Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
I make buggy whips, and business is fine
There has been much in the press lately about how e-books are coming of age with the Kindle. Oh, there will be shakeouts and Kindle may or may not be the default reader of choice when all is said and done, but that’s not the question. The question is about the viability of books on paper and whether the craftspeople who make them have obsolete skills. As one of those craftspeople, I’m interested.
So here’s what I think. I think the book buying public consists of two groups, in the main.
One group—possibly the larger group—is interested in the words and unconcerned with the format. Before Gutenberg, they gathered in the town square to hear what the crier had to say or they waited for Sunday to hear what their pastor had to say or they gathered in a theater or a tavern for the storytelling. After Gutenberg they bought books and newspapers. Today, a lot of the same people get their news and stories from television, radio, the Web. The books they read are likely to be mass market paperbacks, the sort of books you see in grocery and discount stores. They are delighted with the idea of carrying around a lightweight device that can provide enormous quantities of words at the right price, and when the price drops below what they’re paying now, they’ll gladly buy a Kindle or some other reader.
The other group buys books because they like the look and feel and smell of a book. They experience a book visually and viscerally as well as intellectually. An e-book, at least as we currently understand where the technology is going, does not provide a satisfactory experience for this group.
This difference in the way these two groups appreciate books represents a real and fundamental psychological difference between what we shorthand as left-brain and right-brain activities. And as long as there are people who want to keep both sides of their brains activated when they read, I’ll still be able to earn a chunk of my living designing books. Editing is necessary regardless of medium. So that’s not going away anytime soon, either.
Business is good.
Friday, June 12, 2009
The big switcheroo
It seems there are people living in low-income communities who have not managed to make the switch yet. I understand that. People who have chaotic lives or limited skill sets often end up living in low-income areas. So those are the areas where you would expect this problem to arise. And I even understand the comments from social workers who non-judgmentally observe that many families in these areas have their televisions on for many hours each day and are going to have their lifestyle severely disrupted until they can get their converter boxes.
What I don’t understand is the idea that if someone is temporarily without television service they will not be able to hear important emergency broadcasts. There are two problems with this assertion. In the first place, anybody—anybody—can afford a radio. In the second place, when there is severe weather, digital television signals are disrupted anyway. So there is no earthly reason for anyone to rely on television for those announcements.
Less is more
Our television is in the basement, which is in serious need of remodeling before it becomes a comfortable place to sit and watch television. I’ve gotten out of the habit of watching, and I have to admit, as people told me for years, my life has improved as a result. But I’m not preaching that you or anyone else should stop watching. I’m just suggesting that it is really not—not—a necessity of modern life.
The switch to digital television means that signal breakup will become a regular occurrence for many people, and that may lead them to turn off the set in frustration. Maybe they’ll do something else in their spare time. Read a book, perhaps?
Nobody ever argued that getting around by automobile was an improvement on traveling by horse and buggy in the sense of being more pleasant or better for the environment.
In our time, we now have three examples of the same transition, and all have to do with digital communication:
- First we’ve experienced the massive adoption of cell phones. That’s all well and good. The convenience of cell phones is wonderful. But we’ve traded down on the quality of voice communication. When was the last time you had a call between two landlines on which the other person’s voice dropped out or the call was dropped and you had to redial two or three times before giving up? And family calls that were once shared by picking up another extension are now private conversations with one household member who then has to pass the phone around or summarize the call after it’s over. That changes social relationships in a subtle way.
- Out with CRT displays, in with LCD displays. The switch to LCD monitors is saving a tremendous amount of energy, house by house and office by office. The difference is noticeable on electric bills. New hotel rooms can be designed two feet shorter because of flat televisions. Great. But for computer users there’s a subtle loss. An LCD monitor has a fixed native resolution, unlike the analog CRT. Changing the resolution to accommodate a visual problem doesn’t really work (although there are other strategies). And some users are not happy with the image quality, particularly in situations where color matching is critical.
- And now we have broadcast digital television. When the signal drops because of cloudy weather or wind causing a tree to sway, the program is gone. With analog television, a weak signal was still a signal. With digital television, it’s there or it’s not. There’s no such thing as poor but intelligible reception.
At least books will never be obsolete, he said, whistling past the graveyard.