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.