Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Do ebooks create a disconnect?

By Steve Weddle

If I see a book on my shelf, I have an easier time remembering whether I've read it than if I see the title on my library list on my Kindle page.

I hadn't really given that much thought, until Lein Shory sent me this piece about Jason Lanier's new book, WHO OWNS THE FUTURE.

To me a book is not just a particular file. It’s connected with personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And what I’m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they often think of them as really differently as just data points that you can mush together. They’re divorcing books from their role in personhood. 
I’m quite concerned that in the future someone might not know what author they’re reading. You see that with music. You would think in the information age it would be the easiest thing to know what you’re listening to. That you could look up instantly the music upon hearing it so you know what you’re listening to, but in truth it’s hard to get to those services.I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.
So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.
The whole article is pretty cool and you can read it here.

And while I don't know that I buy into the whole "personhood" thing, I do dig the beats he's dropping down about how the book and author can become "decontextualized" to a certain extent.

In non-fiction, as Lanier seems to suggest, we might get more of an "absolute truth" sort of thing, but I wonder whether this is creeping into our fiction reading, as well.

If I am reading a p-book, I am looking at the cover each time I start to read it. The author's image is on the back somewhere. The top of the page might have the title of the book, the author's name. I'm surrounded by the book.

If I'm reading the e-book, I'm just looking at a few paragraphs from location 12,614. The name of the author is not right there. When I pick the book up tomorrow, I'm just picking up a blank slate, literally. Then I slide the power switch, and I'm at location 36,882, without ever again glancing against the identity of the author.

The book, the actual words of the book, are becoming removed from the packaging. I'm not arguing that suddenly you're faced with generic writing. Packaging or not, I could tell Dorthy L. Sayers from Patricia Highsmith, a hawk from a handsaw.

I suspect audiobooks exhibit more of this dissociation as you're not even reading. You just have these sounds floating around your head as you pedal your basement bicycle at too-damn-early in the morning.

Maybe the future does have us pulling away from the cult of the author.


Brian Lindenmuth said...

"It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was."

A little like the old days (no internet, not as much access to information databases) when I caught a song on the radio part way through that segued into another, and another, then a series of commercials. And I never caught the name of that song.

Or how about when I started watching a movie on TV part way through, enjoyed the hell out of it and never knew what it was called.

But we're talking books right?

So how about when I go to a used book store, find a book, get really excited, and buy it. Only to come home and realize I've got two other copies.

It's like we're taking something that was always there and trying to pretend it's new.

The first time I heard Purple Haze did I have to know it was by Jimi Hendrix to full enjoy it? The first time I watched Street of Fire did I have to know what it was called to fully enjoy it? If I grab an anthology and start reading a random story do I have to know who it is by or what it is called to enjoy it? Of course not. But I do have to know that set of names to consume more product but that person. So what are we really talking about here?

Side note: I've actually found finding a name of a song to be very easy these days. Which incidentally has led to more purchases of albums by artists who may have not gotten my money before. So maybe they weren't trying hard enough.

Steve Weddle said...

You'd argue that we're LESS disconnected now?
Because we can type lyrics into Google?
Because we can read an author's blog?
Because we can look at CAST & CREW on the DirecTV guide and figure out where we know that chick in the movie from?

Dana King said...

I had what I thought was a good comment ready to go, but see Brian beat me to it.

I've always had trouble remembering titles, which is why I've kept a spreadsheet of every book I've read for the past six years. As for the author, if his or her writing is so undistinguished I can't recognize them when I see them again, I probably didn't want to read any more in the first place.

I read about 50-50 now, and I can't say I enjoy one more than the other. The only difference is the pride of ownership when I open the box from Amazon and see and smell books in there, or look at favorites on my shelvs.

John McFetridge said...

I think this is part of the changing ownership of everything - it goes along with file sharing. We will pay a fee for access to everything (to some anonymous corporation that owns the infrastructure we connect to) instead of buying things individually.

This is a huge shift, really, where we'll go from owners to renters. Somehow I doubt there will be much in the way of rent-controls....

Steven J. Wangsness said...

"Maybe the future does have us pulling away from the cult of the author."

So sad. I was looking forward to having a cult following some day.

Jack Badelaire said...

I'll agree with Brian - that "cafe music" example made no sense. How was that any different than hearing a song on the radio 20 years ago?

With regards to "owners" vs. "renters", I think it's more and less pervasive than one thinks. Every piece of software you probably use right now is merely licensed to you - you don't "own" it, you pay for the access to use it as long as you don't violate the EULA. Everyone who wets their pants over Amazon's proprietary file format, or subscription-based services and so forth should sit down one day and read the End User Licensing Agreements on the software they rely on every day.

Does the digitization of information change the relationship between owner and provider? Sure. Data on a hard drive or in the cloud is different than a paperback sitting on your shelf. But I can't take that paperback and make unlimited copies of it and back it up to a cloud server or put it on a USB key in case of flood or fire. I can't forget it at home and yet instantly start reading it where I left off on my cell phone. I can't lend it to a friend on the other side of the world with a couple of mouse clicks and a few taps on a keyboard.

And the best part is, paper isn't going away. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, if someone really wanted a paperback (or "synth-paper-back") copy of one of my books, they could buy one.

I feel like people fear the shift to digital media because they think the content only exists in these supposedly intangible, magical will-o'-wisps of ones and zeros that float away and disappear as soon as you try to hold them. I actually blame this on the obfuscation of how our modern technology works by the change in the nature of how we use that technology. Thirty years ago most people who used a computer every day had to have a fundamental understanding of file paths, processes, data types, and so forth. Today, an iPhone is practically a magic mirror - you "talk" to it, and it does things for you, but most people haven't the slightest concept of how it works. I work in higher education technology management, and the degree to which people have lost the understanding of how computers work is outright shocking. It's no wonder these same people fear digital data - it's essentially sorcery to them, and with magic comes superstition.

John McFetridge said...

Well, yes, with magic comes superstition. But with ownership comes power. I think we're at the beginning of a shift and, as you say, those user agreements are just something we click on and don't think about. But someone has thought about them in great detal.

With ownership also comes equity and that's where the gaps really start to show up (probably more important than wage gaps).

The iPhone is a magic mirror and your access to everything (that we think is available, we just have to trust it) as long as you're making your monthly payments.

(maybe I read too much John Brunner... ;).

Oh, and the biggest difference between the streaming service and the radio is that the radio had a person come on and tell you what song you just heard and if you wanted, you could even phone that person and often talk to them and ask them to play that song again.

I'm so old I remember when that guy got the job on the radio because he knew a lot about music.