Futuristic authors, bored readers?

Whilst television seems to be rushing towards its future, can the same be said of books? In this essay for Wired, Craig Mod answers with a ‘yes, kinda’.

The ‘future book’ is here, but it’s not what we expected
In the 1990s, Future Bookism hit a kind of beautiful fever pitch. We were so close. Brown University professor Robert Coover, in a 1992 New York Times op-ed titled “The End of Books,” wrote of the future of writing: “Fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, discontinuity are the hypertext buzzwords of the day, and they seem to be fast becoming principles, in the same way that relativity not so long ago displaced the falling apple.”

Things didn’t quite work out that way; Amazon swallowed up pretty much all the burgeoning e-book market, with Kindles that are “as interactive as a potato”.

Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

It’s an interesting take, for sure, but I can’t help but think this publishing revolution is marvellous for authors but, as a reader, I’m still pining for that promised interactivity. I don’t think it’s enough to say we’ve got Wikipedia and YouTube videos and e-mail newsletters and somehow we can bundle them all up and consider the resulting unstructured, messy, unvalidated heap a Future Book.

Tim Carmody responds to Craig’s essay with a call to pursue an older approach.

Towards the Future Book
I think the utopian moment for the future of the book ended not when Amazon routed its vendors and competitors, although the Obama DOJ deserves some blame in retrospect for handing them that win. I think it ended when the Google Books settlement died, leading to Google Books becoming, basically abandonware, when it was initially supposed to be the true Library of Babel.

For Tim, that goal — “the digitization of all printed matter, available for full-text search and full-image browsing on any device” — is where the future of the book should lie.

Will Self, meanwhile, is in a less positive mood.

The printed world in peril
As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

I’ve been a fan of his for many years now, his lack of optimism notwithstanding.

At the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the exiled hoboes return to the cities, which have been destroyed by the nuclear conflicts of the illiterate, bringing with them their head-borne texts, ready to restart civilization. And it’s this that seems to me the most prescient part of Bradbury’s menacing vision. For I see no future for the words printed on paper, or the art forms they enacted, if our civilization continues on this digital trajectory: there’s no way back to the future—especially not through the portal of a printed text.

The Emperor’s new Kindle

Napoleon, according to this article from Open Culture, owned so many books he needed his own personal librarian. He was also very keen on having a significant collection of his books with him whenever he went travelling. This worked well for a while…

Napoleon’s Kindle: see the miniaturized traveling library he took on military campaigns
… but eventually “Napoleon found that many books which he wanted to consult were not included in the collection,” for obvious reasons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librarian these orders:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

In sum: not only did Napoleon possess a traveling library, but when that traveling library proved too cumbersome for his many and varied literary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cases but even more portable books made for him. … This prefigured in a highly analog manner the digital-age concept of recreating books in another format specifically for compactness and convenience — the kind of compactness and convenience now increasingly available to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon never could have imagined, let alone demanded.

A little too convenient?

I’ve had Kindles for years and think they’re great. But you could say you don’t really own the books you’ve bought on your Kindle, you’re just leasing them for as long as Amazon lets you. (See You don’t own your Amazon Kindle eBooks and One more reminder that you don’t own the books on your Kindle.) But that’s ok, because buying and reading books on your Kindle is just so convenient, right?

Here’s a great article on another of Amazon’s really convenient products.

Amazon owns my Echo; I’m just feeding it
Obviously, Amazon’s comfort in 2018 in building and shipping a Trojan horse like this is all my fault. I should’ve protested more a decade ago when Apple decided it was the king of iPhone software. When it decided what apps are allowable, which retail activities in those apps are allowable, and how much of a cut it gets from every microtransaction. I feel complicit and guilty, too eager to have a phone that works well to protest Apple’s obvious infringement on my rights to self-determine how my technology works.

The App Store was a trade, some might say a fair trade: Apple controls what software can be on your phone, and you get some safety and quality. When Amazon started making consumer hardware, it chose the same path. After all, people don’t want choices, they want simplicity and ease of use. Amazon started off closed with the Kindle, and it never opened up from there.

How did we get here? Where did this continual search for the most convenient option come from? And how something that was supposed to liberate us end up restricting us?

The tyranny of convenience
Americans say they prize competition, a proliferation of choices, the little guy. Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.

[…]

So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest. The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity.

I wonder what Alexa would say about that.

Why we may soon be living in Alexa’s world
This is not the best outcome for the future; it would be better for all of us if the next computing platform didn’t come from one of the current tech giants, and if start-ups didn’t have to rely on Amazon or Google for this key piece of tech. But that seems unlikely. If Alexa is headed for ubiquity, it’s good that Google may be, too.

Books, future tense

Kindle v Glass, apps v text: the complicated future of books
It’s yet another way that our digital footprint is commercialised, marketed and analysed. Nothing is private anymore. Curling up on the couch with an e-book is not a solitary act but instead a way for corporations to learn about your habits and then sell you items you’ll think you need.

[…]

Despite it all, the book will survive and perhaps thrive, though our understanding of what a book can do and how it relates to the reader must change. Amazon remains a behemoth and yet a recent New Yorker feature on the company painted a picture of multinational disinterest in building a quality collection of books and literary culture (perhaps because they’re too busy selling garden tools, dildos and toys on their website).

Asana, Kindle, student finance

  • Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz has new project: Asana – SFGate
    “A home screen for work like Facebook is a home screen for goofing off”
  • Asana – Task Management for Teams
    “If you’re looking for a tool to help you keep your projects organized, especially if you work on those projects with other people, Asana is a new webapp that can help you keep on top of your to-dos, get updates from other people helping you, and capture everything you and your team are doing in one place so everyone can refer to it quickly.”
  • Amazon Kindle Owners Can Now Check Out Books at the Local (US only!) Library
    “The process is simple: supported libraries will allow users to visit their web site, enter their library card number, find the books they want to read, and click “send to kindle” to have the book transferred to their Kindle ereader or smartphone running the Kindle mobile app. The libraries have control over which titles are available and how long the book will be “lent out” to you, but when the lending period is up, the book will vanish and automatically be “checked in” at the library again.”
  • Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information
    “Our aim is to help future students and parents in England tackle the myths and misunderstandings surrounding the recent changes to student finance by bringing together best of breed resources from various stakeholder organisations. We want higher education Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) providers to have access to the best unbiased education tools so that they can cut through the controversy and provide clear and informed guidance to prospective students.”