In a short piece at silicon.com “futurist” Peter Cochrane talks about a potential business idea that I’m surprised doesn’t already exist: digitizing personal book collections. As I’ve said in the past, I support the various book digitization efforts from Google and others for these projects’ potential to make the sharing of knowledge easier, not because I want to read all my books (for free or otherwise) from my computer. However, I am intrigued by the option of digitizing at least some of the books I own – perhaps books I’ve read and don’t intend to read in full again. It would be nice to have searchable, digital copies of these books to refer back to, but there are some books that I could never trade in for digital doppelgangers.
Several schools will be getting rid of books. It's not as bad as it sounds though. Pearson a company that publishes educational materials (and owns Penguin, incidentally) has been promoting a plan to replace textbooks with digital materials. The company was able to convince California to try it out, disclosing "on Monday with its half-year results that about half the state's elementary school students will learn about the American Revolutionary War and Thomas Jefferson using an interactive computer program," according to Reuters. Pearson is hoping to expand the program to more states and more subjects.It's an interesting idea. On the one hand, computer programs probably have the ability to provide a very rich learning experience, especially when compared to some of the unimaginative textbooks that kids are subjected to. It is also probably cheaper than providing textbooks. On the other hand, I have to wonder what might happen if books were eliminated from the learning process. What will kids think of books when it is no longer necessary to carry them around all day. I suspect that books would come to be regarded as even more archaic than they are today. Thoughts?
Lately, critics have been swift to announce the death of print culture, and thus pronounce the end of literacy. Even two technology critics whose opinions usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum - Kevin Kelly of Wired and Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis - agree that culturally, we are now "people of the screen." True to Kelly's technocrat leanings, he embraces the screen's omnipresence in his recent essay in the Screen Issue of The New York Times Magazine. In Kelly's opinion, the hegemony of the screen will oust the word from its dominance and replace it with the visual image. He contends, "We are now in the middle of the second Gutenberg shift - from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality." Rosen agrees with Kelly, though where he celebrates a new visual literacy, she laments. Rosen's New Atlantis essay "People of the Screen" admonishes Kelly's enthusiasm in a previous Times Magazine essay for the possibilities of mashing up and remixing texts (a glorified cut and paste), but she ends by echoing his recent sentiments and committing literacy to its deathbed, "Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen-savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information."What's most audacious about their prediction that a screen-based society will stifle literacy, is that they equate a redefinition of form with an end, and in doing so discount the ways that the screen could expand the possibilities of disseminating literature, providing greater access and a more portable form, as well as saving a few trees, to boot. If reading is in decline, then writing is experiencing a resurgence - emails, IMs, and text messages, however inglorious their usual state, show that people are writing prolifically. And the text message, whose condensation would seem a more apt medium for poetry, is now being used to write cell phone novels, which are wildly popular in Japan (an excerpt of one was translated here by Ben last year). There's no dearth of writers and aspiring writers, either, proven by the increasing number of MFA applicants, who are often willing to pay high fees for instruction, and don't even mention the millions of blogs, this one included. I have never heard a literary magazine wax nostalgic for the days when they were overwhelmed by submissions. The point is, even if reading long-form narratives or poetry is in decline, writing is robust and print will linger regardless.Will screen culture redefine literacy? Of course. But does this merit the doomsday proclamations issued by Rosen and Kelly? I think not. Rosen writes of her experience reading Dickens on a Kindle, and the inherent difficulties, including her "restless" eyes that "jumped around," which is the way many people read on a screen, scanning for nuggets of information in an F-shaped pattern. But is this a reaction to the screen itself or to the material that we most frequently find online? If problems with focus and concentration are related to the characteristics of the screen, then perhaps there are ways to make future versions more reader friendly. Surely, the users of the first generation of personal computers could have made similar arguments about portability if arguing against word processing. But modifications and improvements have made the three-pound laptop a reality. And as for complaints about slower reading, you have to take into account habit and custom, and the ways we are educated. Perhaps it's impossible for some thirty-five year olds to feel as comfortable with reading text on a screen as young children who are now growing up reading online. I, personally, despised attempting to comprehend and analyze the GRE's reading comprehension passages online and I still prefer to print out long articles, and I find the heft of a book in my hand pleasurable, but children who grow up with e-books and online reading may think nothing of it. Which is much of Rosen's issue - that screen fluency will end reading as we know it. Rosen seems more preoccupied with the changing conventions and how this will shape culture than technology hastening the true end of reading. The shift from the book to the digital file is more akin to the shift from the LP to the MP3, and although a shift may not be free of consequence, it's not the great erosion that Rosen and Kelly presage. And such is the predicament for many types of long-form artistic work: the novel, the film, the album. Digital culture allows for greater plasticity and user interaction, while providing a platform for an unprecedented number of voices. The fear that the background noise will make it more difficult to pinpoint specific voices, and that we will become lost in information a la Oedipa Maas, may be more warranted. If we can agree that the future of reading is onscreen, instead of sullenly balking or calling this the end of literacy, we should consider and plan for the possibilities.
The impulse -- now an industry -- to spread good news about oneself far and wide has become soul-crushing. It makes me want to retreat into the garage with my outmoded books and unfinished manuscripts. I’ve come to see social media as a skill like anything else. I’m a mediocre interior decorator also. Nor can I cook, change the oil, or dance.
It's a story likely to make some readers queasy. Several British libraries have begun working with a direct marketing firm to stuff inserts into books at check out. "They're going to be inserted right next to the panel with the return date on it, which means that everyone will look at them at least once," said Mark Jackson of direct marketing company Jackson Howse. However, Guy Daines, the director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, however, is concerned about the "creeping commercialisation of library services." I'll second that.
As the book digitizing story continues to get more complex and fragmented, HarperCollins announced yesterday that it will host its copies of digitized books on its own servers rather than Google's. The books will still be accessible via Google search, but they will not be displayed by Google.HarperCollins deserves some praise for pushing to make its books widely accessible online, but I think a lot depends on how HarperCollins decides to implement this program. The danger here is that dozens of publishers follow HarperCollins' lead and all set up their own digital fiefdoms with different standards and different rules (and different pricing schemes if publishers decide to charge.) Depending on how well integrated these publisher sites are with Google search (read: how much power publishers decide to let Google have), finding and using these digitized books could become unnecessarily time-consuming. However, if HarperCollins decides to stay closely integrated with Google Book Search, retaining control in a way that is invisible to the reader, then the likelihood of a cumbersome, unnecessarily complex system arising is diminished. I think readers benefit a lot from a system that is unified.Reaction has been mostly positive - primarily because HarperCollins' rhetoric has been about "openness":Prometheus 6 thinks HarperCollins is approaching this the right way.Booksquare applauds the move.Sarah at GalleyCat is looking forward to getting her hands on the HarperCollins archives.