Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Print Extinction Level Event

Is anybody else worried about the possible extinction of paperback books? The decline in newspaper and magazine sales is evidence of a disturbing trend that the experience of reading, specifically print media, is dying away. The fact that you’re reading this, maybe on a tablet, possibly on a smartphone, most definitely on a computer of some sort, is a testament to the continued digitalization of media and the decline of what for millennia was the accepted form. Sayonara papyrus reed paper!

The popular rise in tablets and smartphones has predictably cut printing by nearly 10% according to some IT experts. This should make an environmentalist like myself happy, since less paper means less trees and water being used to make it.

However, I can’t shake this dark, dystopian fear of no longer having a paper trail. Editors and publishers could log in, on a market-driven whim or perhaps government-influenced decision, and “misplace” words, censor ideas, or change the identity and meaning of the whole piece. I’m talking about unsanctioned changes by the author, and this would most likely be long after the author is dead; God forbid a living author having to keep checking his online manuscript for the aforementioned errors.

Writing blogs as I do, I’m worried that even my Google docs are at risk. The cloud makes it easier and easier for third parties to solicit high-profile data and influence ideas to make them more palatable to consumers. You could argue this happened before on a much slower time-scale by market research firms, polling surveys and even king’s councils, and perhaps that’s natural for economies and societies to rule themselves, but the speed that this data, which makes internet videos viral and horrible singers pop sensations, is crunched into corporate policy and market trends is unbelievably fast. No single man or woman is above it. Contrast that with the speed that ideas in books spread and you’ll understand the change that our society is in the midst of.

Unauthorized editing already happens in theatre and film adaptations of books, usually to the begrudgment of readers and the fan base. A powerful studio with millions of dollars and lots of influence (look up the MPAA) comes in and says ‘Hey, this lovely, pastoral children’s story needs to be amped up with special effects and action scenes that never existed in the book because we need to sell 3D glasses and movie tickets to kids (and adults) who will never read the book.’ In fact, Hollywood, and it’s little sister television, is arguably responsible for the low levels of readership in America, contributing to the sad statistic that 20% of Americans did not read a book last year.

Perhaps it’s just paranoia and maybe I read too many books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 as a child, but the possibility of unauthorized editing and potential censorship is still there, and the likeliness of it happening even once is very high. To my knowledge it hasn’t happened yet in digital literature, but we likely wouldn’t hear about it if it did.

Putting those fears aside, you can still make an argument that e-books and e-ink are bad for readership habits. Many people find themselves getting interrupted by the urge to surf the web on tablets and computers, and you can’t really lay out on the beach and read without getting distracted by glare, running out of battery, or worrying about sand and water creeping into the crevices of the device. These things can all lead to losing the desire to read for pleasure.

You may be one of those folks that really enjoys their e-reading, and I don’t want to knock you off your high horse, but I think we can agree there are tangible benefits to the experience of reading a paperback or magazine that can never be taken away. As long as future generations of media producers and consumers understand and respect that, and as long as fire brigades don’t go around burning piles of books and superstates don’t invent languages without seditious ideas, then I think the world will be just fine...

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