Clay Shirky comments on my last post:
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.
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:
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 Box, Abba 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:
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:
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.
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.
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.