one possible future of the book

The latest Amazon Kindle deletion hoo-ha involves erotic incest fiction removed from users’ devices. This, apparently, is the kind of knowledge I process in my dreams, because I woke up in the middle of the night thinking —

Here we are in the future, when ereading is the norm. But our behemoth ebooksellers, skittish or outright paternalistic about content, prefer not to sell porn. Fetish porn, especially. Or, having inadvertently sold it under a self-publishing platform, they delete it from devices.

Our fetish porn readers of the future — concerned about their data security and property rights — therefore, naturally, turn to physical books for that slice of their reading.

And thus we have a world where reading is on devices except for the whispered topics, the things we hide from children and our neighbors. Physical books are things to read furtively; they connote disrepute. Quite the opposite of today’s notion of books as talismans.

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ebooks, Plato, and the unchanging agony of change

In a belated, post-Battledecks orgy of reading the judges’ blogs, I came across the strange librarian’s post on ebooks vs “real” books. She’s very much on the it’s-the-content-not-the-format side of things:

“Tree*” books, “real” books or just plain “books” as they’re often called have been around for 5,000 +/- years and now i swear there are more “ebooks vs books” writings than curls on my head. Why is that? Why does anyone care what format our stories, facts, conversations, and fun come in? Why are we so worried that tree books might be going away? Is it because they are “tradition”? Is it because “books” are what libraries are known for and if they go away, we think we’ll disappear too?

The mention of historical context got me to thinking this is not the first time I’ve heard a debate about how the changing format of our texts will destroy the way we think:

For your invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice in using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from inside, themselves by themselves: you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; having heard much, in the absence of teaching, they will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with, because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.

The author here is Plato (Phaedrus, 274-5, C.J. Rowe translation). The entity being addressed is Thoth; his invention is writing.

And from the vantage point of today, the argument looks, at first, ludicrous. Anyone who has felt the quiet electricity of standing in a reference section — or the frenetic sparks of the internet — knows that our outboard brains, our ability to offload the details of our knowledge without losing capacity to use it, our conversations with people far separated from ourselves in space and time (vide, say, Plato) has enriched us beyond measure. I cannot imagine — literally cannot imagine — my existence in a world without written text; who I would be, how I would be any good at anything.

But let us look again. Plato — or, at least, his Socrates — laments that the invention of writing means that we will lose the prodigious capacity for memory that characterized oral cultures, that by learning through reading alone rather than in conversation with a learned teacher we will lose the substance of wisdom. And we see, today, concerns that there are things you can learn and do face-to-face that perhaps you lose online. And I know, from Walter J. Ong’s mind-blowing Orality and Literacy (ironically, one of the few books whose margins I have ever written in), that there was a prodigious capacity for memory in oral cultures, ten-thousand-word epics memorized, whole ways of thought that we have, in fact, lost.

I think the gain was worth the loss. No, let me be firmer: I know that the incomprehensible explosion of human knowledge and economy and technology, the expansion of our conversations and horizons, the unlocking of potential, the, yes, collective memory, has showered on us such literal and metaphorical wealth that our losses clink all-but-inaudibly in the scale by comparison.

But it does not mean there were not losses. And insofar as some people have concerns about what we may lose if we become an overwhelmingly ebook world — those concerns may be nothing but the blindness we all have in the face of change or they may be prescient and terrifically important — but there will be some kind of loss, and it won’t go away even if what we gain is — orders of magnitude — more important.

rent v. own: cultural paradigm

One of the things that I’ve been wondering (e.g. in re my last post on serials subscription economics) is how this rent v. own dichotomy for books is going to play out.

Because the fact that e-resources subscriptions are like renting, not like owning, is very salient to librarians, and was not obvious to some of my non-librarian friends — but it will be. Because we are all eBook owners now*, so people are tripping over this issue more and more. The inability to lend his electronic library really bugs my friend John, and the related DRM issues really bug another, famous John.**

This seems to me like a good thing because what we really need is not so much a set of policies as a cultural consensus — what does it mean to purchase, to access, a book? How does intellectual property interact with ownership, copying, access, all those strange things that are constrained differently when property is physical? What do, and what should, we expect in terms of our interactions with electronic resources? Those strike me as questions that can’t be answered inside institutions, can’t be answered until they’re crowdsourced, munched on by the slow machinery of culture until new paradigms emerge.

[*] In point of fact I’m not. Come back to me when there’s something with both eInk and good PDF support, including annotations. Or when you feel like giving me one for free.

[**] Sorry, John-that-I-know. When your robot army crushes the world beneath its overlordly boot, you, too, will be famous.

ebook strategy

Helpful thinking on ebook purchase strategy, from the Letters page of The Economist:

SIR — One of your readers urged us to “remember the lesson of Betamax video” when considering which e-book reader to buy. One of the factors in the demise of Betamax was the availability of pornographic movies on VHS.

I bought a Kindle. Perhaps I should have waited to see on which e-book reader Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt choose to distribute their magazines.

Gabriel Nell
Seattle

Thing-ology on the library ebook market

Thing-ology has an interesting post on the economics of ebooks in libraries. They argue, essentially, that libraries need site-licensed copies of ebooks rather than ones tied to specific physical devices; this will split the library and direct-to-consumer ebook markets and allow for runaway rental/licensing costs for library ebooks. There’s an apt comparison to runaway journal costs for academic libraries.

I think this argument has a lot of merit to it (although I do think the markets aren’t entirely split, and the existence of the consumer market puts a cap on the licensed market; your site license for 25 simultaneous uses can’t cost much more than 25 direct-to-consumer, device-linked copies before buyers start fleeing). It also reminds me of the horrible angst that is the textbook market — it points out that for many books prices are held down because used books compete with new, and this downward pressure stops holding in a rental-based model, because there is no secondary market. There is, of course, a thriving market in used textbooks, but one which publishers vigorously combat via incompatible new editions, included software, and (soon and increasingly, I’m sure) digital textbooks on a rental model — just like the ebooks picture Thing-ology paints for the library.