It's Futurists Versus Consumers As The Death Of The Book Is Prophesied

Making predictions about the end of this or that technology or institution must be a fun hobby — so many seem to have taken it up. It’s probably because you can’t lose: not only do such predictions promote discussion and visibility of the issue, but they are rarely proven wrong. After all, predicting something happening five years in the future allows for enough change to happen along the way that one can say “well, it was a reasonable hypothesis at the time.” Negroponte’s recent remarks at Techonomy concerning the death of printed books have the usual amount of wiggle room in them — which is not to say that they’re false, only that they’re an example of the usual futurist prestidigitation.

The death of printed books (and, by extension, magazines and such) is, of course, merely an ongoing process — a given. What is in the air is the timing. Negroponte says not ten years, but five. Either he has more faith than I do in consumers’ plasticity, or he’s talking about something completely different.

It’s pure speculation, on both our parts, though admittedly he has shipped millions of devices and is working hard at changing the world, and I’m still trying to get the hang of boiling an egg. So there’s something of an expertise gap, but as you pile years onto your estimates, that gap becomes increasingly irrelevant. Paul and I talked about this in regards to the so-called Singularity Movement, which plans for the unplannable — nobly, perhaps, but in my opinion futilely.

[image: David Spark]

So Negroponte thinks that the e-book will kill the physical book within five years. Maybe kill isn’t the right word — printed books aren’t being eradicated. But clearly he thinks that five years from now the battle will be decided. I’d consider e-books selling more than print books (not just hardbacks), with e-book sales going up and physical book sales going down as “victory conditions.” And when I put it like that, it starts sounding a lot more reasonable (I can be very convincing).

An ongoing poll of e-book readers (worth reading the whole thing) shows growing interest, but rather in a forced way, and people are concerned about the up-front cost. Many, having gotten over that hump one way or another, switch over entirely from paper books. But we’re still talking about a fairly select group here; the poll is more about the behavior of existing and new e-book users than the actual progress of e-readers themselves. They’re still niche, and the hardest part of their growth is ahead of them.

And it’s difficult to overestimate the inertia of existing technologies — especially ones that have been around for a good three millennia (depending on who you ask). Some say that the length of time a technology has been around is no factor, but I think that argument misses the point. Written language is not being obsoleted by something new and amazing; this is just a new way of displaying written language. Any revolution that is taking place is in the realm of freedom of information, not in the displacement of paper-based media. That is to say, e-readers and e-books aren’t as big an advancement as, say, Google Books. The former is changing how you view the medium, the latter is actually changing the medium. But that is by the way, and I am repeating myself.

The inertia of physical books in a more practical sense consists of the fact that people simply will continue to buy books. Not because of any inadequacy in e-book technology (relevant now, but not so much in a few years) but because books have a few fundamental advantages over e-books that are unlikely to change. I don’t think it’s sentimental to say that the security, tactility, beauty, and permanence of printed books will remain significant selling points — and not just for five years, but for ten, twenty, thirty. Unlike music and movies, books are imperfectly recreated in digital form. I wouldn’t make any bet that involves people no longer enjoying things.

And, although it makes for a less compelling argument, the buying generations right now were raised on books, and although younger people are adopting e-books and iPads like nobody’s business, a huge amount of spending is done by demographics who still aren’t sure what an iPad is. Rely on it: “old-fashioned” isn’t just a kind of donut, it’s a market hundreds of millions strong, with far more disposable income than hip young bloggers and early adopters. Comfort and willful ignorance may be the enemies of progress, but you ignore them at your peril.

That said, it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge that e-books have significant advantages over physical books as well. Portability is the primary one. Not simply that you can carry many at once — that’s nice for you and me, but what will make the change Negroponte looks forward to is infinite portability, combined with infinitesimal cost. As I opined when talking about Google Books yesterday, the fact that much of the world’s knowledge is being digitized and made available for free is stupendously important, and an unmixed good. Negroponte’s perspective is an international one, and although the idea of enormous e-book uptake among developing nations somehow nullifying healthy book sales in established ones is spurious in my opinion, it is consistent with his worldview and I can’t fault that.

In the end, it comes down to where you set your goalposts. And what game you’re playing, I supposed. And who the ref is. And where the ref is standing When will books bite the dust? Never, if you ask one. They’re already dead, if you ask another.

I’m the only one here in this room, though, so I’m going to ask me. And I say that books are going to continue to decline in circulation as e-readers get better and cheaper ($140 is still a lot), and as the smoke-filled room occupied by the big players clears a bit. I predict a flip-flop, though: when cheap e-readers become common possessions, books will cease to be inferior alternatives and start being luxury items. The quality of paperbacks and such today really is awful: pulp paper, blurry type, flimsy covers — it’ll be no mystery when Jane Six-Pack opts for a slick, light e-reader a couple models down the line. The low-quality book market being usurped by e-readers, dead-tree-based publishers will have to change their tack, and obviously economy and convenience will no longer be a feature of their product.

In effect, Negroponte posits (and he is not the only one) that the raw information comprised by books will soon be more important and accessible than books themselves. That’s inevitable, as printed books were only ever containers, but they remain effective and popular containers, and I think they still have a lot of life left in them — more than five years, anyway. The age of print is coming to an end, but those of us writing excitedly about it are the only ones in a hurry.