Sunday, May 4, 2008

In Brief: Two Takes on Writing and Digitalization

--I appreciate that Annalee Newitz’s column for Alternet is generally thoughtful and forward-thinking, but her take on the benefits of publishing online is myopic. After coming up with a broad interpretation of “publishing” online, she writes the following:

“…books can be burned. All copies of a book can be wiped out by one crappy political regime bent on censorship. Online it's much more difficult to burn a book. Just try deleting a book or movie or sound file you want suppressed. Ten copies pop up elsewhere. Then 10,000 copies. And they're stored on servers all over the world, in countries where your shock troops can't reach, in high school kids' closets where even their parents can't reach.

“Sure the oil reserves will run dry, or an electromagnetic pulse could wipe all of Google's server farms clean. Then you'd want those books as backups. But I don't think electricity itself is something we'll ever lose as a civilization. There are just too many ways to make it: water, air, sun, the motion of your legs as you ride a bicycle—all can be converted into enough energy to boot up a laptop and read what's been written there.”

Part of what Newitz is arguing is true; the Internet’s distributive capabilities means that material published online can spread rapidly enough to avoid complete elimination from a political authority. She’s also right in that online activity will likely survive even if our production of energy changes drastically in the future. But she completely ignores some (quite obvious) shortcomings. As an example, if PopMatters were to crash tomorrow and never go back online, I would still have backups of my reviews on my home computers. But most of my reviews would be completely gone from the Internet. And if I didn’t have backups, that’s all she wrote for several months worth of work. Even if someone doesn’t deliberately delete online written content, that content can accidentally disappear quite easily in a technological mishap.

More glaring is an issue that a commenter mentions: the Internet “is going to last only as long as there is enough money behind it to keep it going.” Like I said above, I think the Internet’s going to be around for a while. The mention of money is important, though. Why doesn’t Newitz consider how money determines online access? How telecommunication companies want to compromise “net neutrality” for financial reasons? Or even how online publication can require a writer to pay continual fees—whether for domain rights or for some type of subscription—to ensure that content doesn’t disappear? I get the feeling that Newitz is arguing from the standpoint of the Internet as a radically democratic tool. And it certainly can be, but financial and corporate considerations just as certainly affect its potential for expression, which in turn affects its potential as a site of storage.

--Nate Anderson’s solid coverage for Ars Technica on the issue of digital books continues with this March entry: “Book lovers have emotional bond with paper.” As he reports, a UK survey about digital entertainment found the following:

“People are more attached to their books than they are to their satellite television, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, social networks, video games, blogs, DVDs, and P2P file-swapping…

“That's not great news for the e-book market, and follow-up questions only showed how entrenched paper books are in the public imagination. When the survey asked about people's emotional attachment to paper books, 53 percent of respondents said that they would ‘never’ or would ‘hate’ to stop using them, and another 24 percent said they would be ‘uncomfortable.’ ”

Obviously, it would be helpful to know if responses are similar in other countries. Moreover, there’s the unanswered question of just how well the Amazon Kindle and Sony E-Reader are selling (see here and here; also, as I write this, Amazon has announced on their front page that the Kindle is back in stock after being sold out for a lengthy period.) Still, the survey that Anderson references cuts to the core of the issue: are e-books compelling enough to create a large-scale shift away from paper books? And the answer—at least at this point—would have to be a no.

Something to consider regarding this issue is the fact that the e-book industry is attempting to follow a similar model to the digital music industry, where convenience is the primary selling point. (In other words, having numerous books at the touch of a button is more convenient than carrying around one paper book or a small number of paper books.) Nevertheless, the problem that remains is the experience factor, which is a chief complaint among the survey respondents. Digital music consumers have generally been willing to forgo the tactile pleasures associated with previous music media formats, such as taking the shrink-wrap off a new CD, looking at liner notes, and so forth. But books are completely different. When you are reading a book, you are engaging in a constant state of touching and/or looking at the actual book. I think that this is a significant factor in the emotional attachment that is associated with books and with reading, and it’s a factor that, for the most part, isn’t as intense with regard to music.

Accordingly, when a survey such as this one finds that over three-quarters of respondents are at least reluctant to give up paper books, it’s fair to interpret that as an ominous sign for e-book manufacturers. This isn’t to say that Sony, Amazon, and book publishers will fail to establish themselves; rather, the experience—the simple act—of reading will likely circumscribe their market share.

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