean to the physical book is one part ahistorical nonsense and one part silly nostalgia. You demean the great oral tradition of our species as well as the great storytellers who work in other media by choice. I agree that books heightened the potential of human expression, experience, and life. So did cardboard. The physical book was a technological innovation. Storytellers adapted to it and invented new forms, formulae, and formats. The same thing will happen with digital books. Physical books won’t go away, but they will be luxury items. The great thing about storytelling is that no form is ever lost.

  9. Nick Post author

    You demean the great oral tradition of our species as well as the great storytellers who work in other media by choice.

    Baloney. My praise for the book was not dispraise for any other mode of expression.

    And the physical book is not just “packaging material.” It may have originated, a couple of thousand years ago, as packaging material for earlier oral and written works, but it has become much, much more. You, Ockham, are the one afflicted by a bizarre misconception.

  10. Cindy Wolff

    I hope that physical books never become luxury items, putting them out of reach except for just a few. Their content and ideas will be out of reach too, especially if “the few” are not people, but are media conglomerates who may not create digital access to everything they own the rights to and may constantly challenge any oral presentation as well.

  11. William Ockham

    It’s not simply praise for physical books that demeans other modes of expression. It is the mindless elevation of one form of narrative above others based on packaging, not unlike the theatre snobs who believe that only stage acting can be great acting. I largely agree that the development of the book lead to the things you described. But it wasn’t the format change that primarily caused all that wonderful goodness. It was the printing press. That is why your entire argument is ahistorical nonsense. You are confounding the results of a new form of distribution with the thing being distributed. The book existed for one thousand years before the printing press without making a fraction of the impact that the printing press would have.

    Your confusion leads you to entirely misread the digital revolution in books. Ebooks will eventually have every important quality of physical books plus the advantage of the zero marginal cost of production. This will be the biggest boon to literary novels and poetry ever because it removes the need to justify big print runs.

    The fact that books are merely packaging for ideas is a simple truth and denying it is merely mystical mumbo-jumbo. The magic will always be in the words and ideas, not in the ink and pulped tree bark.

  12. Boaz

    William writes:
    “The fact that books are merely packaging for ideas is a simple truth and denying it is merely mystical mumbo-jumbo.”

    This is the new kind of reductionism. Its similar to saying something like: “the human body is nothing but a bag of chemicals, and denying it is merely mystical mumbo-jumbo.” On the one hand you insult the thing itself by reducing it to something more simple, and on the other, you demand that someone speak the language of informatics. Obviously, calling a book printed on paper (which you refer to as pulped tree bark) packaging, is meant to insult. And calling any attempt to defend the art of bookmaking and presentation of text, and longevity of a book, and the infrastructure and history it is a part of “mystical mumbo-jumbo” is saying that informatics is the only valid language. Can the positives of a physical book over an ebook be articulated. Yes, perhaps. But if a limited language of information theory is all that is allowed, it may be difficult.

  13. Nick Post author

    William,

    Yes, as I discuss at length in my book The Shallows, the book predates the printing press by some 1,500 years. And, yes, the press was crucial to the rise of a broad, book-centered literary culture, for the simple reason that it made books far more available and affordable. But that doesn’t mean the physical form of the book didn’t matter. It most certainly did – monumentally so. As I also discuss in The Shallows, the physical form of the book encouraged a particular kind of immersive reading (which had already come into being before the press, though it was pretty much limited to monasteries and universities), which in turn (after the invention of the press and the consequent spread of that form of reading) inspired an explosion of variation, experimentation, and unprecedented expressiveness in literature. (Silent reading didn’t even exist until after the book was invented, and was very much a consequence of the book.) You seem to suggest that the work of an artist can be easily separated from the form in which the work is created. That is just plain bonkers. The idea that the book is “merely packaging” for “ideas” is not a simple truth; it’s a wrongheaded notion that is completely unsupported by history. Ebooks will most certainly not “have every important quality of physical books”; how could they, except in some theoretical, idealized, bodiless world of your own imagining? They will share some qualities, and they will not share other qualities, as is already obvious. Different people will make different value judgments about those qualities.

    As for the “mindless elevation of one form of narrative above others,” nowhere did I do any such thing (other than pointing out, mindfully, that attempts to reconfigure literary narrative as hypermedia have to date failed). As I noted, one can praise literary narrative without dispraising cinematic narrative or musical narrative or any other type of narrative.

  14. Nick Post author

    Boaz, That’s well put. I’d like to hear you expand a bit on what you mean by the language of informatics. Nick

  15. Boaz

    Hi Nick, I have a background in physics, so I am familiar with the physics perspective in which only the things that show up in fundamental physics are seen as interesting or valid, and it is assumed that all else can be described from these concepts. I see particularly in the last few years a similar thing happening with computer science and information theory. Bits and algorithms and entropy and storage space and the like are seen as the important, interesting, fundamental things, and its assumed that all else can be (or should be) described from these. I saw this sort of impulse underlying William’s comments (e.g. in his romance novel/textbook and spinach/beer comparisons). You call it bonkers, but its quite common these days, I think. But in the same way that the fundamental laws of physics are not very adequate for talking about societies or friendship, fundamentals of information theory are probably usually a bad fit for talking about works of art and literature.
    Anyway, I really appreciate this post and the arguments you’ve been putting forth here. Its all too easy to take this slick information perspective and use it to disrespect any and every thing.

  16. Brad

    So a book is a meant object, right? It has meant-ness. The meant-ness has been put there by the author and then the reader comes along and soaks up all the meaning. When the meant-ness crosses a certain threshold we say — hey that’s art right there. But now we’ve created this weird split. A book isn’t just a book anymore. It’s now a container that has contents. Differentiation occurs. Content is now the stuff inside the container and the container is now the thing that holds the content. And as readers we know what artistic content is — it’s a deeply felt individual experience. The problem is that our beloved containers have been revealed as mere production units, which they are actually. And so we’re left trying to articulate exactly what it is that makes the container component of a book so vital to our individual experience — and that’s the mistake perhaps. Because the container may be a phenomenon that doesn’t easily reduce in this way. Perhaps the special meant-ness we assign to content and not containers is an illusion. Containers most certainly are production units but couldn’t they also be humanity’s chosen vehicle for collective meant-ness?

  17. David Anderson

    I think this discussion has so far overlooked some crucial dimensions. To my way of thinking, several factors affect how long various media can (or should) be:

    PHYSICAL MEDIA: books are naturally limited to no more than about 1000 pages, CDs to 74 minutes, and so forth. This is the one factor that is becoming irrelevant.

    AUTHOR’S CASH FLOW: most authors need at least a semi-regular income. Going to more than about a year without a payday gets increasingly risky and awkward — and over the span of a career, averaging more than about 1-2 novels or 1-2 albums (or films) a year (give or take) is tough.

    AUDIENCE ATTENTION SPAN: generally speaking, most of us aren’t going to consume any sort of media for more than a couple of hours without a bio-break, and we’ll have a tough time sticking to a longer work for more than maybe 10-20 hours spread over a couple of weeks without taking a mental vacation. So while we’re now able to, for example, sit down and watch all 5 seasons of the The Wire day after day, stopping only for kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom breaks — it’s good that it’s segmented into seasons.

    The constraints of physical media are vanishing, but the realities of creating and consuming media won’t go away. However, the wonderful thing about digital media is the prospect of being able to monetize creative output at many different scales — eg short Kindle books, serialized novels, website subscriptions, etc.

  18. William Ockham

    I mean no insult to printed books. I love them. I will withdraw my criticism that Mr. Carr was insulting other forms of art. I read more into his statements than was there. I still think he is afflicted with an absurd sentimentality about the physical form of the book. He is limited by his understanding of technology if he thinks there is some quality of paper books that cannot be imitated by digital books. The current notion of ebooks and ereaders are the but pale reflections of what digital books can be. Random access, pages (yes, even physical, finger-flippable, paper-like pages), everything except each copy being a different physical object is replicable with digital technology.

    Imagine the following device. It has the physical appearance of a hardback book. Its cover is the cover of the current book you are reading. Inside, it has a title page and table of contents. The first page of text is wherever you left off reading previously. The “book” has about 6-8 “pages” which silently rotate as you flip through the book. It is, quite simply, the universal book. It can be any book you want, turned to what ever page you want. You can even have two widely separated pages viewed side by side. It functions in every way like a “real book” with all the advantages of digital technology. This book could be built today. It would serve as a “better than the original” replacement for the vast majority of books available today. If you can explain to me what this book lacks, I might be inclined to admit your point.

    I do not think that will be the form that is the future of digital books, but if you are right, that would be the logical form. I believe that there is no magic in flipping pages. I believe that the “book” will fragment into different physical forms. Perhaps coffee table books are best delivered to coffee table displays. Textbooks will need a different container. And that is my point. If there is content best suited to a paper-based book, that is how it will be delivered. But that set of content will be an ever diminishing one. And that will enrich our lives, just the inventions of the book and the printing press.

    I would also like to explain that I am absolutely aware that it is impossible to separate the art from its form. I simply believe that the value comes from the artist, rather than from the form. I think it is you folks who are mistaking technology (the book form) for the artistry that was poured into it. The book was a great technological achievement. The printing press was an even greater achievement. Digital books will surpass even that. It will allow all of the same advantages of physical books while dispensing with a set of annoying limitations that different types of books suffer from in varying degrees. The book and printing press were enabling technologies for a great outpouring of human creativity. Nothing can change that.

    Finally, I would ask what you intend to do about it. I look to the past for inspiration for a better future. If you want to be the old guy yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, I will leave you to it. I am busy building software to help writers work around the manifold limitations of current ereader platforms. The future of books is not in blind veneration of dead trees. The future of books requires understanding that the old physical form required compromises that no longer need apply. The future is about better books available to more readers.

  19. Josh

    …everything except each copy being a different physical object is replicable with digital technology.

    I often find myself remembering a passage in a book based on its position on the page: about how far into the text it was, whether it was on the left- or right-hand side, near the top or bottom. I can’t always remember the verbiage — in fact, frequently I think I do, but when I actually find the passage, it doesn’t say exactly what I thought it did, which is why my Google Books keyword searches can’t ferret it out. Anyway, I end up finding what I want by thumbing through the approximate area and glancing in the place I think the passage will be.

    I can’t be the only person who does this. How does a digital book replicate that?

  20. Boaz

    William,
    If I buy an e-reader and then pay for a novel to read on that device, what are the chances I will still be able to read that same novel ten years from now without buying it again? Not to say that I definitely keep all my paper books for ten years, but there’s something rather nice about knowing the book will still be there to read in the future. My guess is that for most digital book purchases, one gets a down-grade in the longevity department vs. a physical book. Yes, there’s little doubt the text will still exist on someone’s server somewhere in 10 years, but the format will likely have changed, one’s device will probably not be working any more, and one may not even have the rights to read the text any more even if one’s device still works.

    No reason why you shouldn’t keep working hard to make great e-book readers, but its a rather complex topic which inevitably involves substantial losses as well as gains along the way. Casting criticism and reluctance as being like an old man telling the kids to get off his lawn doesn’t really show the love of books you profess.

  21. Nick Post author

    Boaz, James Panero makes a pertinent point in a new piece in the New Criterion:

    With each new stage of copy culture, the ease of duplication is countered by the increasingly complex technology required to produce and use the copies it creates. Just as Twain wrote that the bad of the printing press was “overshadowed a thousand times by the good,” the Internet age presents its own problems even as it solves countless others.

    Through inks, pens, archival writing surfaces, and the required literacy of both the writer and the reader, manuscript culture replaced the simplicity of oral culture. Print culture turned the reproduction of the word into an even more specialized field, yet the information in printed books could still be accessed by any literate person with nothing more than the light to read by.

    Not so for digital information. While the Internet has leveled the relationship between producer and consumer—publication is no more difficult than acquisition [assuming you don’t include writing as part of publication -Nick]—both tasks now employ a host of technologies to support them. Access to Internet-based information requires personal computer interfaces, routers, digital storage devices, broadband connections, and electricity. If any one of these technologies fail, the Internet becomes useless. An old book can be as readable as the day it was printed, but digital media from a mere decade ago can become unusable, with unreadable formats and corrupted data.

  22. Linda Holliday

    One of the great ponderings of our time. I also love books, not just the contents, but the sensual experience. It’s an personal luxury and perhaps a concentration enabler and nemonic device as well. I only read ebooks when convenience is compelling. And yet, I don’t believe we’ve made the new digital cultural containers yet, so the debate will carry on until we have more mature digital creations. We’ll lose something with the codex, but what we’ll gain has yet to be invented and adopted as a shared cultural unit.
    What I’m more alarmed by, in the short run, is that we have a double digital divide. Low quality media (uneven, un-fact-checked, un-important…) in rich full-featured free digital experiences on one side, and careful, talent-made, professionally supported relatively more substantial media on the other (I’m trying hard not to say that nothing on the web is good!) like the photography example, where is the “time spent reading” now and where is it going? We have to get the good stuff into the slipstream. We have to accept that media preferences are changing. More short bursts, fewer long form experience. But still,time spent reading has gone up massively. Only 7% of on-line time is video.
    We are actually try to solve this problem at Citia. How do you make a bolus, a codex-worth of literature or complex thinking, flow and meet new forms and tastes? Can’t claim to have nailed it, but we are optimistic that some rich new things can be made. Its a complicated problem to slove, intertwined with economics, technology, demographics and massive inertia and low readiness on the publisher end.
    Search on Kevin Kelly or Dan Ariely in the app store. There are 2 free apps to try, but the full experience is only visible in the paid version. Sorry, but we are trying to help writers earn a living!
    (Go to http://cta.io/predictable ) Would love more feedback–I think!

  23. William Ockham

    Boaz,

    I do not see any “substantial losses”. I see a lot of ignorance and minor inconveniences (such as the one mentioned by Josh). I can’t answer the question about your chances of accessing a particular novel in ten years because that depends on you at least as much as the technology. I know that I have lost more physical books than digital books in the last two years even though I’ve bought many more digital books.

    The assertions about losing digital documents due to incompatible formats baffle me. This is an impossibility. If the data was stored in bits and those bits can be read, nothing is lost. Bits are bits. If the data encoded meaning, that meaning is retrievable. There is no such thing as an unreadable format.

    I think the underlying theme to all this is best expressed by a line from the article Mr. Carr linked to. In writing about the downsides of “print culture”, Mr. Panero says “literature also no longer enjoyed the protection of a scholarly class and a culture of scholasticism went into decline.” That is as succinct an expression of the “You kids get off my lawn” point of view as you will see. Our protection against the likes of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy was destroyed by the printing press.

    I don’t subscribe to Clay Shirky’s brand of internet triumphalism. Storytelling has always been part of the human experience and narrative fiction predates the printing press and the book. The internet and digital text won’t change that. Just like the printing press, ebooks and internet distribution will expand both the number of storytellers and the size of their potential audience. Just like the printing press, this new system threatens the cultural control wielded by a powerful economic elite. The so-called gatekeepers see themselves as protectors of our cultural heritage. All they are really doing is strangling it. When I weigh the good that will come from the lowered costs of production and distribution that we are already seeing, physical book fetishism seems pretty repulsive.

    The future of narrative fiction is digital. Ebooks are already preferred by trade publishing’s most important consumers (that would be readers of romance novels, whether you like it or not). Ebook production quality will get better and cheaper. Physical books will only get more expensive. The stupid limitations of DRM and licensing will go away. Ebooks will be better books than physical books.

  24. Nick Post author

    The assertions about losing digital documents due to incompatible formats baffle me. This is an impossibility. If the data was stored in bits and those bits can be read, nothing is lost. Bits are bits. If the data encoded meaning, that meaning is retrievable. There is no such thing as an unreadable format.

    In the real world, this is just plain wrong. In the real world, digital stuff is lost routinely. I have a large box of floppy disks, the contents of which are effectively lost because (a) I don’t have a floppy drive and (b) even if I had a floppy drive the format of the disks and their files would be unreadable by any of my computers. I also, on the computer I’m using right now, have a considerable number of documents (think Claris) and a considerable number of applications (think PowerPC) that can’t be opened or launched. Yes, this could have been avoided if I methodically updated or transferred every document into new formats as they came along (applications are trickier) and I suppose if I wanted to go through considerable hassle and cash it might be possible to retrieve these documents, but, as I say, we live in the real world and there are limits to what can be expected of us. You can certainly decide that, on balance, e-books are superior to printed ones, but you can’t argue that a printed book’s independence from file formats, operating systems, encoding schemes, and gadgets is not an advantage. Because it most definitely is.

  25. Boaz

    “When I weigh the good that will come from the lowered costs of production and distribution that we are already seeing, physical book fetishism seems pretty repulsive.”
    This doesn’t sound like someone who loves printed books to me. Also, if I continue to care about physical books in the same way I have for the past many years, does this make me a fetishist? You say ebooks will be better than books. Why don’t we just say different?

    I am less certain than you, William, that DRM and licensing will go away.
    I would be happy for you to be right on that account. Is there a trend in this direction? It seems more likely to me that restrictions and lack of interoperability between devices and even versions of devices will increase rather than decrease.

    Speaking of substantial losses, here is a story of someone who experienced some:
    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20121022/07340420786/amazon-wipes-customers-account-locks-all-ebooks-says-find-new-retailer-when-she-asks-why.shtml
    Yes, there could be a fire that burns all my books. But somehow this is more acceptable a risk to me than depending on a huge multinational company to not make a mistake in processing my licensing approval, or depending on programmers not to make a glitch that accidentally deletes my books or renders them inaccessible. Even assuming perfectly working hardware and operating systems, you’ve heard of the Unix command “rm -r /*”, right? This concept that no digital data is ever lost is absurd, as Nick comments on above.

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