Is Print Culture Dying?

The cultural perception of the importance of print is changing rapidly, and that is what is truly important now.

Think of the length of time it took for cell phones to be viewed as "yuppy toys" to being a necessity for all.   Cell phones are now ubiquitous across all cultural and economic segments of our society, and in most parts of the world.

It is so foolish to think that physical books are sacred.  They’re tools for most people.  Good tools.  Excellent tools.  Print culture has been a fabulous era of communication and intellectual, economic and cultural growth.

Yet it is only a small fraction of the world’s population that has access to, much less a love for physical books and the power they represent.

It is clear that digital reading is going to become ubiquitous sooner, much sooner than later – unless the world’s significant energy and environmental issues mean that access to electricity and batteries will be compromised.  

But assuming that we solve our infrastructure and environmental challenges, the economics of printing, in the face of massive uptake of digital reading, will radically change the landscape of print culture.  

Printing is a commodity business where quantity produced significantly reduces the unit cost of production.  Conversely, smaller print runs and the migration to digital printing will mean that print books become more expensive, even as the selling prices of digital content are reduced by the explosion of content availability (abundance naturally pushes prices down) and by the competition for attention between digital reading content and all other forms of content, like film, video, games and music.

Furthermore, digital workflows and products are significantly more efficient than print workflows and products.   Therefore publishers will embrace them without sentiment, and people who read will be forced to make economic decisions to buy digital products, with or without sentiment.

Print culture will never die because books have significance as physical objects.  They are cultural icons.  And there are occasions and purposes for the physical object to be higher and better than the matching digital experience.  Commercial printers and manufacturers of printing presses will do everything they can to drive print costs lower in the face of digital competition, and they will succeed in slowing the worldwide transition to digital publishing technologies.

But to believe that print culture can withstand the wave of change brought on by digital technologies flies in the face of our experience of technology and the speed in which humans adapt to new technologies.

Print culture will persist the longest in places where it has been the strongest.

But it is certain that print culture will ultimately be replaced as the predominant paradigm for communication of words by a new form of culture based on digital content delivery, sharing and consumption.   And much sooner than we now believe.

Posted by David Wilk on 11/19 at 07:21 PM
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