E-reading - it’s just the beginning

The past is always instructive to understanding the present.  Human beings adapt to new technologies more slowly than new technologies themselves.  Inventors come up with all sorts of ideas, some work, some don’t.  Sometimes brilliant ideas fall by the wayside for reasons of cost or inconvenience, or simply timing issues.

E-reading is essentially a new technology in a period of tremendous and exciting change.  Thousands of people and hundreds of companies are engaged in trying to figure out how people will be engaged and therefore how they can  make businesses out of the broad e-reading experience in meaningful ways.

I think it’s useful to look at the historical beginnings of what are now ubiquitous technologies, to help us understand what the future of e-reading may look like.

In the early 20th century, when the automobile was the exciting new technological opportunity for hundreds of inventors worldwide, there were some incredibly interesting and diverse ideas for motorized transport being explored.  It took several generations of usage, feedback, invention and broad experience before a more or less standardized form we recognize as “the automobile” emerged from this hothouse of invention and human adaptation (and even then there were some amazing outliers, some successful, some not).

In the very beginning stages, automobiles were imagined as motorized versions of horse drawn carriages  - the “horseless carriage.“  At the outset most were steered by tillers.  Steering wheels came later, some on the left, some on the right, some in the middle of the dashboard.

Some cars were electric powered, some were steam driven.  Early gas engines were one cylinder, some were two, some were air-cooled, some were water cooled, most were inline, some were opposed cylinders, there were even a couple of rudimentary vee designs.

Early cars had all sorts of configurations that now seem crazy to us – six wheels, eight wheels, various seating and door arrangements, almost every design element was up for grabs, anything you could imagine could be tried by someone with a workshop, some interesting ideas and access to capital.  

It took some years for the “automobile” as we know it today in its accepted variations to emerge, based on changes in technology in part, but mainly based on usage – how people responded to and utilized the new machine, how they adapted to it and adapted it for their own purposes.

E-reading today is in a very early stage of development.  Maybe we are in the equivalent of 1910 in the passage of automotive history.  We can expect all sorts of oddball inventions and we will not be able to predict exactly or even well the ebb and flow of technology and how it evolves in actual usage by readers.  

Human beings are great inventors.  It is certain that we will see many innovations in reading and the technology that supports it.  We know that we are entering a period of vast change based on energy, climate and pollution limitations of our planet and that these changes must affect how we communicate and read, how our communities will be formed.  We do not know how people will adapt to a carbon neutral low energy world in which the reduced use of physical goods will become a powerful driver of human culture.

What we can be sure of is that it is readers who will determine the future of reading technology, cast against whatever technology, new or old, that may emerge,  Today’s book publishers may well be the builders of covered wagons, only some of them will learn how to build the e-reading equivalent of the horseless carriage,  Others will not.  But readers, like drivers of a century ago, are ready to speed ahead into the future, and they do not care who ends up building it for them.

October 18, 2009

Posted by on 10/20 at 02:01 AM






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