Inside the Information Society: What about books?

Twenty years ago, as the internet took off, a lot of people thought the days of books were numbered. The very first issue of the journal info, for example, back in 1999, carried an article on ‘The Dim Future of the Book’ by American academic Eli Noam, which argued that: 

Books were merely the receptacle [of content], the transmission vehicle, the storage bin. A new and creative medium is knocking at the door, and we should embrace it, even as we mourn for the passing of an old love.

The dawn of the internet, it was suggested, would see the end of the era that began with the invention of printing with movable type (depending on your viewpoint) in Asia in the thirteenth or Europe in the fifteenth century. Online publishing and screen-reading would replace the book (and other media) as the principal platform for sharing facts and fun.

Well, so they have in some ways, but so also they haven't. Books aren’t dying as a platform, it seems, but revitalising. Let’s ask why and what that implies for what we think about our changing media.

The new’s not necessarily good news

The idea that new ways of doing things will, should and must replace old ones has been widespread within the ICT community. Remember that old Facebook motto ‘move fast and break things’? That represented not just a business model, but a widespread attitude, and a belief in the inherent superiority of novelty (plus a rather casual attitude, as Mark Zuckerberg’s later admitted, to bugs and quality of service). 

It’s also been erroneous. New ways of doing things are often more efficient but people’s goals and values aren’t encompassed by efficiency alone. Established ways of doing things have often been successful because they work for people, because people like them, rather than just because no-one’s yet invented a digital alternative. For many people, and for many purposes, familiarity is as important as innovation, if not more so.

And so new platforms, no matter how efficient, don’t necessarily displace old platforms, nor should they be expected to. The old plus the new is likely to be better than either alone. A better motto might have been ‘move fast but keep things’.

Changing media

There’s history here of course. A century ago, many people thought that cinema would doom the theatre. Half a century ago, they thought TV would doom both cinema and radio. Recorded music was once thought to be an existential threat to its live counterpart.  

These have not been the outcomes. New platforms have offered extra ways of accessing drama, entertainment, information, music; but most old platforms have responded by emphasising what only they can offer or they can offer best; and they’ve adapted and adjusted business models to the competition and the opportunities new platforms have provided. There’s been restructuring (and there’ve been quite a lot of losers) but there hasn’t been destruction.

  • Theatres and concert promoters have responded, for example, by emphasising live experience (there’s a big difference, I assure you, between seeing Metallica or Kylie live and watching them on video). The loss of revenue from sales of recorded music that’s happened in the last twenty years has led to a revival of live performance by artists for whom it’s once again the major source of income. More performers now publish music on social media, not least because it helps to bring crowds in to see them live. Streaming has replaced CDs as CDs replaced vinyl but that’s merely a change in the format of recorded music, not the nature of recorded music or of music generally.

  • Cinema has emphasised the things that big screens do better than small screens. Sadly for the quality of drama, that’s often put more emphasis on scariness than plot and gimmickry than talent, but it’s also led to new kinds of originality. More and more cinemas, like bookstores (see below) have invested in attracting customers by offering a more fulfilling time than merely watching movies.   

Sure, there has often been a falling-off of interest and engagement in old media as these adjustments happen. But those old media haven't died, they've found new ways to live. They interact now with new media and content in a more diverse range of entertainment/information.

So what of books?

To be fair, Professor Noam didn’t say in 1999 that books would die, just that the extras that could be made available by multimedia would make them less attractive than digital alternatives. He acknowledged that people liked the look and feel of books, but thought them clunky ways of sharing information. Imagine, instead he suggested, ‘light and luminous panels of multiple pages, comfortable in the hand, with clear text, bright pictures and attractive sound and video.’

The logic here, which Noam and others shared, is that book sales would fall and backlit panels – the Kindle and its peers, not yet then on the market – would take their place. Information sources, he envisaged, would become entirely digital; novels and other 'old-fashioned' forms of culture might remain in print. ‘In that process, books will become the comfortable medium,’ he said, ‘the formulaic medium, the unchallenging medium. And yes, maybe, even the dumb medium.’

What has happened?

Sure there’s been a shake up in book publishing and distribution.

  • Official documents, reports and other information resources are now commonly published online rather than in print.  

  • Academic journals and professional publications are routinely accessed online rather than from libraries or bookshelves.  

  • As with official documents, this represents a shift of information distribution to online from printed platforms (remembering that information's only part of what is published).

  • Many bookshops have closed and major bookstores have consolidated – though this has been as much a consequence of competition from online retailing, especially from Amazon, as of a reduction in numbers of books published or sold.

Yet at the same time, look what’s been happening recently in Britain.

  • Sales of Kindles, their peers and electronic books have not taken off as was expected; in fact, they’ve peaked at around 30% of the market, a share that's dropped in the last year. 

  • Book sales, by contrast, are once more going up. Booksellers’ income from hardbacks rose by over 30% in Britain in the last year or so, with increases in both fiction and non-fiction (and a big increase in a different platform, audiobooks).

  • Publishers and bookshops have diversified to attract customers in different ways – for example, by encouraging rather than discouraging in-store browsing, introducing cafes, holding regular events with authors. Their fate looked terminal ten years ago; now they’re back on track.

  • Book festivals and book clubs have flourished, not foundered, in the digital age.

This is not the death of the book, or of the book trade, but their adaptation. Books remain a living medium, not a dumb one.

Why so?

I’ll offer three explanations, though more could be proposed.

First, technocrats have underestimated the diverse values that people associate with books. They like the look and feel of them. They value their permanence, rather than finding it a nuisance.  Books are associated with status and identity. Handling one, turning its pages, is just more pleasurable than tapping on a Kindle.

Second, the markets for different kinds of books are different (another point that Noam recognised). There’s an especially important distinction between information (which changes constantly) and entertainment (where permanence is more important). To put it simply, we want data in manuals and medical advice to be updated, which suits online publishing, but we want the stories with which we’re familiar to stay the same. If I go back to a film or book, I don’t want to find it ending differently each time. This is truest of all with children’s books – try changing the ending of a bedtime story and you'll hear the howls of rage – but it’s true as well of crime novels and science-fiction, of poetry and classic literature. 

Third, Amazon’s online market may have cut the ground from under many bookshops but it’s also stimulated book sales by making more books more readily available to more people, and at lower prices.  Bookshops have responded creatively, by offering things that Amazon cannot (see above) in order to attract new customers instore. This is rejuvenation not decline.

In conclusion

Of course, none of this may last. As with so much in the emerging digital society, change is very rapid. The revitalisation of the book may prove, in time, to be short-term. But I hope not. The Internet should add to human culture, not junk what’s gone before.

I’d suggest three points to take away:

  • Users should continue to cherish the old as well as welcoming the new.

  • Technologists should pay more attention to the cultural values which people place on the tools and resources with which they are familiar, rather than seeing them as yesterday’s ideas that have to be replaced.

  • Cultural enterprises should focus on adapting to new markets, identifying where physical businesses have niche advantages over virtual competitors, integrating business models with new platforms and types of customer behaviour.

Maybe now, as well, it isn’t books that are most threatened by digital alternatives, but newspapers. I’ll take a look at what’s happening to them next week.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.


Image: Lamiz Cafe Valiasr, Tehran, Iran, by Alireza Attari

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