The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book.


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Academic and author Sherman Young's presentation from the 2009 Future of the Book conference held in Auckland, New Zealand

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  • I sometimes wonder why I’m asked to present at particular forums - and so it is today. So this morning, my job is to help drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century; to make the case that in the digital age, we need to rethink the book; maybe even to give you someone on whom to paint a very large bullseye.
  • But before you dismiss me as just another geek in a room full of booklovers - because I am clearly on the record as someone who has already declared the book dead, I should remind you that that declaration is in the form of a printed book; and those of you who may have read the book would know that I am a lover of books. And I think that the challenge for those of us who love books is to cut away the touchy-feely distractions, cut to the core of what a book is; figure out what the essence of books are; and find ways to nurture that essence in the post 2.0 world.
    So to begin...
  • Nearly twenty years ago, Julian Barnes wrote a terrific book called A History of the World in ten and a half chapters. Amongst other things, it included a revisionist view of Noah's Ark as told by the stowaway woodworm; an account of terrorists hijacking a cruise ship. And a thoughtful meditation on the novelist's responsibility. It’s a great book. I’m not nearly as ambitious - nor as talented - as Mr Barnes, but I am cheeky enough to steal his conceit. So I’d like to begin today’s paper with
  • A History of the World in four and a half slides... (with apologies to Julian Barnes)
  • In the beginning, there was talking. We had what many called an oral culture - one based on story telling and improvisation; Families and social groups gathered around campfires and regaled each other with stories, myths and legends. Information was passed on through time from storyteller to storyteller and shared by word of mouth.

    In the beginning, we talked - and it was good.
  • Then, writing was invented and with it came new ways to codify and organise societies and cultures. We began to form new relationships with information, creating and sharing it in ways that were previously impossible. Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought about by the invention of writing... traditionalists complained, and warned of its dangers - and suggested that it meant the end of many things; the loss of memory, and thus the passing of wisdom... Indeed, Plato is said to have said:
    “If men learn (to write), it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written”
    But the rest of us came to embrace writing and all of its joys and pleasures, and society moved on and learnt to live with a little forgetfulness, replaced by the ability to look up what they needed to know :-)
  • But it wasn’t until we discovered a way to easily replicate and distribute that writing - to publish - that even more incredible change occurred. Gutenberg’s contribution to printing (standing on the shoulders of the Chinese, of course); the creation of what we know as the book; enabled the emergence of a literate - and eventually, an educated - population. Indeed, knowledge was disseminated more widely than at any earlier time in history, and the book, and its surrounding cultures, more or less created the modern world. The spread of words allowed the spread of ideas and emergence of what many consider civilised societies. Or at least in this romantic version of history.
    As Kevin Kelly suggested... “From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. ...printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.”
    Then came the book. And it was good.
    Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought about by the invention of the book... traditionalists complained, and warned of its dangers - and suggested that it meant the end of many things; the loss of authority, the rise of anarchy, the end of an unquestioned wisdom... But the rest of us came to embrace printing and all of its joys and pleasures, and society moved on and learnt to live with a little democracy :-)
  • All empires fade. And the age of print was replaced by the broadcast era. The last half of the twentieth century saw the dominance of the book displaced by electronic media forms such as radio and television. In this world, people gave up books and began listening to boxes in the living room, then watching them, entranced by the moving image. In the West, and elsewhere, we became people of the screen. Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought by the invention of radio and television... traditionalists complained, and warned of its dangers - the end of thinking; the emergence of a zombified population mesmerised by a flickering screen, hypnotised by moving images - incessant soundbites all supported by a business model that seemed determined to sacrifice all noble motivations for imparting information in order to make more money. But the rest of us came to embrace the electronic media form and all of its joys and pleasures, and society moved on and learnt to live with a little excitement on a Sunday evening :-) And some of began to understand that we could engage critically - even with the broadcast media - and were not mere pawns, putty in the hands of media moguls of mass destruction. That we were able to discern the good from the bad, and could watch a Bruce Willis movie without becoming hypnotised into becoming Bruce Willis. In short, as the broadcast age grew more mature, we realised that we had become adult media users, savvy enough to figure out the good bits from the bad;
  • Which was why so many celebrated the emergence of the Internet Age - which seemed to represent a maturing mediascape. One in which the primitive electronic technologies of the twentieth century were displaced by more sophisticated and sensible mechanisms. No longer was the screen just a place for transient images of the rape and pillage of modern civilisation, but it became a place where new connections are formed, new media possibilities enabled and citizens empowered in ways that cause breathless utopian utterings. The computer and its personal computer descendants; online services and their subsumation into that thing we call the internet, in all its hyper-connected multimedia glory has become the saviour of the information universe. Not only did text regain its place, but the technologies of production and distribution became cheap. And the world has become awash with words and images, sound and motion. All of a sudden, information became free - not in the sense of free beer, but in the sense of other freedoms; freedom of speech, freedom of ease of access. In the West, we are still people of the screen, but the screen has been re-imagined. Indeed, some suggest that it encompasses the best of oral cultures, the best of print cultures, the best of electronic media cultures... Whereas 20th century media were expensive and complicated - the online world requires nothing more than a keyboard and a connection; whereas the whole business of radio and television demanded billions of dollars, unprecedented political connections and a trophy wife - the online world requires nothing more than desire...
    Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought about by the invention of the internet... traditionalists complained, and warned of its dangers - and suggested that it meant the end of many things; the loss of authority, the rise of anarchy, the end of an unquestioned wisdom... But the rest of us came to embrace the internet and all of its joys and pleasures, and society moved on and learnt to live with a little active citizenship :-)

    Which is where we are today - and why we are here today. Where once we turned to each other in a circle around the campfire; and then to pen on paper; and then to the book; and then to radio and television - where once we turned to a plethora of different objects; more and more we turn online... to a single place which encompasses all our knowledge. But this is the half-slide. And it’s a half-slide because the internet age has only just been born, we are still building it - arguing about what it should be, how it should work, what it should do who should control it. And uniquely in the history of information technologies, the internet provides a platform that actually allows its users to engage in its ongoing creation; its development and shaping; we are in the middle of the half slide; and we are the people who can complete it...

    Of course, there are models that we aspire to in that building; almost all of them contested; and covering all dimensions and affordances that the technologies allow; from the social, political, cultural aspects through arguments over technical standards and visions of what we want to be able to do. I’d like to share one such vision from a long time ago, because despite its age it continues to resonate...
  • Knowledge Navigator video

    The Knowledge Navigator was a 1987 concept from Apple Computer. It describes a device that can access a large networked database of hypertext information, and use software agents to assist searching for information. It combines a range of technologies and is a kind of vision of how all human knowledge could be digitally available and easily transferable.

    Some of the ideas are now real. Whilst current voice activation and natural language recognition are nowhere near this level, the finger-driven multi-touch interface is here now, as is the videoconferencing.

    But perhaps the most important prediction that the knowledge navigator signalled was a decisive move away from libraries with stacks of books towards an efficient, on-line search capability for all forms of information. And as a prototype for connected online information searching, for knowledge navigation, it’s not too bad a prediction.

    Whilst it may look somewhat different (the bloke in the bow-tie is the real giveaway), for most people, the 20 year old Apple idea already exists in essence.
  • Donald Norman wrote the invisible computer a while ago and whilst he was speaking of specific issues of interface, usability and technology adoption, the term makes an awful lot of sense. Soon, people stop talking about using a computer, or logging onto the internet, or going online. Soon the device will be invisible; second nature so that we focus on the content not the thing. like the way we talk about watching Eli Stone. Not watching Eli Stone on television. There are already invisible computers in the sense that we don’t think of them as computers. The television is one obvious example, but there are others; devices that contain immense computer power that we just use and that are invisible in their usage.
  • Hand in hand with invisibility in ubiquity. Soon, everybody will have access. Everybody. In some places, this happens already with computers. It happens more often will mobile phones. Of course, ubiquity can be expressed in different ways. What it means in practice is that there will not be a single device, but that there will be different devices for different lifestyles and practices - for the study, the living room, the pocket - each with different affordances and abilities. It might be easier to understand the future as a mindset rather than a device; a confirmation of the emerging trend that the *first* port of call when a question beckons is online...
  • Because we’ll be constantly connected. We won’t go online; we will always be online... there’ll be no interruption to service, no dial-in and sign-up and log-in. Just always 24/7 connectivity to the cloud...
  • And the future will be multimedia. It will combine text and images; still and moving; audio and video; sound and fury.

    The web has already moved into a multimedia realm; the days of text dominance are long gone, the popularity of flickr, youtube, vimeo and others
    is testimony to a new media literacy.

    Indeed, I have seen teenage kids use youtube rather than google as their primary search engine. It may seem counterintuitive to those of us steeped in the idea of words, but for many, it makes sense. And some have suggested that there is a paradigm shift occuring - in which a new screen fluency - the ability to parse and manipulate moving images - is becoming common and important.

    <pause> Of course, none of this is new or startling - it’s just an extrapolation of things that are already happening; It’s totally apparent that the world of information is online *now*; that people *already* think and do the things I’m suggesting - and the answers to all the tough questions are found there and nowhere else...
  • So, as an academic with an interest in the death of the book, what then, of books, in this brave new world?

    There’s an Alfred Hitchcock film from 1955 that sums up the situation pretty well.
  • The trouble with books; like the trouble with Harry is they’re dead. In the world of online information, books just don’t have a place.
    Let’s think about that Bigpond ad. The inference is pretty clear. If you want to find out why the Great Wall of China was built, you don’t go to a library or a bookshop; you don’t track down your grandfather’s World Book encyclopedia - you simply don’t even consider a book, any book. The reality is that you google. I know, I’ve seen it in everyone from my 8 year old daughter to my Honours students.

    The next step will happen when we our invisible, ubiquitous, connected computer becomes commonplace. And when that occurs, we want to make sure that books are centre stage...

    Some would argue that such a device has already emerged - and that arguably, devices such as the iphone represents that the beginnings of just such a future.

    So it’s worth having a quick look at what we can currently do with those devices. On my iphone, for example,
  • wherever I can get mobile phone coverage, I have access to hundreds of thousands of Youtube videos; movies and tv shows from the itunes store and elsewhere
  • I have access to global radio stations and podcasts
  • I can listen to - and buy - any one of 10 million songs;
  • And of course, read anything that’s on the world wide web;
  • or I can select from public domain titles and a meagre range of new releases if I want to get my hands on a book. I can get almost any song, but for reading, I have to make do with free Harlequin Love Stories. Sure, you can get *some* books. But For whatever reasons (and there are plenty), books aren’t a priority - for users, for publishers, for technology companies in this online information age. This is despite the fact that, for the most part, the technical requirements to making books available electronically over a network pale in comparison to the technical requirements for music or video...
  • I think that the key problem is that book culture is confused with print culture; booklovers - authors, publishers, readers, get all worked up about the printed object and attribute all kinds of mystical qualities to some dead tree pulp bound together with glue. Some of this love is romanticised nonsense, some of it is a battle for industrial survival - the desire to keep doing things the way things have always been done; and some of it is a misguided notion that because existing technology is not good enough for them to replace print on paper, then it never will be.

    As Jeff Jarvis said, in the online information world, print is where books go to die...
  • So what is a book??

    We need to carefully think about what a book actually is; identify what a book actually does and try to preserve that essence in a post 2.0 world

    A book is not a thing; a book is a process.
  • <slide clock>
    And what a book needs is time. Time to write and time to read. What distinguishes a book is the premium of time that it demands of both its authors and its readers. Notwithstanding the need to have a decent idea, something worth saying, writing a book is a time consuming process.

    Any writer would tell you that, even if the words flow freely, it takes a long time to commit to the 40 or 50 thousand words that even a relatively short book requires. What’s more, they can’t be just any words, they have to be the right ones. The time required to write a book affords authors the opportunity to dig a little deeper. Books are not compelled to react to current events with the same sort of urgency required of other media forms, allowing a more reflective and thorough approach.
  • <slide - cassoulet?>
    Books are to other media forms what cassoulet is to a Big Mac. And just as slow-cooked French provincial cuisine is not the same as pre-processed re-manufactured meat, books are different. They requires a more subtle manufacturing process, a less rigid recipe, a more intuitive method. Of course, other media forms demand huge investments of time. Feature films, music albums and videogames all involve casts of thousands, budgets of hundreds of millions and years to produce. Surely, they require a greater commitment than writing a humble book?

    Perhaps, but there is a difference. Most of the time devoted to making a film or a computer game is spent constructing a reality from the director’s imagination. Time is required to figure out how to make the content visible.

    In a book, that work is delegated to the reader.

    Once a book is written, it’s the reader’s turn. A feature film might demand a couple of hours; a novel often demands much more time than that. And more challenging titles; the ones which shake us from our slumber sometimes demand re-reading; and a commitment both in front of the page, and away from it that goes well beyond most other media forms. Books are incomplete; words create a space that has to be negotiated by a reader in order to be meaningful.

    Books demand more commitment from readers. Just as cassoulet should not be scoffed with one hand whilst driving down a freeway, books should be savoured at length just as one would a fine meal. And the difference is rewarding. Those who choose to eat other than fast food or decide to read substantial titles find fulfilment in unexpected ways.
  • <slide thinker>
    Ultimately, books are about time; about slowing things down and forcing readers to slow down with them.
    If the rest of the text-based media; from websites through blogs, twitter and facebook is ‘people talking’23 which allows the 21st century expression of an ongoing human conversation, then in the online realm books represent people thinking before talking.
  • <slide resting>
    I’d like to think though, the book is not dead, it’s merely resting. I’m not alone in this passion for books; others are doing rather than talking - adapting to the challenge of the online environment; the creators of books are reconfiguring, changing, adapting for survival. I suspect we’ll here some more about that at this conference...

    And I think this is the challenge for those of us who love books - to integrate the book experience into the online one; to ensure that books remain a cornerstone of the the *real* knowledge navigators. To find ways to make sure that we continue to value time;
  • The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book.

    1. 1. The Book is Dead… Finding their place in a post web 2.0 world
    2. 2. The Book is Dead Long live the book
    3. 3. A History of the World in 4½ Slides (With apologies to Julian Barnes)
    4. 4. In the beginning we talked And it was Good
    5. 5. Then came writing And it was on the wall :-) “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written”
    6. 6. Then came the Book And it was good
    7. 7. The Electronic Age People of the Screen
    8. 8. The Internet Age (the half slide)
    9. 9. The Internet Age (the half slide)
    10. 10. TheView from 1987 Knowledge Navigator
    11. 11. Invisible
    12. 12. Ubiquitous
    13. 13. Connected
    14. 14. Multimedia
    15. 15. Everything is online… Online is everything…
    16. 16. The Trouble with Books...
    17. 17. Video/TV/Movies Hundreds of thousands
    18. 18. Radio/Podcasts Thousands
    19. 19. Music Millions
    20. 20. And the entire world wide web
    21. 21. Books Outside the USA????
    22. 22. “Print is where books go to die” Jeff Jarvis
    23. 23. So What is a Book?
    24. 24. Not Dead Just Resting
    25. 25. The Heavenly Library?
    26. 26. The best way to predict the future is to invent it Alan Kay
    27. 27. John Willinsky