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December 3, 2008

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Abandon Objects

Love this bit from Clay Shirky:

Businesses don’t survive in the long term because old people persist in old behaviors; they survive because young people renew old behaviors, and all the behaviors young people are renewing cluster around reading, while they are adopting almost none of the behaviors tied to cherishing physical containers, whether for the written word or anything else.

Emphasis mine. I think it’s true!

(Via Alexis Madrigal.)

Posted December 3, 2008 at 5:34 | Comments (10) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Dude, this makes it sound like our generation and the next are full of hippy-dippy, renounce all material objects types. First, this is untrue; I work with eighteen year-olds every day, and they love, love, love books. They even love writing out their essays with pen and paper, like I did when I first went to college. (Well, I wouldn't say I loved it, but that was certainly what I did.)

This is not to say that the market for readers > market for book lovers; I totally think the former's growing faster than the latter.

Second, even the nonreaders *do* love and cherish physical objects; they just don't expect their attachments to be permanent. We're deeply invested in our phones, computers, media players, etc., for about two-four years, until we get new ones. In fact, you could say we love and venerate these physical objects so much that we expect them to be capable of storing and displaying all of our information under any circumstances wherever we go.

What's changed are the parameters of permanence and transferability. Materiality and the physical are going nowhere.

Although, props to CS for name-checking the eternally awesome Aldus Manutius. If I could get five Aldus Manutius T-shirts, I'd wear one every day of the week.

So the first item for sale in the Snarkmarket Store will obvs have to be an Aldus Manutius t-shirt!

Good point re: physicality and attachment -- the iPod and iPhone are testament to that. So cool, so lust-inducing one moment... so passe the next.

I do think there's a time coming -- not that far in the future -- when you'll be able to buy a computer that's more like a really good pair of shoes, or a really good hammer, than it is like the computers of today. That is: an extremely well-crafted object that you can expect to use, with care and upkeep, for many years.

We need to get through this frothy phase first. I'm sure there was a lot of rapid hammer-upgrading and hammer-abandonment in, um, the early days of hammers.

Specifically with respect to books, though, I still think CS is right. Your vision of a super-Kindle with your entire library available in super-PDF form, Tim, is where it's going.

I prefer my serious long-form reading to be on paper, I like taking notes on paper, and I am pretty much your stock "digital native" with little nostalgic attachment to paper. I think Shirky missed part of Gleick's point: that paper books are still very good at being cheap interfaces for immersive linear reading, and that people still want that - not as often as before, so publishers will have to scale down gracefully somehow, but sometimes. Shirky's interpretation fits pretty well with the BoingBoing message of "boo old fogeys" though.

I've heard that argument -- book as near-perfect interface -- and I generally agree w/ it, but at the same time... I wonder.

I liked CS's mention of not being able to search inside of a book. Am I the only one whose fingers sometimes flex to hit command-F when reading a book? Or what about being able to copy-and-paste an interesting section into a blog blockquote? Or all sorts of crazy annotation and collection stuff a la Rachel's imperative?

Clearly these things should be possible.

There's no question that books are *currently* the best interface for reading, well, book-ish material... but I really wonder for how much longer that will be the case.

One new data point: I've been reading, and really enjoying, Paradise Lost... on my iPhone.

I've been meaning to post on something like this over at Wordwright, and I still plan to, so I'll keep this fairly short.

First, I would agree with Tim and even go so far as to postulate that the market for readers has always been substantially larger than the market for book lovers. This fact has simply been lost because for a long time books were nearly the only medium available for extended reading, and this is no longer the case.

Second, I've actually not seen much evidence that all books are hurting. What we keep hearing about is trade fiction and nonfiction, particularly hardcovers. What I'm not hearing much about are disposable books—those mass-market paperbacks that are so popular in airports and so looked down upon in bookstores. From one angle, this is where a segment of the book market can look to survive: be as cheap or cheaper than e-books, and give up any pretense of permanence. Think the book of poetry that one carries to the toilet and rips out pages as they've been read. Or The Da Vinci Code. Same thing.

Third, I think it's very interesting that you've been enjoying poetry (Paradise Lost) on your iPhone, Robin. I think there's something about poetry, maybe the self-sufficiency of each line, that lends itself to electronic delivery in way that prose does not. (I don't think that we'll ever do an e-novel on Revelator, and even short stories stretch things a bit, but poems work great.) Does anyone else get the sense that there's a way that Milton works as an e-book that Proust does not?

Finally, I do want to talk about really well-crafted books as a way to save the book-lover segment of the market, but in order to even begin that discussion, I think it has to be acknowledged that this market is often distinct from the market I cited in point #2. As Tim said, people who love to read and people who love books are not always the same thing, and they aren't always best served in the same ways.

Love Clay Shirky and am currently reading "Here Comes Everybody." He is an interesting presence while reading.

You know we could flip this whole thing and say that young folks (or other folks who tend to the virtual) actually desire a more permanent relationship to their stuff.

Why blow money on a CD or DVD (or paperback book or magazine subscription or newspaper) when it's just likely to get damaged or lost? Does it matter if it lasts forever if I can't get to it anywhere? You want physical/visual access to your data everywhere, you want your objects to be able to access everything, you want to be able to browse, sample, or use all media without forking over cash.

Really it boils down to a rejection of limitations, including physical ones, rather than a rejection of physicality or even permanence as such. And maybe duration is the next limitation to be rejected -- why can't my computer last forever? Why can't I see and save TV shows forever, or as long as I want?

Yeah, I'd like to have *both* digital and paper copies of most books I read. Searching is important, along with copy-and-paste quoting.

People are excited about iPhones as reading interfaces - and

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