Fresh Prints: Digitization and Its Discontents

January 19th, 2012 | Category: Essays

When John Naisbitt was researching his best-selling book Megatrends (1982), he had a file system of shoe boxes. The shoe boxes were labeled according to major trends he had spotted in local newspapers from across the country and filled with the actual clips from those papers. Not only is this method of research rendered obsolete by the all-encompassing web, in light of the web’s ubiquity (especially to the so-called “digital natives” who’ve grown up with the web), it sounds downright silly.

A fraction of Kevin Kelly's library.

Kevin Kelly has a lot of books, and like me, he works with them, adds to them, uses them. But he’s ready to leap into a future without them in their current form. Calling us “People of the Screen” (not his most original idea), he writes on his website,

I work with books. I wrestle with them, play with them, mark them, write in them, dog-ear them, talk to them. I use them. But my books on paper, as gorgeous as they look, are usually bimbos. I can’t search them, clip them, cut and paste their best parts, share their highlights, or my marginalia, link them to my other books, or continue our conversation for very long. That’s why I am moving to digital books as fast as I can.

I have to admit to finding this somewhat troubling. Not so much the move to digital books, which I’ve been toying with myself, but the enthusiasm with which Kelly touts the move. I maintain that the move to digital makes sense for other media–music and movies, where the media themselves require no more than speakers and a screen, respectively–but that books are an example of good design. Compact discs and DVDs are not an examples of good design. A cassette tape or a video tape is not an example of good design. For music, the iPod is an example of good design, one that is far better than any previous music device. There’s no carrying anything else along (e.g., CDs or cassettes). There’s no flipping of the tape, or rewinding or fast-forwarding to find that perfect track. The music just flows, like words on a page.

We’ve discussed these transitions at length in terms of organizing principles, but what we’re really talking about here, especially in the case of the printed word, is delivery systems. The book, as cumbersome and intractable as Kelly’s attitude sees it, is an example of good design. Books are built to last, their batteries don’t run down, most of them are extremely portable in small numbers, and they exist just fine without screens. This last point is one I’ve been thinking on a lot lately. As much as I do not lament the past inconveniences of flipping over of a record or rewinding a cassette tape, I am more and more aware of how the computer has devoured all of our media activities, and part of my anxiety against the leap to bits is the fervor with which we’re putting everything on a screen. I’ve been looking for things that don’t require screens: riding bicycles, skateboarding, walking, face-to-face conversations, and so on. Reading books is still among these activities, but the screen’s threat to that activity troubles me. This cartoon from Reddit user Gordondel illustrates the point:

And this one (source unknown), speaks to the very speed of our increasingly digitized culture, in contrast to the analog methodology of John Naisbitt above:

Again, I do not lament the change in music, especially where discovery is concerned. It’s the best it has ever been for a music fan like myself, and for years I’ve wanted the ability to search my bookshelves with the same ease that I search for music, both new and on my hard drives. I have also discussed this shift on this site ad nauseam, as well as invited my music friends to discuss it here. When it comes to what I do — that is, synthesizing the ideas of others into (hopefully) new insights, like a DJ mixing records (I like to think, in my grander moments) — there is no question that digitizing makes sense. Though, as Alex Burns noted in a recent email to me, citing ebooks has yet to be formalized (i.e., there are no page numbers), tools like DevonThink and Steven Johnson‘s Findings work wonders for locating quotations, citations, and connecting tasty morsels among digitized texts. Limited by the selection of books that exist in the digital future Kelly is cheerleading, our libraries just aren’t there yet. The printed word still carries its own inherent DRM by dint of resisting digitization in a way that other media do not. Where we easily rip(ped) our CDs and DVDs to hard drives and co-located clouds, no one is rushing through their bookshelves with the same fervor. This changes the power structure of the format shift.

To that point, earlier today, Jay Babcock posted a link to an interview with journalist and Free Ride (Doubleday, 2011) author Robert Levine by Ben Watt, DJ, label head, and musician/songwriter with Everything but the Girl. In light of the SOPA/PIPA crisis, their discussion is germane and deserves a wide readership. Digital vs analog discussions inevitably turn to the internet, and furthering the distiction between music and text above, Levine states,

I have a contract with Random House: They gave me an advance that represents a risk to them, since many books don’t sell very well, and they take most of the revenue on each sale to compensate them for that risk. If you pirate my book, I don’t lose all that much money directly, but it definitely affects my ability to get another deal and ultimately — because working on something for two years costs money — write another book. Random House is my partner. Like all partners, authors and publishers have differences of opinion — the former want higher royalties and the latter don’t. But commercial-scale piracy hurts both. As to whether authors and musicians should have publishers or labels, that’s a separate issue.

It’s always more complex than we think. Digitization often undermines our ideas of intellectual property (It should be noted that large-file sharing site MegaUpload was shutdown while I wrote this piece). Levine continues, “the fact that barriers to entry have come down is what’s great about the Internet, and the fact that piracy is rampant is what’s wrong with the Internet, and I think we need to separate them.” The question then becomes: How do we move forward in one way without moving backward in another?

That aside, after debating the all-or-nothing, digital divide of books, I purchased my latest e-reader because I wanted the option of ebooks. Let’s face it, a lot of books are cheaper in digital form. I had to debate the divide remembering that some of my favorite movies are yet to be available on DVD, but once we all decide that we’d rather have ebooks than book-books (what I call “The Tyranny of Adoption”), the latter will go the way of the CD, DVD, and LP.

Recently I was contemplating my next ‘zine project, an archaic practice the physicality of which I still find rewarding in both process and product (much like shopping in brick-and-mortar record and book stores), and I was thinking of making it available for e-readers as well. One of the first things that occurred to me was the lack of a two-page spread in that format. In ‘zines, magazines, and books, the fold between signatures, between pages, provides a landscape view of two pages at once. This expanse of visual real estate is not extant on an e-ink or tablet screen. Much like the one-sidedness of the MP3, the ebook is all fronts.

Let me stop here and attempt to gather the threads unraveled above:

  • Digitization is not inherently a bad thing.
  • Some media thrive in strictly digital format. Others need more nuanced modes of delivery.
  • (That is, some things do not need to be on screens.)
  • Wanting searchable book content does not mean not wanting books.
  • We decide what works for us.
  • No matter what, we still need to reconcile intellectual property with digitization (IP with IP).

New devices and media formats, whether we’re designing them or adopting them, curate our culture. We have to think cumulatively about these changes and decide what we want. Book culture has served us well, and we might be ready to let go of it in its current form (reactions to yesterday’s Wikipedia blackout in protest of SOPA certainly do not support literary culture as we know it). Let’s just be mindful of the culture we’re creating.


One for Fun: While I was writing this piece, Jason Kottke posted the video below of John Scalzi’s thirteen-year-old daughter Athena seeing an LP record for the first time [runtime: 1:41]. One cannot help imagining the same fate for books:


Acknowledgements: To be fair to Kevin Kelly, his original post was about digital publishing, and I agree with his points and enthusiasm for that. Given my ebook anxiety, I couldn’t help but take his massive analog library as an opportunity to discuss the readers’ side of the issue. Thanks are due to Dr. Martha Lauzen, who told me the John Naisbitt story during my master’s degree days studying with her at San Diego State University. Gratitude is also due to Alex Burns, Jay Babcock, Steven Johnson, Jason Kottke, Dave Allen, David Ewald, and Lily Brewer for sharing links, lively discussion, and correspondence.

Further Posting: