eBook Revolution or More Evolution?

How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write

Required reading – Steven Johnson believes eBooks are at a significant tipping point and a widely innovative range of uses will proceed. This is based largely on the Google hegemony of access, visibility, and social interactions around the book. It also sounds a bit like “this time its different.”

Looking at the literature and previous breakthroughs announced around eBooks, from 1999 to 2003 to 2007, as in other industry-pushed trends that never quite made it, there are new evangelists to replace the old ones.

As a popular article, not a technical or scholarly one, Johnson proposes some hype pitches:

“As a result, 2009 may well prove to be the most significant year in the evolution of the book since Gutenberg hammered out his original Bible.”

But he does back it up with some genuinely cool possibilities, albeit some of the best ones do not require Kindle or even Google Books:

“Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.”

It’s the breathless comparisons to the Gutenberg event that I stumble over. While the Gutenberg invention was a powerful turning point, it took centuries for popular innovation to happen. The first innovations were arguably political. Books were an extremely expensive artifact and populations generally remained illiterate (except for the fortunate elite and schooled) until cheap printing enabled popular distribution. An analogy might be that the original Gutenberg invention made global literacy possible, but the innovation of publishing and the markets created by availability finally enabled the adoption of books.

Today the overarching innovation emerges as the popular distribution of e-texts, and not a given device or format.   Johnson suggests that the possibilities of two platforms, Kindle and Google Books, eventuates a virtuous ecology that brings about new, widespread forms of reading and authorship. In a few years from now, this inflection point may seem as obvious as the iTunes distribution system to which the books conversion process is often compared.

But if eBooks are ready for primetime, why do they need high profile “advocates?” Nobody wrote op-eds to encourage us to try the iPod and MP3 players. In fact, human behavior led e-music recording technology. People tried and used all formats and devices to share, distribute, and sell music portably and efficiently.

What we have not seen yet is the organic adoption of eBooks per se. If people genuinely wanted to read portable books onscreen, they have been able to for many years. If this were an organic, “bubbling up” adoption, people would be file sharing eBooks peer-to-peer (other than expensive textbooks). Truly disruptive innovations usually originate with industry outsiders, such as BitTorrent. Here we have the Big Two players, Amazon and Google, institutionalizing a process to scale, well before organic public demand.

While Johnson mentions the Kindle as an ecological driver of innovation, he neglects to say that the recent Google Books deal with publishers is what makes these innovations possible. If the publishers had continued to sue instead of settle, we may not have the Google Books ecosystem he suggests will grow. The 2009 difference is that the Google Books deal with publishers allows scanned books to be fully indexed and displayed in full online, and finally, perhaps, brought out of Beta. But publishers still own the book format and rights. There is so much more they (publishers) can do with authors that Johnson does not hint at.  But they may risk losing innovation to the Google hegemony. To me that is where the book becomes something other than a book, necessitating a new brand and semantic identifier.

So yes, Google enables many of the “distracting” innovations around book content: Unified searching and cross-linking, citations and cite ranking, community exchanges, booksites, and new forms of content visibility are increasingly possible. This will open up long tail access to the classics in all fields, which will make us collectively smarter (you gotta respect your primary references).

But speaking as an author as well, we must realize we live in a global community where more of us are “writers” and fewer of us are “readers,” in the increasingly outdated senses of authorship and readership. People compose in all types of formats now, and the meaning of authorship is changing, becoming diffused across media and messages.

If we are really lookming at changing the wat people read and write, we need to start by understanding people’s information practices, not technology. Readership starts with interest, and “ends” with attention. Johnson is spot on when he unwittingly agrees with Nicholas Carr (Atlantic 2008: Is Google Making us Stupid?)

“As a result, I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.”

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