Any time I feel I’ve expressed an opinion clearly in writing, it takes only a single visit to Dan Hill’s website to burst my bubble. His latest post on newspapers and the evolution of news publishing is so concise and exact as to make me feel that further comment on the topic may be unnecessary, at least for a while.
There’s been a lot of advance mourning for the book this year. Each article that touches on digital books is required to include a quote that declaims the loss of the physical, the feel, look, and smell of the bound object.
Many of my favorite things in life are the byproducts of inefficiency. After all, greatness is more often than not the result of a monumental effort – it’s not very fun to celebrate something that comes easy. The erector set intricacy of the Eiffel Tower, the ornate oak cases of old radios, cowboys, the apollo missions – things that require a colossal effort get more recognition. Eventually they’re all replaced by systems underlaid with massive engineering but relatively simple, reliable and easy on the surface – office towers, transistors, cattle cars, communications satellites. The new might outperform but it can’t precede. This is the center of Not Building Things Like They Used To. At the same time, the newest and most far reaching technologies – our current moonshots – are generally either so miniature or so esoteric that they are hard to appreciate. It’s easy to equate the Saturn V as a 20th Century Parthenon, but the CERN supercollidor and carbon nanotubes don’t capture the imagination quite as directly.
There’s a similar process at work in our daily lives. The wonderful inefficiency of a butcher and greengrocer versus a supermarket. Freeways supplanting the old route system. The disappearance of phone booths as a public icon. It’s impossible to predetermine nostalgic appreciation – facebook? iphones? – but I can’t help but feel that things are moving quickly enough now that there’s not enough time for a system to become ubiquitous enough to be missed. Nostalgia has been replaced by retro. Mind you, I’m not really complaining.
Where this all comes to a head with me is that I really, really like bookstores. I like second hand shops, independents, big box megabooklands, you name it. And even if you give the physical object some longevity, it’s pretty clear to me that within the next decade I won’t be getting the majority of my published reading material out of a physical store.
Mind you, I’m already an e-reading convert. I fully realize the advantages of a tagged, hypertextual library, and I’m looking forward to it. The real problem is that browsing or shopping for things in a virtual setting doesn’t hold a torch to walking around a room. Granted, it’s massively more efficient – no need to amass piles of paper and plastic and array them around a large space on shelves, statically organized and gathering dust. If you know what you need than there’s no contest. But it’s not really a secret that shopping as a pastime has not migrated to the internet. Nobody, not even the the most hardened futurist, is suggesting that, say, clothing stores are going away in the near future. This is a case where the inefficiencies are going to be preserved by popular decree. Granted, stores have consolidated, many have gotten bigger. But it has and probably will stay a physical thing.
My problem is that the things I love most are largely able to be digitized and sold easily on the internet. When they did this with music, I was fine with it. The great local stores are by and large surviving, and I always avoided Virgin Records like the plague it was. I never collected vinyl and browsing for CDs isn’t that fantastic of an experience. I can’t wait for the point where I don’t have to deal with physical objects to watch a movie – dear god that has been a long time coming (although I hope theatres stick around for a while).
However, books are an unfortunate hybrid. I want to have some inefficiency thrown in my face. I often go to a bookstore not knowing what I want to pick out, wanting to see other people, to hang out and maybe get a coffee. I feel that most people have the same opinion. This collective desire is probably strong enough that, even if every last book was only sold digitally, there will probably still be some semi-public marketplace for the purchasing and enjoyment of literature. And while I’m inevitably going to mourn the missing piles of paper, there might be something to this new idea.
Most thinking about digital shopping still has it happening at home. It should be increasingly obvious that this is a total farce. If you’re not tethered to the wall with your computer you’re as (or maybe more) likely to be using it on the street, at a cafe, or under a tree. People are now growing up in a world where the majority of their media is completely mobile. The end result of all of this is most likely going to a dramatic redefinition of public spaces, uses, and mores. And hopefully some of them will be good enough to be missed when they’re gone.