News, media & communications

Does poetry need paper?

In July 2010, Amazon reported that sales of e-books had overtaken sales of hardbacks for the first time. Fantastic, cheap books available to everyone, instantly. Good old Amazon. But what are the longer-term implications of this digital revolution? Will writers and readers survive in their current form or will they be replaced by something similar but not quite the same? Chances are that the publishing industry will be transformed, but far from standing on the wrong side of history, many writers, readers (and publishers) will actually benefit from the disruption.

First, the bad news. Books will become just another commodity. People will consume books like they consume baked beans, which is without much thought. Indeed most people won’t read books or, if they do, they will read what everyone else is reading. This is happening already. 40% of Americans read one book or less in 2009 and 1 in every 17 books sold in the US since 2006 has been written by the crime novelist James Patterson. Over in Britain it’s a similar story. In 2009, 133,000 books were published (the highest number on record) but just 500 authors (1%) were responsible for 30% of total sales. So, in the future, we should expect further consolidation, both in terms of what people read and where they buy their books.

We should also expect the concept of the books to change. For example, novels will become collaborative (user-generated), which is to say that they will be ‘written’ with help from their readers with assistance from one or more ‘authors’ (i.e. they won’t really be written by the person named on the cover but their name will be used much in the same way that celebrity chefs run restaurants or write cookbooks). They will also be personalised. If you wish to appear in a novel you will be able to write yourself in. Equally, if you want to change the overall mood or require a specific ending these will be available too. However, this shrinking of context will mean two things. First it will be an accelerant for narcissistic tendencies and second it will narrow peoples’ world view. We will simply use books to reflect the world as we already know it.

Now the good news. People will eventually work out that something significant happens when words that once appeared on paper appear on a screen. Books transform the act of reading. A book is a static work authored by a single individual that requires time to create and to read. With screens, the situation is different. Screens are connected to something much larger (the Internet), which contains other items fighting for the readers’ (and writers) attention. Moreover, language and ideas do not have the same depth on screen as they do on paper. In other words, we will eventually re-discover that the medium is the message. As the antiquitarian bookseller Ed Maggs says: ‘As books become less a quotidian part of our lives, replaced by various digital formats, the extraordinary virtues of the book will be more recognised for what they are … as photography only increased our appreciation of fine art, so digital books with replace only the ugly and the ephemeral, and will sharpen our appreciation of the real thing.’
Ref: Prospect (UK), November 2010, ‘Do writers need paper?’ by T. Chatfiled. See also The Financial Times (UK), 6 November 2010, ‘Balancing the books’ by E. Stourton
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Search words: Books, reading, bookshops
Trend tags: Digitalisation

Newspapers (again)

It is conventional wisdom that newspapers are dying. The evidence is all around us. Recently, for example, stacks of local US papers were shut down, including the famous Rocky Mountain News. In Britain it was much the same story, with 53 national and local papers closing in a 13-month period between 2008 and 2009. The reason, of course, is the shift of local classified advertising for cars, jobs and homes to online. But is that really the reason and is this really the trend? According to OECD research (June 2010) newspapers are actually doing just fine thank you across much of the world. In Japan 92% of adults still read newspapers of the physical variety and 96% in Iceland. Moreover, in Italy, Japan, Norway and France, local papers, while not exactly booming, are doing much better than their national counterparts. Even in the UK things are not all bad. Sir Ray Tindle is an 80-year-old newspaper magnate that you have probably never heard of. He owns no less than 220 local newspapers and has just launched three new papers including the Edmonton Herald and the East Barnet Advertiser. How is this possible? Simple. He keeps things local – very local. For instance, in his view many local papers have lost advertisers because they have grown too big. They have expanded geographically to capture more readers but in so doing have priced ultra-local advertisers out of the picture.
Ref: Monocle (UK), Issue 37, ??? 2010, ‘Talk of the town’ by S. Brook, N. Gocheva, A. Matthews & S. Farrell-Green
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Search words: Newspapers
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Cloud music services

Could the era of owning music be coming to an end? This might sound faintly ridiculous given the way that personal music collections have expanded and thrived due to various digital devices, but it is a serious possibility because of ‘the cloud’. The idea of cloud music services has been around for a while and describes the way that music can be streamed via the Internet, thus allowing users to listen to a music track before the whole file has been transmitted. Pandora, Last FM and Spotify are all early examples, although to date none have had much impact on peoples’ desire to own music.

This may be about to change. Apple recently bought LaLa, a music-streaming company that is able to scan a computer user’s hard drive for music and then replicates the music library in the cloud, thus allowing mobile access. It is still unclear exactly what Apple intends to do with this service, but it is likely that some kind of cloud-based iTunes update is on the cards. Meanwhile, Google is planning a similar service, although both providers may suffer from the difficulties that have plagued the idea from its inception – namely how to create a workable music royalty system. So what’s next? Personally I think that cloud music services are coming and will be here to stay, meaning that in the not too distant future people will have access to their music collections (and those belonging to everyone else) anywhere where there’s a reliable Internet connection. But, and it’s a big but, this does not mean that people will cease owning music. What will happen, I think, is much the same as what will happen with books. The model will move from ownership to access but we will still physically buy copies of the things we really like or that mean something to us.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 4 September 2010, ‘Clouding over, strong chance of music’, by M. Campbell
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Search Words: Music, cloud computing
Trend tags: Digitalisation

The rise of Militainment

The word ‘militainment’ evolved to describe public entertainment that celebrates the military. But perhaps the term is more useful to understand the growing convergence or blurring between entertainment and warfare because it accurately describes the way that the military is using computer gaming to aid the real life recruitment and training of future soldiers, which is in turn rapidly transforming how the public perceives warfare.

Using games to simulate war is, of course, nothing new. What’s different this time is scale and influence. For example, America’s Army, a US government-funded military training and recruitment game, is one of the most downloaded games of all time. To play America’s Army you have to log on via the US Army’s recruitment site. A 2008 study by MIT found that ‘30% of all Americans aged 16-24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined’. The cost of developing this game? $3.28 million per year over the past decade versus a recruiting budget of $8 billion annually.

If you haven’t heard of America’s Army, how about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? This game pulled in $310 million in sales within one day of release. Compare this to the biggest grossing movie of all time, Avatar, which racked up a paltry $27 million in its first day. Or how about the fact that while 70,000 young people joined the US Army in 2009, more than 4.7 million stayed at home on Veterans’ days to play war games on computers.

Worldwide, the war game genre is possibly the most significant sector of the gaming market and it is estimated that there are more than 350 million regular players of video games worldwide. Clearly there are benefits – why else would the US military spend $6 billion per year on virtual realities? Virtual wars and other simulations save millions if not billions on military training while simultaneously saving real world lives.

But there are significant downsides.One issue is that the more realistic these games become, the greater the distortion between real life and fantasy. Clearly virtual exercises are the way to go if real life military resources include screen-based weapons, remotely controlled aerial drones and joy-stick controlled robots, but there is a danger that virtual training will eventually edge out real life understanding.

Moreover, are young men brought up playing Grand Theft Auto going to feel less guilt if they run over someone in the real world using a virtual interface? In other words, does virtual war desensitise combatants in real theatres of combat? The argument here is that virtual violence means that war feels less real and therefore that the perpetrators of real life violence feel less empathetic towards their victims. And if this is true now imagine, for a moment, what might happen in the future when designers create ‘mixed realities’ by marrying physical sets and equipment with virtual foes.

Put another way, what happens when Walt Disney and Hollywood team up to fight the Taliban using 3D glasses, haptic gloves and ‘scent collars’ that create microbursts of cordite? Or how about what happens when intelligence reports migrate from paper formats to screens with sensory add-ons that allow readers to play out certain scenarios? I imagine the answer would include disorientation followed by a disconnection from reality and real life risks. In other words, people will have a weaker sense of what is really going on.
Ref: Foreign Policy (US), March/April 2010, ‘Meet the Sims … and shoot them’ by P.W. Singer. New Scientist (UK), 6 November 2010, ‘Face to face’ by M. Kaplan www.newscientist.See also ‘Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century’ by P.W. Singer.
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Search words: War, training, games, gaming, digitalisation, entertainment
Trend tags: Virtualisation

Will the iPad save the book business?

There has been much speculation recently about what the iPad will do to the publishing industry. The hope of publishers is that it will bring instant e-riches or, at the very least, create more of a level playing field between booksellers and book retailers such as Amazon. E-Books themselves are certainly booming. In 2009, sales increased 170% over the previous year and some pundits predict that e-books will eventually account for between 25% and 50% of all book sales. Good news, possibly, but not for physical bookshops that are almost wholly dependent on the sale of physical titles. In the US, the number of independent booksellers has fallen from 3,250 in 1999 to 1,400 in 2010 and such stores now only represent 10% of book sales.

So are independent booksellers on the verge of extinction? Good bookshops will survive. Like good libraries they offer respite from the digital era. They are spaces in which people can browse and have serendipitous encounters with information and ideas. But the rest will probably disappear, not least because static books will eventually become things of the past for most readers. Many will evolve into interactive objects embedded with audio and video and other interactive features. Hence bookstores (the physical variety) with have to become hyper-niche (or hyper-local) or else they will have to figure out a way to compete in the digital world where books compete against all other leisure activities for consumers’ attention. This is a world where people will demand instant ‘tastes’ of potential experiences, for example, expecting free downloads of opening chapters before they commit to buying a whole book.

I’m not for a minute saying this is a good thing. In many ways it isn’t. Moreover, print culture will not die out altogether because it offers readers a better experience in many ways. For example, some time ago the CEO of The Economist, Andrew Rashbass, commissioned research into how readers read The Economist. He found that people make weekly ‘appointments’ with the magazine and that publications such as his offered an ‘immersive reading experience.’ In short, there is no single future for the book, there are several, and chances are that each future will be wholly different experience appealing to wholly different sets of people for wholly different reasons. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Ref: The Observer (UK), 19 December 2010, ‘Publishers take note: the iPad is altering the very concept of a “book”’ by J. Naughton New Yorker (US), 26 April 2010, ‘Publish or perish’ by K. Auletta.
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Search words: Books, iPad, Apple, publishing
Trend tags: Digitalisation