Friday, September 12, 2008

The Future of Books

And so the story continues, but this time with another electronic reader. Over the last decade (or more), a variety of handheld devices have appeared, each a portent of the things to come. The things to come is the disappearance of the "paper book." What will replace the paperless book? Just as computers have reduced paperwork throughout the world (ahem), the paperless book will vanquish the ancient practice of tree death for the entertainment and education of humans. It is also a environmentally friendly choice - a Green book.

Nothing wrong with a little mild drama now and then. :) Besides, it's Friday (here), and I've been told countless times that Fridays are great days - no more work. I'll save that for another post.

Anyway, a company named Plastic Logic announced, and released photos, of their new electronic reader. In some circles this is called an "ebook," but I ask: Is it an ebook if there is nothing on it to read? And that's how they come, empty. So, I'm going with e-reader, and calling the content dropped into it ebooks.

Like Amazon's bid for the market, this device uses the same display technology (which was already flexible). Instead of placing the viewer in a cumbersome case, Plastic Logic is making their device "bendable." (For the pun, look up the definition of the word "plastic").

Other than being rather cool looking, I'm not sure of the purpose or function behind the flexibility. Plastic Logic states that the device can be "bent" but not folded. Maybe bending makes it easier to store in a backpack.

The e-reader is 8.5 by 11 inches, and is very thin. The display is larger than any other e-reader on the market, and it also comes with a wireless connection. This does sound like a great device. However, we are left with the question of whether people prefer plastic or paper (I wasn't working for that pun, it set itself up - honest). Those of you who have been following me blog, or who have read my previous editorials in Dark Wisdom magazine, know that I sometimes rant about this topic. Here, take a peek at my previous rant/editorial (editorial), or my post about the loss of tools for reading (focus). What's clear, is I post all too much about the topic. From all of these posts comes the fundamental question: Will we be reading in the future? If not, then it makes no difference what type of e-reader we have. Yet, the race to make the SF version we've all read about (hmmm) continues.

I for one prefer paper. That might be because I grew up reading paper books. I do want there to be a good e-reader, because I can keep many of my books with me. Certainly Plastic Logic offers a tempting promise (not to be released until 2009, with a color version coming - maybe - in 2010).

Enough of my ramblings! It appears that soon, we'll be able to read newspapers on the go. Okay, well, we could do that before. But, we'll be able to bend them. Oops. You can fold those paper ones. Still, the news will be updated by the minute (ha! the paper version can't top that). Then again, in the last 40 years, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of people who read newspapers. Maybe that's because they weren't plastic - environmentally friendly, plastic.

This was added afterward due to a clever suggestion by Jeff Edwards in his post:


Jeff Edwards said...

I usually say that I have no real preference when it comes to books: paper or electronic. I have read books (classics in the public domain) on my Palm. If I can do that, I know I could easily read an eBook on a larger screen.

However, the bottom line is that I do prefer paper books. The two main reasons: price and convenience. Nearly all of the books I read are free: review copies or used books from my building's laundry room. I can throw these into my bag and carry them to work, or read them at the pool or the beach, all without fear of damage or theft of the eReader.

Sure, if a company wanted to give me a free eReader for the purpose of review, I'd be more than happy to extol it virtues. (Sony? Amazon? Plastic Logic? Anyone?)


P.S. I nominate "Paperback Writer" as the soundtrack to this blog topic.

Voland said...

Argh! I've just invested in a trade-paperback sized Sony Reader, specifically because there was no large-size reader on the market... dang! Ah well, another "investment" in a year or two, I guess ;-)

I definitely prefer paper. However, when travelling it's impractical to lug more than, say, 5 or 6 books around with you (and I try...). Also, with the increase in PDF versions, specially of out-of-print books, e-readers have increasingly become a decent option.

The Sony Reader uses the electronic paper technology - looks like the version you display does too, Wiliam. This actually, for me, makes it a practical proposition. First, no screen glare therefore no eye strain; secondly, it actually "feels" a bit like reading a paper book - and it has the portability that you can read it in the garden, in bed, at a bus stop, wherever, which is extremely important for me - and which is why I can't get used to reading long pieces on a computer screen.

Will paper books diminish? I think possibly yes, especially for the "read and bin" airport books, etc - the mass-produced stuff. Trade paperbacks were always intended as the cheap-n-cheerful alternative to a "proper" hardback, and I can see e-readers infringing on that territory. But, the sensual pleasure of a well-made book is a completely separate aspect of book ownership which electronic readers will never be able to address (not without some Star Trek replicator technology, anyhow...) - the smell of an old leather-bound book, the thrill of being temporary custodian of something several centuries old and which many other readers have leafed through, or simply holding and appreciating a beautifully crafted object is something I'm sure will stay with us - although it's very little to do with reading!

Vwriter said...

We've talked about this before, but I believe reading as we know it will essentially disappear within a few generations. It will remain a cultural fad like vanilla candles. The good news is that typing will vanish with it.

By its very nature, reading is an elitist activity, seconded only to writing. You, of course, have heard the chant, "Readers are Leaders."

Information transfer through electronic methods such as the Wire in the Brain, although the stuff of science fiction now, will most likely come about unless civilization suffers a catastrophic event that will eliminate even the more important of our advancements, such as the paparazzi. Such information transfer, which will replace reading and writing, will be egalatarian if well administered. Knowledge acquisition will no longer be linked to such things as effort, thought, consideration, and reflection. All men and women, regardless of their slothic propensities, will be able to be as educated as everyone else. Analysis will be a thing of the past.

I have direct experience with this issue. All of my knowledge and experience and contextual analysis is downloaded directly to my frontal lobes by CNN.

Steve Buchheit said...

One thing very little known is that the skill of reading both psychologically and physically changes the brain. Most of us use three languages (even if we're not multi-lingual), symbology (both hard-wired in like "faces" or learned as in "international symbols"), the spoken tongue, and the written language (want to really twist your brain, read actual transcripts of "real dialog"). All three of these herald distinct changes in our culture on in the individual. I could go on that we're moving toward a more symbolic representation of language, but that would digress down into the minutia of esoteric visual communication theory (hint, the rise of the internet signaled the resurgence of symbolic communications). I could also go on about how the rise of written languages also predisposes us to monotheistic and male based religion systems, but that would take too long.

The main thing is that reading is not something that is trivial (ask someone who is "illiterate" and is trying to learn as an adult, and the difference between "functionally illiterate" and fully illiterate), and is fundamental to our society. There was a video floating around that spoofed help desks by having someone have to call in support to read a book. While funny, it's not that far of a stretch. It's only because the trainers of such tech don't grasp that they are engaged in training and the learners are normally to young to realize they're being trained that we think reading a book is "natural" (it helps that the interface is highly intuitive as well, something that isn't very translatable to the web, and is still being figured out in e-readers).

Then there are the deep brain differences between reading ink on paper (which the newer e-ink books simulate, which IMHO is a major step forward for e-reader acceptability), reading pixels, and having the images placed in our heads (this is why TV advertising is way more persuasive than print advertising and different than radio advertising, or why manipulated photos are "so realistic" when they're done well). It stems back to how and where we process information in our brains (and how we trained them, like learning how to read).

E-ink devices I think will replace the mid range categories of print more than the mass-market ones (price, market focus, and how well the devices function place it that realm). So cheap books will still be there, as well as the high-end collectable books, it's the mass produced hard-backs (wow, I think I just coined a term) that will be hit hardest (price/consumption point and market demographics). Printed paper (IMHO) is still highly superior to electronic paper unless you know exactly what you're looking for (is it easier to browse titles on Amazon, or at your local bookstore, ignoring factors such as breadth of selection). I've had these discussions with clients who want "to put everything on the web so we don't have to print paper catalogs" and then see their market share dwindle (GE Lighting comes to mind) because customers couldn't find the products they needed to order. The first category of printed books that will disappear are manuals (already gone in most consumer products), text books, and reference books (like the computer manuals - How to Learn Networking Protocols, etc).

There are those early adopters, and those looking for convenience (this is where the Kindle excels), but then not everybody has an iPod for example, and that's a mature product (yes, for those of us on the web, all our friends have them, but that's still a small sample of the populace). Going to a direct interface would face a huge psychological barrier for most people.

And then, how would society change without having the populace learning a written language? The only real models we have are primitive societies, and they're not dealing with the various other issues "city folk" (for lack of a better term) in the developed world also deal with, so there really is no model to go by (plus, primitive societies have other languages they need to learn than what developed people need to learn).

And see, I went and did exactly what I didn't want to do, expounded too long.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Your statement, reading is elitist, deserves a second glance, although it was initially made in sarcastic jest.

There is a decided anti-intellectual trend in this country. How many times have we hear politicos bashing the intellectual elite? This anti-intellectualism isn't just among right wing conservatives, one can find similar negative bias with poor urban people who might be tagged as liberals.

It's a fascinating topic for further discourse. As for the ebook? I want one. I want one now.

Rick said...

Steve, you have clearly displayed the problem. Reading is not just elitist, it is both unnecessary and causes headaches.

And reading is truly not trivial, it is truly the last great obstacle to true learning. Reading is the root cause of World of Warcraft, which Isaac Asimov, even though dead, was the board game played in Rome while Nero fiddled. In more recent times, we visit Facebook and listen to iPods while civilization erodes beneath our very feet, like the concrete in a foul smelling basement.

There is truly no evidentiary basis for assuming that the physiological changes engendered within the hideously folded layers of the human mind are any more beneficfial that the swelling caused by a festering sore. I suspect that Al Capp was right to reject that premise in favor of writing comic strips.

Consider: many years ago, the Philip Morris company chose one of two paths with perhaps devastating results for humanity. They decided to poison the human body while giving it temporary pleasure. Light up, inhale, die of cancer. A simple formula, but one that was modeled on an interesting trend in society called reading. Sit the body down, shut the mind down, and pretend we're dealing with reality by reading.

Reading, despite the warning labels on books, is not thinking. Playing World of Warcraft is.

William Jones said...

Jeff - I've grown accustomed to paper, and I do enjoy the feel of a new book (and the smell). I'm a bibliophile, so electronic formats present a challenge to my bookshelf. However, I have read e-books, and I am tempted by the notion of having all of my books in one place, always with me.

I suppose my present fear of the new technologies is that they do not work with each other. The different formats mean electronic content will only work on one or the other. That is a problem I do not have with paper books. Additionally, while the cost of e-books are lower, the initial investment - as you pointed out - is considerable. I don't see any free readers in my future. :)

William Jones said...

Voland - Is the Sony Reader limited in format? Or is this the Sony "Kindle" Reader?

My thoughts on these readers is that the manufacturers are attempting to create or grab a market similar to that of the music market with MP3 players and iPods. I'll confess, having a tiny device that holds a vast amount of music is compelling. And, as much as I post about these little devices, I confess, I own an iPod. Oddly, I don't listen to much music on it, but I do listen to podcasts, audio books, and out of the way university/video broadcasts. As you stated, Voland, it is much easier for me to bring one device with a plethora of audio books, shows, etc., while on a trip. I tend to drive quite a bit, and this makes reading on the road quite difficult . . . sometimes.

I do believe the "paper" technology I mentioned is the same being used in all of the recent readers. It was developed a while ago, and it has taken a few years to find applications. In the past, I'd heard of paper game publishers (such as RPGs) considering the use of a book sized device (as thick as a book), but using this technology. I suspect the market wasn't large enough, so nothing has happened as of yet.

William Jones said...

Vwriter - You state that reading is an "elitist" activity. I would ask, is it necessary that it be elitist? George Orwell makes a similar point in 1984. Society is told to avoid such activities, and the suggestion is embraced. This intentionally creates an elitist group.

As for the method of information transfer, yes, books, or specifically, writing, is archaic. As humans use their senses to gather information, we are limited to the senses. And I do think that different mediums provide different opportunities for acquiring information. My concern is about the passivity of the medium. It seems to me the more passive, the lesser the return on information gathered. To give an example, it is easy for a professor (ahem) to lecture for an hour on a given topic. Likewise, it is easier for the students not ot listen. This is perhaps why so many cruel professors call upon students - to make sure they are engaged.

Humans, as I believe Steve stated, are pattern recongintion machines. But we are also engines of distraction. The human brain is capable of so many activities, that listening or reading or watching is often too slow, and this gives our brains time to wonder. This is where reading (a very non-passive activity) and listening/watching (a bit more passive) collide. I think people who are looking for entertianment, often enjoy the decreased effort of a passive medium such as listening and watching. This makes books all the more challenging. Add to that the fact that reading IS an art - it requires skills that go beyond the words - and it does make reading seem very archaic, regardless of the format (electronic or paper).

I wonder how many people have even reached this point in my rambling post! :)

Naturally, there is appeal to your tongue-in-cheeck, cyberpunk suggestion of a "wire" in the brain. I'd urge you to read the cyberpunk Mirrored Shades, edited by Bruce Sterling. The technology exists there, and the stories ponder the results. They are not always pleasant.

William Jones said...

Steve - I agree, there is far more to language than a means of communication, and there is far more to written communication than "just words." Reading and speaking require the application of logic and reasoning to form coherent and new thoughts. And language is one of the amazing creations of humanity that allows for the development of something new by simply re-organizing existing words/ideas. In a fashion, words are building blocks that we can tinker with.

You've offered some very interesting insights on the topic, and I also agree that both mediums will be around. My only worry is if there will be anyone to use them. As you make clear, there is a difference between catalogs and novels. And presently, it seems that cost, or money (another human abstraction) is the driving force behind the method that humans learn or are entertained. Yes, this is a part of the system and society we live in. That is certainly not going to change any time soon. But, I do think it is a barrier that doesn't help the cause of reading either.

It is said we live in the "Information Age." And the Internet seemingly supports this. But I wonder with the vast amounts of free information on the Internet, how many people have become more avid readers, and gained greater knowledge - with it abounding everywhere. One would think that those with the Internet would be encyclopedic in knowledge (I'll avoid going to my previous post "Deep Focus").

I find your comments about the different aspects of the brain very interesting. That topics, along with language, has been debated for many, many years. You present a high tech slant, which adds to the debate. Meanwhile, the other side of the debate is what Vwriter posted. So in a small space, we've managed to re"kindle" a very old discussion (one that that probably started in conversation, and moved to books because of limits of direct conversation). :)

Rick said...

I'll try to be serious this time!

I believe that reading is both egalitarian and elitist, depending upon the historical context and cultural factors. It is elitist, for example, when wielded by the few to control the many. An example of this would be when the priests have attempted to control its use, such as during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt or when Christian priests attempted to suppress it to avoid alternative interpretations or understanding of the Bible. It is a force for egalitarianism when it is spread to the masses in an attempt to liberate them from repression.

However, there are times when its defense becomes something of a religion, when we attribute to it our wishful interpretations of its benefits as though it were the only thing that can produce those benefits. Consider these quotes from Steve and yourself:

"It stems back to how and where we process information in our brains..."

"Humans, as I believe Steve stated, are pattern recongintion machines."

Reading is a technology, and allow me to point out that it is only one technology. It is an old an inefficient technology that has become enshrined and treated with almost reverential all by its enthusiasts (of which I count myself one).

Steve points out that reading causes changes in the neural infrastructure of the brain. These changes occur as a result of learning, not simply reading. What I'm saying that the technology of learning was not extracted from the many studies. The benefits in such studies were generally attributed to reading, not learning of the type, complexity, and scope involved. In this regard, they were highly prejudiced and somewhat self-serving.

And if we hypothesize that the brain is a pattern recognition machine, the question arises as to whether reading is or is not the best method of stimulating and expanding such pattern recognition.

Let me use a comparison to illustrate my point, although it is by no means a perfect comparison.

Depression is a serious mental illness that the mental health community has struggled with for years. Think for a moment about the psychotherapy approach to dealing with this affliction. Talk, talk, talk, and more talk. It never did very well. Then consider the prescription approach to the problem- drugs, drugs, and more drugs. Some success, lots of side effects, and many failures. Then the combination of the two. Same story.

Recently, in Toronto at a conference I was to have attended but unfortunately missed, a wire was literally inserted into depressed patients brains and a slight voltage applied at the right point in the patients "pattern recognition machine." The depression was instantly eliminated. The next step is to develope inserts that can be managed in this regard like pacemakers. The success of the treatment effected not only the patient's emotional state, but the attendant thinking processes as well.

This technology is in its infancy, and it is most likely a bit ahead of the direct transference of knowledge, experience, judgement, and moral values, but I believe that the development of both will press forward relentlessly. Any benefits of reading, will one day, replaced by similar, more advanced technologies.

The difficulty with viewing the brain as only an electrochemical machine is that it is therefore not immune to being treated as one. This includes the quest for more direct and efficient technologies to manipulate it.

So, yes, I give reading three generations at most before it is laid to rest in the same grave as the combustion engine. Fortunately, as a love of books, I will not likely be alive to see this happen.

Jeff Edwards said...

William, re: your note about passive vs. non-passive activities, applied to reading vs. audio books. Personally, I have never taken to audio books. The few times I've tried them, my mind quickly wandered away from the narrator's voice.

Also, re: your note about file formats and various eReaders. I would think/guess/assume that all of the readers support some common file format for bare-bones text.

This is also a good time for me to mention a good source for free eBooks: