Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 4 of a long essay

(Parts One, Two and Three of this essay appear under the category of the same name to the left of this post or below this latest section of it)

A recent and important phenomenon is the proliferation of online game “worlds” that have grown to massive proportions over the past several years. In these worlds hundreds of thousands of “real” humans take on avatars or online identities and simulate economies that include all forms of human creation and interaction. Outside of the strictly gaming world, and attractive to many who would never play video games, “Second Life” has literally created a new virtual universe where “real” people inhabit and participate in a figurative universe.

These worlds are certainly “real” in an experienced sense, and are not lived in solely for entertainment, but for the experience of interaction that is so often not available in the daily experience of our fully alienated culture. Why should this not be a precursor of what is to come for art and culture? Why should art and culture not migrate to an online space for those people whose lives take place mostly online anyway?

This does not mean the death of the book. It may be part of “the end of the world as we know it” (as my favorite REM song reminds us.) Personally, I do not feel sadness about this, only curiosity. After all, these are all human endeavors created and experienced by human beings. Online art and culture is simply artifactual of another cultural language and cultural landscape. As any anthropologist knows, every culture creates its art forms from the landscape it inhabits. However influenced by the sensory input of these landscapes, cultural creativity is always human in shape and form.

So we will recognize this new world of art and culture even if we do not always understand its language.

The pace of technology and business change is so rapid that very few business managers, analysts, creative thinkers or other observers and participants with an interest in these matters are able to understand what is happening as it is happening. We are all now put in the position of surfing the world we live in, riding waves of change with as much finesse and grace as we can muster, knowing that like all surfers, we will eventually wipe out. Then we must go to shore, take a deep breath and paddle back into the ocean to ride again.

Even so, we are able to see the effects of changes that have already occurred and from what we know, make generalizations about what will happen to and through the cultural milieu of writing, ideas, knowledge, books and publishing.

The central fact of change driven by the distribution of ideas on the internet is the destruction of the authority model.

All we have known is a world in which knowledge and ideas are passed from one creative thinker, artist or writer to many consumers, as well as other artists and writers. This is how most modern cultures have worked for as long as we have known them. It is central to our (capitalist) production system as well.

In the new online world this is no longer the predominant model. A new paradigm has emerged, which is characterized by much more complicated lines of communication and creativity. In this model, that has developed most fully and powerfully in the community of computer programming and is called “open source,” a single creator may take an idea he or she has developed and make it public in such a way that many other creators or users can contribute to the ongoing developmental and creative process – this deconstructs the notion of a product, as there is never a final product, but rather a never ending product development process. As a model applied to literature, a novel might have multiple endings, or be rewritten endlessly by hundreds of editors and readers.

There are many famous examples of open source computer development, the most famous being the Linux operating system, as well as GNU, Basecamp, Joomla and a development platform called Ruby on Rails that has quickly attracted legions of programmers. And of course the now famous “Wikipedia” has more or less replaced the notion of an authority driven encyclopedia with one that is more accurate and up to date by harnessing the power and creativity of users.

The rules and social interaction systems of the “open source community” deserve careful study insofar as they can be used as models for many other forms of human social interaction, especially as humanity must face and conquer so many looming challenges.

In the world of literature we can imagine a future where writers might post an entire book, whose readers then create an intelligent index to it, enabling other readers to pick and choose to read only what they need or want from the experience of the work. Allowing others to filter the vast streams of knowledge and information that we are faced with in the modern world seems rational and completely in keeping with our current environment.

What this means is that there may never be another “great” writer or thinker as we have known them in the authority model of western culture. It has been almost 300 years since it was possible for an educated person to have read every meaningful book in print in the world. With such incredible amounts of art, culture, knowledge and ideas for us to choose from, and a growth in creativity that is expanding at geometric rates (seemingly growing faster than our population — though logically this cannot be true!), it is virtually impossible for any single human being to be able to synthesize a broad enough experience to create a message or medium that would appeal to enough people to gain one the stature of greatness equivalent to a Shakespeare or an Einstein or a Picasso or even a Joyce or a TS Eliot

While we may have lost the power of such authority figures to transfigure an entire cultural moment, we have gained the power of the many to create and propagate ideas in smaller channels within the culture. We may even have created a new diversity of culture – ironically returning us to a form of tribalism that Western culture diligently attempted to expunge from the planet for the past several hundred years. That may indeed be the greatest triumph of the new digital era – perhaps arriving at just the right moment, a time when we are faced with the critical need to harness all human energy and attention to the critical matters in the natural world, and to the disparities of human wealth and opportunity that mark our current environment of mass globalization.

Individuals and small groups may now emerge as the new units of culture as humankind returns to its tribal cultural roots in the vast cycle of change we both engender and experience within our worlds - the physical, spiritual and now the virtual spaces that we inhabit and that make us who we are.

Posted by David Wilk on 04/19 at 10:29 PM
Publishing and business in generalWriting, books and the future of reading • (75) CommentsPermalink

Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 3 of a long essay

(Parts One and Two of this essay appear under the category of the same name to the left of this post)

For those interested in the actual technologies on the near horizon, and who are willing to experience science fiction first hand, a little research will turn up much that portends the future of the book. We will soon see digital paper with miniaturized power and memory enabling a single electronic sheet to carry hundreds or thousands of pages of information and all the navigational tools needed for readers to carry weightlessly in their pockets. Holographic projection technology enables the invention of a holographic book, where we could be “holding” a virtual book and turning virtual pages anywhere and anytime we wish to see them – or share them with a room full of colleagues (pocket projectors are on the market already and can do the presentation element quite well).

Computer memory growth is so rapid that it will be possible to store and rapidly access an entire personalized library with almost all the world’s knowledge in every home, homes that will be thoroughly networked so that written information, untethered from the physical container of the traditional book, will be available to every one of us at home or at work (and we shall see completely new tools to enable us to read and absorb this information as well). How our brains and psyches will adapt to these changes remains to be seen. But the technology that will enable such changes is no longer science fiction or futurist fancy.

Books, or more properly the book business, while slower to experience the disruption of digital technology than for example the music business, must face a myriad of challenges to the way business has been done in the 20th century. Now in the 21st century, we are seeing only the very beginnings of the many major disruptions to come.  These are based on ownership of rights, availability of information, the new technology of book creation and reading which will be followed by inevitable changes in distribution models derived from the new digital models.

Business is also faced with the inevitable effects of energy and natural resource costs and changes in patterns of human living. Printed books are heavily energy intensive to create as well as to ship. The current inefficiencies in the distribution system are simply unsustainable. And the interesting rise of the used book market demonstrates that readers desire to de-commoditize book, to treat them as cultural artifacts to be shared and traded socially in a new model of consumption.  Online social networking has already created new economies of trading in CDs, with books doubtless to follow, as resourceful human beings realize the power of shared goods as well as shared knowledge and creativity.

This will be a continuing trend that no modern publisher has yet to recognize constructively in its business model.

(There is both beauty and danger in removing all the rules!)

In addition, the World Wide Web has significantly altered the way ideas ebb and flow, as well as how they are consumed. This is true of all cultural activities insofar as electronic technology applies to them (music, television, film and writing, more so than plastic arts). Younger readers and consumers of digital information are commonly observed to be voracious multi-taskers. They can be talking on the telephone, instant messaging to and from large groups online, playing video games and watching cartoons on game consoles, all simultaneously. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant, as it is so pervasive.

Children and now many younger adults have grown up consuming and interacting with culture in an online environment. They read and write constantly, but never in a quiet environment and almost never without interruption.

Their thought patterns and processes are being programmed in ways human cultures have never experienced before the present period, and we simply have no way to predict the ways, hows and whats they are learning will be applied once they become mature adults acting economically within the cultural marketplace. But we do know for certain that they have learned to consume and act upon knowledge and ideas differently from anyone’s experience before today, that when they read or write books, it will be done differently than any previous cultural experience, and it is also more likely that the containerized form of the book will be seen as obsolete by many if not most of the children and young adults living today.

The “virtual” world is the “real” world for those who live in it.

Posted by David Wilk on 04/06 at 10:30 PM
Publishing and business in generalWriting, books and the future of reading • (53) CommentsPermalink
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Buzz, Balls & Hype
MJ Rose’s excellent blog


Where I podcast interviews with writers and thinkers about books, publishing and the future of culture.

Ron Silliman’s Blog
one of my favorite and most regular visits

Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers
Incisive, intelligent blog well worth bookmarking! 

Publishing Insider
The renowned Carl Lennertz covers the book business and more

Fresh Eyes Now
Robert Gray’s consistently interesting bookseller’s journal

Book Slut

The Long Tail
Chris Anderson’s ongoing exploration of how the web and human behavior creat new opportunities for information to be distributed (my words)

Galley Cat
Blog about the bookbusiness

Conversations in the Book Trade
interesting site

Flaming Grasshopper
Chelsea Green Press’ ongoing blog

Publishing 2.0: the (r)Evolution of Media
A blog about the (r)evolution of media, driven by the migration of media to the Web and new digital technologies by Scott Karp.  Highly recommended.

An e-book business site, but their blog covers book business stories as well.

The Digitalist 

"The Digitalist was originally conceived as an internal sounding board, discussion forum and blog for the publisher Pan Macmillan to start thinking about a range of digital issues it faced. It still is. Only now it’s open for everyone to join the debate about books, publishing, the web, and the future."  Highly Recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of publishing.

Teleread "Bring the E-books Home"

David Rothman’s outstanding blog covering all things related to e-books, now with the assistance of Paul Biba.

Invention Arts

Really smart people thinking hard about books, publishing and the emerging social conversation.  Creators of Aerbook: an author platform service for the social web. Highly recommended.


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