my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.
By Jeremy Wagstaff
A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.
Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.
But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.
By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)
But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.
There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.
Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go.
The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”
Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.
And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.
Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.
I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)
We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.
So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?
Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.
But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.
Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.
So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)
This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.
There’s another thing at work here.
Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.
This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.
And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.
Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.
This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.
I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.
Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.
This podcast is from my weekly slot on Radio Australia Today with Phil Kafcaloudes and Adelaine Ng, wherein we discuss HP buying Palm, students going cold turkey on social media, and China no longer being the spam capital of the world?
To listen to the podcast, click on the button below. To subscribe, click here.
By Robin Lubbock
For years I’ve been meaning to write this post, but it seemed so obvious that I kept neglecting to write this thought down.
I am the publisher. You are the publisher. Anyone with a screen is the publisher. That changes everything. It moves institutions that are publishers on paper or on the air one step further away from the audience. It means newspapers and broadcasters have to find ways to market their wares to the new publishers.
Let me say that again with a little more detail.
In the old days newspapers and broadcasters made selections from a wide range of competing news producers (AP, Reuters, staff, freelancers, etc.) and decided which of those sources would be published on any given day. The newspaper editor decided what would go into the paper, where each story would appear on each page, and therefore what the audience would read.
The person who buys paper as a vehicle for news has the decisions about what appears on that paper made for him by the editor.
But when people started buying screens instead of newspapers that changed. The decisions about what appears on the screen were, and are, no longer made by the newspaper publisher or the broadcaster.
The person who buys a screen, not matter what size, as a vehicle for news, also decides what news will appear on the screen. The screen owner has become the publisher. The people who used to be called the audience have become the publishers.
Each day each member of the new publisher/audience produces a single, individual, unique publication for one person: themselves. That publication includes some e-mail, some news, some productivity applications, some video, some blogs, some comments, perhaps an e-book, some more e-mail and so on.
The power that newspapers and broadcasters used to have to decide what the audience would read, hear and see, is gone. That means the old idea that newspapers and broadcasters are the gatekeepers is also gone.
The institution that used to be the publisher or broadcaster has become just another news producer which has to try to get the new publisher/audience’s attention, in competition with the same organizations that used to compete for its attention.
The old publishers have moved back a level. The new publisher is the audience.
The implications of the audience being the publisher are huge and a little obvious, but deserve a separate post. Coming soon…
And of course the newspapers, broadcasters and booksellers are trying to get their hegemony back by producing tethered devices and apps. But that too is another story.
In the browser-based world we mostly inhabit the publisher audience is still enjoying the fruits of the screen revolution.
This week’s podcast is from my weekly slot on Radio Australia Today with Phil Kafcaloudes and Adelaine Ng:
- Reports of Wikipedia’s demise: Premature?
- Firefox turns five. What future the browser?
- Is Apple refusing to fix computers belonging to smokers?
To listen to the podcast, click on the button below. To subscribe, click here
Intrigued to see that Microsoft has turned a page of its website over to “What people are saying about Windows 7”:
The page is designed a bit like twittefall: a cascade of seeminlgy “live” tweets (their dates and times of posting cleverly removed from the cascade.)
Amazingly, 99% of the comments are positive, or at least neutral:
So I thought I would check to see whether the feed has some filtering. The feed seems to include comments going back several days (the one above is six days old), so I thought it fair to search over that same period. A more nuanced picture emerges. “Windows7 sucks,” for example, throws up at least 20 tweets in the past week, none of them visible in the cascade.
So clearly some sort of filtering is going on. To check I sent out this faux tweet from an unused account and haven’t, 30 minutes on, seen anything:
#windows7 win7 is a disaster. uninstalling it right now
As Lydia Pintscher points out at Amarok Blog, this filtering and pseudo-conversation is all quite unnecessary. It’s clear the majority of people actually quite like Windows 7 (though I’d be interested in their reactions in a few months; my experience down the track has been less impressive.)
The point is that Microsoft would be foolish to allow an unfettered feed—people would quickly cotton on and put all sorts of rubbish in there.
But if it tries to pretend that the page is somehow live, and that it’s a conversation, then they also need to be smarter about reflecting the full range of views out there.
They also need to understand the organic nature of hashtags. The Microsoft website asks users to “join the conversation” by including hashtags #win7 or #windows7 in their tweets—which many were already doing, it’s an obvious step to make—but they also asked those who had bought Windows 7 to include the hashtag #igotwin7.
So far, the number of people who have is, er, two; one of them is Microsoft itself:
Social media lesson #4: You can start a conversation but you can’t control it. Try and you look silly.
Do portraits of them as ASCII art. Amit Agarwal, an India-based blogger of impeccable test and refinement, does some very cool pictures of 100 bloggers. Including that picture of me looking smarmy in the middle of the kampung:
James Fallows points out that not everybody back in 1980 believed the computer would replace the typewriter as a writing implement, and that his prediction that the device would be useful incurred the wrath of, among others, the late David Halberstam. James offered to write some articles on a computer, some on a typewriter, and offer a prize to anyone who could tell the difference. No-one took him up.
I recall Bruce Chatwin saying that he could always tell which books had been written on a word processor and which hadn’t. And, funnily enough, I disagree with James’ assertion that:
As is obvious to everyone now, but as was not obvious to most people then, the “sound” of people’s writing is overwhelmingly their own sound, not that of the ThinkPad or the quill pen or the Number 2 pencil or even, gasp, the Macintosh.
I don’t think the ‘sound’ is the issue. The real difference between the two technologies is that a computer transfers some of the creating process from the head to its RAM. Anyone who has written on a typewriter will know that it’s less painful to compose before committing anything to the page, since the price of correction is so high. So the words, once they come out are much more likely to be the final words one uses. Computers meanwhile, allow indefinite revision, so the composition process takes place on the screen.
I’m not saying one is better, although I think I probably wrote better when I had a typewriter. I used to take more care over my words; I definitely wrote less, too, which has to have been a good thing. When I joined the BBC in 1987, we only had manual typewriters, and my colleagues looked down their nose at my Canon Typestar, which allowed me to compose a line in the tiny LCD before committing it to the paper. In retrospect, I think they were right: My writing went downhill from then on.
It’s been a while since I wrote about software for USB drives/flash drives/thumb drives/key drive, whatever you want to call them. Updating my apparently still popular directory of such software, now more than 18 months old, I came across a few recent bits of news I thought worth passing on:
- IBM now has a version of its Lotus Notes that will run off a USB drive called Lotus Notes on a Stick. This kind of surprised me, given how terrified big companies are of staff wielding USB drives. Still, could be useful for road warriors. What also interesting, as Andrew Charlesworth of vnunet points out, is that the software allows users to update blogs and publish RSS feeds.
- Webaroo, the packaged-for-offline-Internet software, will now run on drives running the U3 installation software. Webaroo whittles down the Internet to a modest size based on your interests and then downloads it into a packet you can save to your computer and view offline. U3 is a standard installed on USB drives to allow them to run programs.
- The visually impaired now have their own USB drive: The Serotek FreedomBox bundles the usual browser, email and other applications but wrapped around the company’s text-to-speech and speech-to-text command interface. I can imagine this would be useful for those people using public computers in libraries or nursing homes, or simply wanting to travel around and use computers that may not have accessibility software installed.