Monday, April 18, 2011

Rethinking the Future: The Digital Divide

We would like to offer three observations which we believe are fundamental to the future of ‘the book’ and rethinking the future.

The first observation we offer is that we now live in a YouTube society. One, where self expression and opinion can now be, heard, seen and shared. Yesterday we listened, watched and read media, today we make it and share it. Today is less about quality and more about the width. Self publishing is no longer the grubby slush pile of sad unwanted titles,but a vibrant market which is increasingly engaging more and more people. This is not bad, this is not to be looked down on, but is something exciting, new and to be celebrated. We may not have more readers today but we certainly have more writers!

At the start Youtube looked bad quality with cameras often out of focus and juddering, but YouTube today has changed video and even influenced film. The sheer numbers of viewers have created a new genre of film and participation and created new stars, launched musicians and given us all very funny moments. Publishing must now learn to embrace the author whose English and grammar may not be old school, but who has a story to tell and a new language to tell it in.

The second observation is that digital is different. Many in publishing see it as merely replace the physical jacket with a digital one. Same text, same blurb same stuff. Some want to enrich it by adding more media and make it in effect ‘fatter’, but remains the same story, same stuff.

The challenge is to recognise that digital offers not just more media opportunities but a fundamental change in the amount of content produced, accessible and how it is read. Why do we still continue to produce 300 pages or the print economic model? Why does the work have to be complete? After all the serial story is not that far away? Why do we combine digital and print rights and surely its like combining film and print rights – sometimes relivant but far more the case not.

Why are we trying to shoehorn physical economic foot into a digital shoe? The digital shoe is not constrained in the same way as print and can accommodate many sizes?

The third observation is about marketing and promoting works. It’s as if the book industry is still locked into the 20th century time warp and is in denial over the 21st century. We have failed to deliver anything but an ISBN and now use it to identify everything and every part of everything. We failed to understand the need to group renditions of the same or similar works and fragments were unheard of! The International Standard Text Code (ISTC) has long missed its opportunity and one that is not coming back again and lies buried deep in the industry labyrinth of standards. Standards bodies which achieved so much to improve the print supply chain appear to stand transfixed in the digital headlights. This issue also is not so much business to business as business to consumer and this itself presents a challenge to bodies who not focused that way.

Today the line between content and context is blurred. We have gone way past jackets, blurbs, search inside flat pages. As we have already observed we live in a YouTube world of visual real time promotion and social and viral marketing and we find stuff via search engines who often care little about structured metadata and ISBNs.
So what do we draw from these brief observations and is there a way in which we should respond?

The challenge with rapid and fundamental change is that it is disruptive. Anything that takes time to adopt is probably dead before it is born. Development by committees was once needed and consensus was seen as the goal but moving at the pace of the slowest and accommodating all could now be a recipe for disaster today. Collaboration and consensus is always best, but is no longer acceptable if it takes too long.

“The most important thing is not to optimise what you do, but to find out and decide what you should be doing… find out where you should really be and to make sure that you are climbing the tallest peak, not just a false summit…If you get stuck on a small mountain, you get to the top and look around and you find you’re on the wrong mountain. A mile away is a mountain that’s twice as tall…Learn how to search the landscape very widely, and to make sure we find the tallest mountain to climb – that we find the right thing to do. And having done that, if we find ourselves on top of a false summit…In other words we’ve got to get down the mountain, and cross that desert, and come up on the tallest peak. And that’s called letting go, killing a product at its peak.”

These wise words from Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired in “Rethinking the Future” may be over 10 years old but still very relevant today.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the roles and value of those between the author and the reader are increasingly being questioned. There is no divine right to survive and some will not make it across the digital divide.


Aron White said...

Great post. Times really are changing as they always do. I'm interested to see how the book industry will change ten years from now. Where's that crystal ball when I need it? :)

Anonymous said...

Next step: They strap my head down, because any movement distorts the
brain imaging. Ever try to read a book without facial movements?

I feel as if I’m being shoved into the middle of a toilet paper roll,
the walls so close my eyelashes almost graze them.

Then I hear a voice through the earphones I’m wearing. It’s Dr Marker.

“You okay in there?” she asks.

Graduate student Dan Smith, 52, tells me to relax before
running around to join the other scientists in the control room.

With the invention of the fMRI only 20 years ago, along came the
ability to look at brain activity. Marker says that by understanding a
function as gigantic as reading, how the reading brain does its magic
dance, a response that hijacks all of
one’s attention, she might also learn how reading on screens could be
inferior to reading on paper.

“The more we understand how the brain works,” she says, “the more we
will be able to help people modulate its activity.”

As the machine switches on, it sounds like a jackhammer. I follow
Marker's instructions and as I do, the group watches my brain on
their computer monitors. I willl read passages from a novel, and then
later I will read
the same passages on a Kindle. I just hope the Kindle does not blow up
inside the brain scan machine!

Research and teaching take up most of Marker's time, but when she has a
spare moment, she thinks about what all this might mean for the future
of humankind.

During my first hour in the fMRI machine, researchers map my brain's
reading paths
to find out which parts correlate to
which regions of the brain.

“You have 10 minutes,” Marker says through my earphones near the end
of our test. “Keep reading."

On the
other side of the glass pane, the scientists can see my brain lighting
up as I read on paper and as I read on a screen. Regions light up in
different ways, Marker says.

Komisaruk discusses what her research could do for the future of
humankind. “We need to know
if reading on screens is going to be good if it replaces all our
reading on paper.”

Marker's lab has paid me a
$100 subject fee, so I want to give them their money’s worth.

After all, it’s not easy to get funding for this stuff — Marker
says she spends at least half of her time applying for grants.

“There’s no premium on studying paper reading modes versus
screen-reading modes in this society,” she tells me
as Smith murmurs, “What do you expect? The gadgetheads want to take over.”

When the tests are over, Market tells me the data takes two hours to
convert, but it can take much longer to
make sense of it.

“We’ll be at this for a while,” she says.

One of the biggest conundrums turns out to be a nagging
question for all mankind: What if reading on screens is not good
for retention of data, emotional connections and critical thinking skills?

Marker begins slipping more and more
into her thoughts. “Neurons, little bags of chemicals, create
awareness,” he says, “but how? How does the brain create the mind?
What is reading, really?”

I see that at the heart of all her research, there is a
philosopher trying not only to understand reading, but also figure out
the nuts and bolts that make up the human experience.

“It’s the hard question I want to answer,” she says. “What creates

“I find that,” she adds, “and I find the Nobel Prize.”

Of course, the above is a fantasy, an imagined newspaper article from
the future.

But what if it turns out that reading on screens is inferior to
reading on paper and all
print newspapers go belly up? What then? And it could happen.

But just as nobody heeded the calls that radiation and cancer might impact cell
phone use, will the profit-seeking makers of device e-readers listen to people
like the imaginary Dr Marker above, or
even care if she is right?

Not in 2011.