Containers and their contents


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.

I reply:


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 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:


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.

I reply:


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. Nick Post author

    A note on the cloud is also in order. The integrity of many reproducible cultural objects has long been protected by the proliferation of copies. That’s certainly been true with physical books and albums and so forth, and it’s also been largely true with digital goods, which have tended to be copied onto many hard drives. The cloud changes this model radically. Suddenly, we get a single master copy, held, usually, in a corporation’s data center, which is, in effect, projected onto our screens temporarily. The durability and integrity of that work become much more tenuous in the cloud model.

  2. William Ockham

    Your last comment proves that you know how to manage physical books better than you know how to manage digital assets, not that you have lost data due to format incompatibilities. In the real world that I live in, floppy disk drives still exist, data created by PowerPCs can still be read, and as you acknowledge, none of this is real problem. Your laziness doesn’t equate to a problem with technology. My original point is true and you admit as much when you say that if you really wanted to, you could still read that data.

    Is the fact I left my copy of “100 years of solitude” on a bus in Omaha illustrative of some fundamental brokenness in physical books? One advantage of ebooks is that my neighbor who lost her Kindle didn’t lose any of her ebooks. The fact that each individual physical book doesn’t depend on any other technology is both an advantage and a disadvantage when compared to ebooks.


    A fetishist is someone who has a belief in the magical nature of some specific type of object. Physical books were a huge boon to mankind. But that was due to what they contained, not because physical books have some sort of mystical power. Ebooks are means of expanding the reach of books even further. Scroll -> Codex -> Printing Press -> Paperbacks -> Ebooks. The inexorable tide of history is towards expanding the reach of individual storytellers with the written word. At each stage, there were folks like Nicholas Carr there to decry each innovation that expanded the reach of the written word.

  3. Josh

    Right now, you can get a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude at just about any local bookstore for about $10. It might take you 30 minutes to get there and back.

    If your e-reader goes wonky, or the corporation changes your privileges (whether deliberately or by mistake), or you need access to mostly obsolete technology like a floppy drive, it’s very probably gonna run you more than $10 to recover your data, in time spent if not in cash (although most likely it’s gonna cost you both). And if you lose your Kindle (just as easy, in practice, as losing a paperback) or it breaks, you won’t lose your electronic library — but if you want to read those titles again comfortably, it’s going to cost you a hell of a lot more than the price of most single books. It’s not about laziness; it’s about simple cost/benefit analysis. Regular books are better in some ways. That shouldn’t be a controversial position.

  4. Gale

    Interesting discussion here. I have to agree with Nick on the issue of losing digital data. I enjoy reading both print and ebooks but I often assign more value to physical books – ebooks seem to be more ‘disposable’ and they come with several limitations, like the fact that you can’t just give them away as presents and such. These two articles may illustrate my point of view better:

  5. Nick Post author


    This is a slightly otherworldly argument, but let me try to put it in simple terms:

    Product A will continue to operate reliably without the need for any maintenance or updating.

    Product B requires ongoing maintenance and updating in order to ensure its continuing operation.

    Product A has a reliability advantage over Product B.

  6. Joseph Ratliff

    Some questions and thoughts to add to this discussion…

    Is the physical form of the book so bad that we need to “replace” it with something else? Can’t we have the format we want, even both formats?

    In the case of music, people (the market) like the ability to buy one song instead of buying an entire album… and have that option because of digital technology… yet CD’s continue to sell (heck, even vinyl continues to sell).

    The book might be “limited” to 1000 pages, but tell me how many books exceed that number (not many), and how many you have on your shelf?

    So, why does the fact that digital removes that “barrier” present any value whatsoever? And, tell me how many books you’ve read longer than about 500 pages?

    The speakers that I’ve watched don’t bring a Kindle to their speeches, they instead have the book, marked on the page they are referencing/reading from… why would that be?

    In short, digital is a format, a container for the text (and a good one for certain purposes)… the physical book is also a container… and the “veteran” of the containers, as it’s been around a little longer.

    Digital has yet to grow up, get out of its infancy, and get WAY more users before I would believe any type of major format/container disruption is taking place. Yes, the indicators are there (sales and e-readers sold) that show a small percentage of the population are adopting the digital format, to some degree. Who knows if that trend will continue.

    I suppose when I see e-readers (or similar device) as the primary device in the majority of mainstream public school classrooms… an arena that will probably be one of the last to adopt it… then I would believe we have created a major shift.

    Until then, we “are shifting” but may or may not ever complete that shift.

  7. Boaz

    William Ockam,
    I try to get over the way in which your every comment makes me angry with your absolute confidence in your opinions and certainty in your predictions of the future, and continue to respond.
    You refer to the “inexorable tide of history”. Look, we are where we are, in 2013. We can guess where we think things are going, we can work towards creating the future we believe in, but please don’t tell me than any particular future is “inexorable”. You claimed that DRM and licensing will go away. I asked you whether there was a trend in this direction. Is there such a trend, or an argument for why it will, or is this just in your imagined ideal world of the future that you are so certain will come to pass?
    Are there really such “book fetishists” out there? The most common usage of the term fetish is in terms of sexual fetishism where one has focused all one’s attention around a certain object to the exclusion of a more healthy attitude. In the case that I think you are referring to, the word fetish seems inflammatory and inappropriate.
    I think some substantial disadvantages have been raised related to ebooks together with their benefits as well. The point about reliability is an important one. In an earlier response, you referred to losing books (digital and printed) over two years. I think the ten year time frame is a better way of thinking of endurance than two years. Two years seems to me to be something like the typical lifetime of a failed start-up company. Suppose I have a bunch of ebooks in some new format together with a reader hardware and software that is supported by a new company. If the company goes under, I may well end up stranded with an unusable reader at some point (particularly if some sort of network authentication was required for the use of the product). As the article by Panero in The New Criterion that Nick linked to points out:
    “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.”
    Your dismissal of the difficulties of maintaining the integrity of data through multiple changes of data format and decoding software doesn’t seem very grounded in the real world. Nick didn’t say it was impossible to still read the data on his floppies, he just said it was very difficult.
    I use computers all the time. Most of my work involves computers. I write papers and documents and software and email them to people and read them on various screens. But regarding the longevity (think >10 years) of important stuff, I think we have yet to solve the problem for digital documents. I don’t think we will enter a “digital dark age” where all culture is lost due to major electricity failures or wars or such, but I do think it likely there will be substantial losses of cultural goods. And the reliance on private corporations to guard these cultural goods, as Nick points out in his comment on the trend towards storing things in “the cloud” is also worrying to me and portends important cultural losses. Whether or not you care about those losses is another matter.

  8. Tim O'Reilly


    I love long form narrative – novels and works of extended argument and exposition, are my primary form of cultural entertainment – and I hope they will remain vital for a long time. But if they don’t, it will be because not enough people want them. And those people who don’t want them shouldn’t be sneered at.

    The cultural loss in your list of “diminished” art forms is worth pondering, and there is no question that there are doubtless works of beauty and truth that were not created as these art forms lost cultural importance. But the idea that in the great arc of culture this loss was not offset by gains as new art forms took their place is, to me, the nihilist view. The central fact that we should celebrate is that, regardless of medium, humans embrace new forms in their endless quest to enlighten, entertain, and persuade each other.

    Yes, we lost works of untold beauty when the long narrative poem was no longer a central form of cultural production. We lost many a play when movies and television took their place, changing them in the process. We lost even more when recorded music replaced the household of musicians where people entertained each other. But what did we gain?

    That is what I believe Clay meant when he said “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.”

    (By the way, if you don’t know what “global maximum” means, simple recourse to Google will tell you – one more thing we’ve gained as we’ve lost others.)

    Art forms, like people and institutions, do die out. But we can mourn their demise, and celebrate what they gave us, in the same way that we celebrate the passing of our friends, without somehow thinking that to deny their right to live forever is a kind of nihilism. Do you see the connection between your argument and what I would consider the real “techno-nihilistic-philistine view” – the view of those, like Ray Kurzweil, who want to live forever, forgetting the lesson of Arachne.

    What happens to art forms when they are artificially preserved and propped up without the natural flow of cultural enthusiasm that feeds both artist and audience? Consider how the music that was once popular – with Mozart the 18th century equivalent of the Beatles, with Verdi refusing to give “La donna e mobile” to the singers till the morning of the premiere of Rigoletto lest the overheard music be all over town – became increasingly academic, extreme, and aimed at a narrower and narrower group of cultural partisans who looked down at the popular music of the day as somehow inferior.

    That is not the fate I want for long-form books. I want their deep impulse – to move another human spirit – to be preserved, and to find voice in whatever new forms most let that voice flourish.

    I think that’s what both you and Clay desire. I think you have more in common than you think.

  9. Nick Post author

    Thanks, Tim, for the thoughtful comment. I particularly appreciate the tone of respect, and even reverence, you use when talking of the creative forms of the past (and the present). That’s refreshing. But I’m also compelled to point out that it’s a very different tone from the one you use in your new Wired interview when you say:

    “I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit.”

    Unfortunately, that dismissive tone, in which I do hear cultural nihilism, runs through some of Clay’s remarks, too, as when he speaks of books as “production units,” calls people’s veneration of literature “rehearsed reverence,” says that War and Peace is “too long, and not so interesting,” says that we’ve pretended that great novels are “Very Important in some vague way,” and argues that we’ve been “emptily praising” the great writers of the past.

    So you’ll have to excuse me if, while applauding your comment, I remain a little suspicious of it.

    But to the point:

    You write, “That is not the fate I want for long-form books. I want their deep impulse – to move another human spirit – to be preserved, and to find voice in whatever new forms most let that voice flourish.” That’s a Platonic view of culture, which I don’t share. I agree that the desire “to move another human spirit” will persist, independent of technological trends, and that’s certainly worth celebrating. But I do not agree that the value of the bound book (or any other medium of expression) lies in being a mere conduit for some ideal “deep impulse” that transcends form. I believe the particular value of a bound book lies in the unique modes of expression it inspires (in writers) and the unique modes of apprehension it promotes (in readers). These modes of expression and apprehension cannot be easily separated from the form of the book. They can’t be poured into a new container like lemonade. Sacrifice or diminish the form, and you sacrifice or diminish those particular modes of expression and apprehension.

    So, no: what you think I desire is not what I desire, or at least it’s not all of what I desire.

  10. Joseph Ratliff

    You said this…

    I believe the particular value of a bound book lies in the unique modes of expression it inspires (in writers) and the unique modes of apprehension it promotes (in readers). These modes of expression and apprehension cannot be separated from the form of the book. They can’t be poured into a new container like lemonade.

    What modes of expression for writers are unique to a bound book? I’ve always thought writers express themselves via the words they write, which can in fact be put into different “containers”.

    Then, what modes of apprehension are unique to a bound book for readers?

  11. Nick Post author

    Joseph, That’s one of the main subjects of The Shallows, and since I’m not going to be able to explain it better here than I did there (and don’t care to try), you’ll have to go there for my answer. Nick

  12. Tim O'Reilly

    Nick –

    The comment “I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit.” was an exasperated remark made while explaining why I found the entitled attitude of some highbrow authors offputting. I regret that it appeared in print, especially lacking the context.

    And for what it’s worth, I totally agree with you that the form does affect the nature of the expression. I don’t know where you read in my comments the notion that it doesn’t. But so too, the form of each of our lives – our body, our family history, the house and city and country we grew up in, the period of history – shapes who we are, what we perceive and what we say. Do we thereby feel a mandate to recreate those exact circumstances for others? No, within certain bounds, recognizing that some circumstances are destructive and others conducive to a good life, we celebrate the diversity of humanity.

    So it seems to me that there is no real opposition between your position and Clay’s, in the light of history and human life. Clay celebrates the new birth, while you lament the possible loss of an aging parent, but both are stages of life.

    It strikes me perhaps that your position is similar to that expressed so eloquently by Edna St Vincent Millay in “Dirge Without Music”:

    “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
    So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
    Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
    With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

    Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
    Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
    A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
    A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

    The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
    They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
    Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
    More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

    Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
    Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”

  13. Boaz

    I’m appreciating this exchange with Tim O’Reilly. I have really loved the O’Reilly technical books over the years and have a number of them in my office. I have read many of them as I learned different programming languages. And along the lines of the topic of discussion here, I did really appreciate them in printed book form. I like that a printed book has a well defined set of stable material, and it is unified and is presented with a consistent voice. Even if you are distracted or bored, the book itself doesn’t provide links to get away from its own material. One needs this kind of stable material and consistent voice in order to be guided through a difficult topic. And the beautiful images of the animal wood-cuts on the covers give you a feeling that the language you are learning is an elegant living creature with its own unique character.

    In any case, I enjoy learning about Tim’s perspective, and I do hope he has more respect for novels and other forms of art and literature than he expressed in the Wired interview.

  14. Boaz

    Also, Nick, just to say that I did read your book, The Shallows, a few years ago and appreciated it very much. This post and comment thread has encouraged me to get it out again to reread it. I could really relate when you wrote about how you had constantly kept up with technology/computing changes, following the upgrade path, but a certain moment arrived when you started to doubt that it was all positive, particularly with respect to the way in which you felt yourself and your thinking to be changed/changing.

    Tim’s points about grieving and moving on as expressed in the poem he quotes by St Vincent Millay are an important element of one response to this sense of things changing. On the other hand, if one has a way of seeing, understanding and interacting with the world that works well, perhaps it is one’s responsibility not to lose it. Given the fragility and newness of many digital things these days, the perspective, experience, and ability to think well becomes all the more valuable. I’m now looking forward to reading your other book “The Big Switch” about cloud computing to learn more about this potential fragility.
    Regards, Boaz

  15. Nick Post author

    Thanks, Boaz.


    re: “Clay celebrates the new birth, while you lament the possible loss of an aging parent, but both are stages of life.”

    Again, I resist the attempt to see things through an abstract, semi-platitudinous lens. Yes, there’s a bit of lamentation in my work and a bit of celebration in Clay’s, but both Clay and I are fundamentally analytical beings, and I don’t think either of is particularly Millay-ish. I’m not trying to stop the world; I’m just trying to figure it out.

    re: “I totally agree with you that the form does affect the nature of the expression.”

    Good. And I should reiterate that it’s not just the nature of the expression but also the nature of the apprehension (ie, the way people think and feel and perceive) that is influenced by the form, or medium, and that these two things – expression and apprehension – also influence and even reshape each other via the particular medium in a complicated, ongoing way that isn’t transferable to another medium. The form or medium, if we’re going to speak metaphorically, is not a container but a crucible.

  16. Greg Borenstein

    Nick and Tim–

    You should both take a look at David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, especially the chapter on the evolution of recorded music. Byrne does a great job describing the co-evolution of musical forms and the technologies we use to record, perform, and distribute them. For example, talking about how recording altered the length of compositions, he describes the reduction of long multi-hour epic-poem style storytelling folk songs to chorus-and-a-couple-verses to invent our now naturalized pop and folk song formats. He also describes how Stravinsky and other classical composers began to build then pieces out of movements that could fit on individual sides of 78s and concluded each side with a decrescendo to facilitate the at home listening experience. And, in an earlier chapter about performance, he points out how the instrument make-up of the modern orchestra co-evolved with the accoustics of the halls in which they played: bigger halls meant more reverb which turned percussion into muck and rewarded drone-like string sections. Even something as seemingly foundational as the tempered scale and key modulation system perfected by Bach, he argues, was made possible by the duller accoustics and integrated organs that had arisen by Bach’s time, reducing the amount of reverb and allowing key changes to become possible without turning into mud.

    Anyway, the parallel, I think is that: yes, Nick’s point that the current expressive and cognitive affordances of the book are tied in part to its physical format. But also these formats evolve faster and more dynamically than we think, are never stable. We’re not moving from one steady state of physical books supporting long-form narrative and deep argument to digital media that support only tweet-sized snark. The book itself has continuously evolved from nearly architectural folios that had only religious and ritual use and really only found their place as mass long-form medium relatively recently as literacy became widespread. Similarly digital forms have gone through multiple stages of evolution even in their brief life do far and will likely go through lots more. And, more specifically, if you want to look for the particular part of contemporary digital life that encourages short-duration and shallow reading, I’d look at the details of current social media systems which intentionally and artificially limit out utterances to the microscopic for an array of technical and business reasons that are in no way inherent to the digital transmission of text. If you care about the pleasures and thought-affordances of long-form text, I’d think the the best way to enhance those aims would be to forge digital formats that supported and encouraged them, so they can continue to co-evolve with the online medium, rather than allying them permanently with print in opposition to everything digital. Will the result be the same as what we had with print books, of course not. But if you abandon the creation of digital formats to people unconcerned with the values you see in long-form text, don’t be surprised if those values don’t magically persist on their own.

  17. Joseph Ratliff


    Thank you for expanding on your “expression” and “apprehension” views in response to Tim’s comment. I appreciate it. :)

    And, I will re-read both The Shallows, and The Big Switch… as perhaps my view that “books are containers for words, expression, context and conversation” needs sharpening. ;)

  18. Kathy Sierra

    My non-fiction books have sold more than a million copies in print over the last ten years, and book royalties have been my sole source of income. I still don’t claim a shred of expertise for what will or should happen to the-thing-formerly-known-as-books.
    The “unit” view seems to disregard human cognition. If the goal of many books (perhaps all) is to “produce a change” in the reader, changes can take time. If my goal as an author is to *increase the reader’s resolution*, this takes time. If my goal as an author is to take my reader on their own heroic journeys this takes time. Just because I no longer NEED to fill the whole “packaging unit” for the purpose of distribution, does not mean the brains of my readers don’t need that length. Yes, I can do it with serialized singles and I can certainly do it with a digital version, but not without costs to my readers. A recent study has already found (and no big surprise here) that readers/students of digital textbooks were under greater cognitive load using the digital version than with the identical print version.
    Of course the digital readers will continue to improve. But every time I see these kinds of discussions, they are nearly always focused on containers and distribution, and almost never on what the human reader *really* needs. Even fewer discussions care about what the *author* might need. Every single day, at least five new places to download my books for free pops up. While I am OK with this, when I find a discussion among user groups about getting my book for free, I gently remind them that if I (and other authors) can no longer make a living creating books, they’ll be left with Google. Which works great for getting a quick answer to a specific technical question, but is still a horribly inefficient disaster for tying to come up a learning curve on a challenging and complex topic. (And I love it when people claim authors need to follow the music industry and make our living with things like T-shirts and live events. I can count on one hand the people who’d come out to see me read code listings…)
    Finally, I like to remind people whenever the “buggy whip” or “customers wanted faster horses” comes up: the recreational horse industry in the US is a $40 Billion market. Billion. Sometimes it is only after something is rendered obsolete that a deeper value is discovered in the no-longer-necessary thing. Just sayin’.

  19. Kathy Sierra

    I just saw Greg’s comment, and yes, yes, yes. This:
    ” If you care about the pleasures and thought-affordances of long-form text, I’d think the the best way to enhance those aims would be to forge digital formats that supported and encouraged them, so they can continue to co-evolve with the online medium, rather than allying them permanently with print in opposition to everything digital. Will the result be the same as what we had with print books, of course not. But if you abandon the creation of digital formats to people unconcerned with the values you see in long-form text, don’t be surprised if those values don’t magically persist on their own.”

  20. Nick Post author

    Greg, Well put. I agree.

    Kathy, Also well put, and I also agree. Thanks in particular for pointing out the differences in the cognitive load that digital presentation tends to place on the reader in comparison to print presentation. Cognitive load, as educational psychologists have long demonstrated, influences reading depth and comprehension. The difference provides a concrete example of my generalization about how the medium influences apprehension (which then, in turn, shapes expression). The higher cognitive load of digital presentation, which I see as inherent to the networked computer as a medium, also shows why I, while agreeing with Greg that we should try to encourage the development of digital tools more conducive to deep reading, am not particularly confident in the prospects for such tools.

  21. Hyokon Zhiang

    To your examples as a reply to Kevin Kelly, I would like to add one thing many of us can remember that is worthy of respect but got diminished.

    It is the LP cover art. Some of the album arts were so beautiful as to be worth appreciating independent from the music (though viewing the art listening to or imagining the music associated with it would usually be the best experience). CD still has cover art, but I bet most people feel it isn’t the same. Change of the container (as simple as its size) does seem to change the content.

  22. Chris

    “Musicians determined what the LP “container” became every bit as much as the container determined what they produced.”

    Symphonic and operatic works used to be crammed into multi-LP sets. Listening to them often involved a break in the music at an inopportune time in order to change to the next LP in the set. This involved getting up and physically changing the LP on the player, an activity that clearly detracted from the listening experience. Yet, I am not aware of super-size LPs designed to accommodate long works.

    It is difficult to separate technology from social phenomenon, but it could argued that LPs are partly responsible for the distribution of the type of musicians working today.

    Likewise, the Internet, the broader context of the MP3 and streaming popularity, is going to change the distribution of ethnic musicians worldwide.

  23. Nick Post author

    “but it could argued that LPs are partly responsible for the distribution of the type of musicians working today.”

    I’m sure there’s something to that, though you’re right that the influences are complicated.

    The design of the LP format, by the way, was inspired by a desire to create a recording medium that would be able to accommodate classical works better than 78s could.

  24. Gregory Kaplan

    Dear Nick,
    Totally gratuitous praise, but you have laid the digiterati flat. As someone who likes to read novels, which a technologist once told me was a medieval idle, not to mention difficult Continental European philosophy — and yet has fruitfully read in self-help and business strategy on my beloved Kindle — I don’t understand the nattering nabobs or negativism about print media. Why compare the book to the epic poem and the symphony; that’s like apples and oranges. Have musical instruments disappeared thanks to the appearance of the synthesizer. I think not and I do not see why they would. The book is a medium, not a form of art (like the symphony). Sadly, the digiterati really do not understand human creativity as well as they understand algorithms and codes. Oh, well, it’s humanity’s loss. But, evidently, I’m just a medieval dunce.

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