Editor's Note: Concentration vs. Distraction
As is clear from the editorial coverage in this issue of Book Business, the industry is abuzz with talk of the new subscription economy and its impact on how books are discovered, accessed, and monetized. If this is the discussion that has taken center stage, in the wings persists a rumbling over how new technologies and content platforms are affecting the very nature of the book as we know it. Author Nicholas Carr addressed this issue to kick off this year's IDPF Digital Book conference.
Known in part for his 2008 article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr is admittedly suspicious of the ever-deepening role that computers have had in our culture. And though he says he's overcome his "ebook-phobia," he remains doubtful that computer-enabled reading can serve the same purpose as traditional books have.
It's worth spending some time on Carr's assertion here because I think it is an important focal point for the industry. Carr argues that digital platforms are antithetical to the traditional book-reading experience. Revealed by this view are two conflicting forces at play: distraction and concentration.
Carr believes the mind we read with is very different from the mind we use to navigate our everyday lives. "We are always trying to act on or manipulate our environment. When we open a book our attitude and expectations change." Because we understand our role is not to change the book as a work of art, we disengage and are absorbed in the act of reading. If the power of books lies in detachment as Carr suggests, "computer culture" runs counter to this power.
Ceding control of book distribution to Silicon Valley has undermined the culture of book reading, says Carr, because the interests of Silicon Valley are not the interests of the book industry. "Their interests lie in promoting the culture of the computer. When a person is not engaged with the computer, they are not feeding money into the coffers of the internet companies."
Carr identifies this as the cultural and financial power struggle underlying the technological disruption affecting the industry. "Whatever Bezos and [Google's] Larry Page dream of, they are not the dreams of book publishers."
Perhaps Carr was just trying to rile a sleepy conference hall, but I think his argument is a good backdrop for considering the future of the book and the book business. The path of the industry will run a course along how modern people balance concentration and distraction.
Though I'd say that Carr is rightfully suspicious, these types of conversations about how technology is affecting us seem to quickly devolve, degraded by technophobia, ageism, and warnings of an intellectual doomsday. Should we be skeptical of technology and seek to define how it fits into our lives lest it define us? Sure, that's a noble cause. But ultimately technology is like water running downhill: it is an undeniable force that will wash over us and change us inextricably. Get used to it.
That might sound fatalistic, but overall I'm more optimistic than Carr. Very recent history shows us that society is overly-fearful of new technology. In its early days the telephone was feared and hated. Some people worried others would listen to their conversations, that the sounds from telephones were dangerous, that they detrimentally accelerated our social life, and that phones were interruptive to our "normal" face-to-face social interactions. But somehow we managed. We recognized the utility of phones, improved them with enhancements like caller ID (Remember when you had to answer the phone to find out who was calling?), and they have become just one of many tools of communication we manage seamlessly in our lives. Has the telephone made us stupid?
In the end it's not a battle between interactive-social-connected-responsive digital books and traditional books. It's not one or the other. It's books and ebooks and…the list will go on. Ultimately, the only question is whether people will continue to find utility in the book-reading experience—that desire to be absorbed by narrative, the deep understanding that comes from reading a book, the emotional connection and spiritual awakening that millions have found through written communication for thousands of years. I think they will. Do you?
email@example.com | @denis_philly
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.