Nursery Rhymes: History’s Most Viral Startup?

(This is a copy of my weekly column for newspapers and radio.)

As the father of a child born in the era between the first and second iPads, I am made acutely aware that technology is driving baby rearing–just as it is driving everything else. But I find the field surprisingly uneven.

Nappies, for example. They’re definitely easier than in my day: Even I can change one. They carry logos of Winnie the Pooh and other lovable characters–all presumably a little surprised to find themselves so close, as it were, to the waterline. There are little adhesive strips on the side and wingtips for extra coverage and flair. All very nice, but I’m surprised not to find sensors, in there to register changes in, er, volume or aroma.

After all, we’ve got digital thermometers, digital bottle warmers, digital breastpumps, digital sterilizers, digital swings. I’ve counted more than 100 iPhone programs, or apps, simply for nursery rhymes. A British company has just launched an application that will let a harried father, marooned at work, recite a nursery rhyme over his iPhone which is then synchronized with a remote iPad application where his bed-ready daughter can watch the simulated action unfold—Jack falling down the hill, Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, Baa Baa Black Sheep taking orders for wool.

I’m all for this: Walking into a baby store now is little different to walking into an electronics store.  I’d love to see more of this: I already record little ditties that then loop around so I can go wander off and prepare milk, brush my teeth, write columns, before my offspring notices. It’s not exactly quality time but the recording quality is excellent.

The bit that I don’t get are the nursery rhymes. Everything else is so, well contemporary, and we’re singing ditties that go back to the 14th century? Most of them of questionable taste: throwing people down the stairs for not saying their prayers? Cutting off tails? Marching soldiers up and down hills for no good reason?

I wondered whether this kind of thing was what I wanted my little cherub to know about. So I looked into it. Turns out, as you may know, that a lot of these rhymes were politically subversive. Often they were dangerous parodies of the ruling class. By making them look like they were for kids not only made them seem harmless, but made them easier to pass around and thereby spread.

It was then I realised that nursery rhymes were the social media of their day—a way to distribute information through peer networks with some protection from the powers that be. When one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 gave a sermon on Blackheath he started, simply, with a two line rhyme, asking whether any ruling class existed in the Garden of Eden: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” This was easy to grasp and easy to pass on, and the movement grew.

Nursery rhymes as a  harbinger of the political power of Facebook and Twitter? As long as we keep learning the words to Goosey Goosey Gander I guess we’ll have to acknowledge their abiding power. Helped on, a little, by our iPads, iPhones and other digital rearing technologies. I stand corrected: Still going centuries on, nursery rhymes are about as viral a technology as you can get.

Google and Penguin: Bookending a Revolution

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(my syndicated Loose Wire column.)

As I write this two significant events are taking place: Google has said it will tie up with the American Booksellers Association—the U.S. trade group for independent bookstores—to sell ebooks.

And there’s a conference in Bristol celebrating 75 years of the Penguin paperback.

Both are milestones. And both carry with them great innovation in the book industry, though one sees the future and one doesn’t.

Penguin was set up by a guy called Allen Lane in 1935 because he couldn’t find something decent and cheap to read on the train. So he came up with idea of a paperback book—which had been around, but only for trashy fiction, not serious stuff.

He gave them good covers and made them dirt cheap. And sold them by the truckload. Some of them he sold in a dispensing machine in the Charing Cross Road they called the Penguincubator.

Lane died in 1970, not quite sure what he’d created. On the one hand he’d brought reading to the masses—converting, as he put it, book-borrowers into to book-buyers—but he wasn’t overly excited by the kinds of thing these people wanted to read.

So I’m probably wrong, but if he was around today, I’d like to think he would have seen the future and turned all his stock into ebooks.

Now don’t get me wrong. Part of me doesn’t like this. I worked in bookshops for three years of my life and, frankly, unless I was working for the Peak District Promotion Board I couldn’t think of a better job.

But let’s face it, books are dead. They’re a great technology, and will always be a great technology, and we’re not getting rid of them because they don’t work. We need to get rid of them because they don’t fit this new digital world.

I realized this when I went to visit a guy running a second-hand book business in rural England a few years ago. He was working out of an old electricity sub-station and I’d never come across someone so surrounded by books and yet so miserable.

The substation had two rooms. One had shelves to the roof, laden with books. The other was just a mountain of discarded paperbacks—a tip for all the books he knew he’d never sell. “My job,” he said mournfully, “is to move the books from the shelf room to the tip room.”

Some books were sometimes worth something, but if their price went up on Amazon or some secondhand book website, quickly people would find copies in their attic and the price would plummet again. His business, in a word, was dead.

The truth is that we don’t really know what to do with our books. We love to have them around us, and we probably love to wander around second-hand bookshops, but they’re out of place in this digital age, where all the wisdom of the world is a 22 millisecond search away.

What is the point of wandering around Haye-on-Wye looking for a particular tome when we could find the same thing online and download it to our Kindle in a matter of seconds?

Yes, I know, there’s the thrill of the chase. The joy of being among books, their aroma, of feeling their pages crinkle and crisp in our hands. Of its solid comfort as we hold it under our arm or slip it in coat pocket.

But we can’t afford to indulge ourselves anymore. Books are eating up trees, eating up space, and, most importantly, holding back what Allen Lane might have identified as the logical next step in his revolution: making books available to all.

Books, basically, have to be decoupled from this romantic world and plonked into the digital world of knowledge, of accessible information, of blogs, twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Now we expect our information to be cheap, if not free, and at a finger-tip’s touch. In short, books need to be released from their paper past and converted into something cheap and movable. Into things we can read on trains, on planes, in bed, waiting for friends. Into ebooks.

And this is where Google comes in. If it does it right, it will make Kindles—where you can only read books you bought on Amazon—or iPads—where you can only read books you bought on Apple as absurd as they already sound to my ears.

Google will, I hope, allow you to buy any book you want from any online bookseller you want and read it on any kind of device you want. They’ll give us the same freedom Allen Lane gave our forebears back in 1935.

I hope it ushers in a world where we still peruse physical books in stores, but then we buy a coffee in the bookshop cafe and download the book, all paid on the same bill. The books on the shelves are there just to help us choose.

And, if Allen Lane were on that Exeter station without something decent to read, he could get his books over the air. At a decent price.

It’s not as romantic as the past. But then we’re not in Pride and Prejudice anymore. We’re in a world of digits.

Maybe Mr. Lane wouldn’t have approved of what we were reading, but I’m sure he’d approve of how.