No Time for Print: Why the future of ideas is electronic
Ebooks and blogs are changing not only how we read but what we read, says Brian Burton.
In today’s time-poor attention economy, social media and ebooks have replaced print as the channel for radical ideas. Is print really on the way out? And should we be worried?
It has been almost 250 years since Common Sense was written by Thomas Paine and utilized to rally the colonies toward the American Revolution. It’s only been 150 years since Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe stoked the fires of a different war, this time the American Civil War, and not even 60 years have passed since the first publishing of Anne Frank’s Diary, shedding light on the horrors of WWII. These pieces of writing have moved people in ways that radically changed people’s perceptions as well as the world that those people and ourselves live in.
Fast-forward to the present day and ask yourself what you have read recently. Billboards on the way to work, traffic signs, advertisements on your favorite websites, this article, the directions on top of the cup of noodles; and that’s generally what most people do read. Blurbs. Snippets. If Oprah’s Book Club or the NY Times recommends it, maybe you’ll get people to read a book—but then how many people do you know that would rather just wait for the book to be made into a movie? Perhaps I’m being too critical of the society that I live in, and that is not my purpose, but with interest in literature waning, replaced by movies, video games, and other forms of direct media, I have to wonder what the future holds for books.
With advancements in technology, companies like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble have cashed in on the latest e-book trend. Last year Amazon reported that they sold more ebooks than they did paperbacks. Apps like OverDrive allow people to rent ebooks from their local libraries. The Audible app delivers audiobooks on demand to thousands of users all over the world. Last year, Fifty Shades of Grey became the first ebook to sell 1 million copies in history, and was actually originally a piece of Twilight fan fiction that was published on the Internet. Technology is allowing us to experience writing in a cornucopia of unconventional ways that seem to expand every month.
It may have been this accessibility that killed the conventional bookstore. With the closure of the final Borders bookstore in September 2011, the world of literature was ushered into a new era. It would be incorrect of me to say that people don’t read anymore—they just seem less likely to read things actually printed on paper.
Popular books and ebooks published in the last couple of years have included fantasy storytelling, female erotica, weight-loss and dieting books, self-help books and cookbooks. Interestingly enough, there has not been a popular literary outcry in the U.S. with major results in the last decade, despite war, unemployment, and economic crisis. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Octopus are two novels that were written in 1900 and 1901 respectively about the infamous robber barons and the railroad monopoly, and in this time we saw political and social activism sprout up around these books. Books don’t tend to do that anymore. Blogs do.
Occupy Wall Street, which gave rise to subsequent Occupy movements all over the world, was originally organized through a blog, and relied heavily on social media outlets for further organization. The Arab Spring uprisings have employed blogs and social media to achieve their ends. While books used to be the primary mode of communication of ideas, it seems that the Internet may be taking over as the fire-starter for impassioned movements.
TLDNR (Too Long Did Not Read)
So what do we read anymore? A lot of people skip the article in favor of the headline, skim text for keywords, or refer to the video report instead of the article. Sparknotes offers comprehensive summaries of classroom books so that students don’t have to read them. Tweets only allow for 140 characters per post, and Facebook updates that are longer than a paragraph are a rarity. The knack for brevity that we have developed in our reading/writing habits is apparent everywhere.
Do people feel like they don’t have the time to read any more in such a fast-paced world? Some people feel like they don’t, and others feel like it is a waste of their time. Some would rather spend that time in front of more frenetic forms of media, such as video games, TV shows, and movies. Attention spans don’t seem like they will allow for books to survive.
Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, has predicted that within a matter of decades, machines will become so integrated in not only the human environment, but within the human anatomy, that you will be able to send emails by thought, and eventually upload information into your conscious mind through flash drives. I’m not saying that I agree with Kurzweil, necessarily, but I do think that certain possibilities have to be considered in regards to the future of books.
Books are being chalked up as vessels of information, and what the technological age has done for information involves efficiency. Information is becoming more and more streamlined, and people are looking to get the most information for the least effort and in the shortest amount of time. Most people can watch a movie more quickly than they can read a book, which explains why many people do just that. Your RSS feed gives you the gist of an article in a fraction of the time it would take to read the article itself. What will happen when a person can upload and understand a book’s text within a matter of minutes?
It is a bold statement, but I think that the conventional paper book is in danger of extinction. Ebooks, blogs, and truncated information from the cyber-frontier are already doing their part to ensure the death of the paper book. They are transforming not only our mode of literary absorption, but the content of that literature.
I used to be afraid that I would live in a dystopian future reminiscent of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where people feared and burned books at the behest of the government. I’m not afraid of that any more; I’m afraid that there won’t be any books left in our future to burn.
2 thoughts on “No Time for Print: Why the future of ideas is electronic”
I take your point about the worry of print books being phased out. I certainly hope they won’t be, as you can’t beat holding an actual physical book in your hand. Having said that, I have recently tried publishing my ghost and horror books on the Amazon Kindle Store, and have been very impressed by the keen interest shown in my work by book buyers!
I think you pose some legitimate thoughts and concerns. It’s scary to think that in just a couple of generations we could be faced with electing people who are disinterested, have never or are unable to consume information to the depths that a singular book allows. All because they’ve never had to.
So much has been done for the sake of efficiency and entertainment. I wonder if we’ll find that once we add up all of the efficiencies we have actually made things counter productive. There is something to be said for taking in information slowly and internalizing it. If that kind of reading stops, then we’re going to be left with a world full of folks conditioned to simply react to whatever entertains them.
Thanks again for taking the time to post this.
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