At The Wheeler Centre

As mentioned a few posts ago, I did a panel at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne with a bunch of literary luminaries. And it reminded me that the e-book thing is a million miles away from many folk. There’s still some compartmentalisation about screens and devices and print and paper – which is understandable – and point to the challenges ahead for everyone. Anyhow, if anyone has the patience, here’s what I said that night:

What will reading be like in fifteen years?

Academics spend most of our lives struggling to define exactly what it is we’re talking about. Given that I only have a few minutes, I’ll resist the temptation to break down the question any more than is absolutely necessary. But I think there’s two parts to tonight’s question.

The first is “What reading technology will we be using in 15 years?”

The second is “Will people still be reading long-from texts for information and entertainment?”

The answers to which are “a screen of some sort” and “yes”.

Yes, I think that people will be reading long-form texts for information and entertainment in fifteen years time. Reading books. But I think they will be doing it on screens, not paper. Which is where my definition of books differs from many people… There’s a particular view of screen technologies that suggests they are best used for moving images, stunning graphics or short, concise bite sized chunks of information. That the *only* way to read a long-form text is from print on paper.

I have a problem with that point of view. Because it’s not true and it’s determinist. And whilst I hope to be truthful, I’m not a determinist – that is I don’t believe that technologies have attributes which *determine* our actions. Certainly, technologies have constraints – but they also have possibilities.

And putting aside prejudices, a screen has as many possibilities as a piece of paper. Ultimately they are both nothing more than display technologies. They are both, to introduce yet another analogy, merely blank canvases. And just as a piece of paper can carry words, illustrations and photographs, then a screen can do the same. Those who refuse to accept substitutes for paper are simply confusing the form with the content; the object with the ideas.

Is is possible to publish to a screen the way we publish to paper? Of course it is. We do it all the time. Screens are already more than adequate replacements for paper in many areas of our day to day lives. Letter-writing, form-filling, bill paying, report reading. All those things that used to involve paper now exist far more comfortably on screen.

Is it possible to publish different genres on a screen the way we do to paper, from novels to magazine articles, from poetry to op-ed columns? Of course, we do it all the time. I suspect that most of us read more stories on the screens via the world wide web than we do on paper. And increasingly, longer forms – books –  are being read on screens .

Because we are now, happily at a point of technical development where screens are now portable and readable enough for many people to use them to replace paper. We’re living at a time when a range of perfectly usable e-reading devices is now becoming available.

A recent piece in New York Times debunks the notion that reading from screens causes eyestrain – instead citing opthalmolgists who make the argument that different screen technologies work better in different contexts. For many of us, font size and available light are the key constraints – everything else – including the choice of paper or screen – is actually irrelevant. And a survey of 1,000 e-reader owners (yes there are that many of us) in November by the NPD group in the US found that  93% were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their device. Only 2% reported dissatisfaction. Now I know that there are only low numbers of people with e-readers out there and they’re likely to be fairly generous in order to justify their purchases, but even Peter Garrett in his heyday didn’t get a 93% satisfaction rating.

So there’s evidence to suggest that those who have tried reading on screens (using e-readers) *like* electronic books – and it is only those who refuse to try anything other than their normality of the printed book are resistant.

The screen is coming, and will surely be ubiquitous within fifteen years.

Which brings us to the other part of the question. *What* will we be reading? Others (and Margaret might have done this in her piece) suggest that the shift from print to screen will mean the death of the type of long-form reading. That the inter-creative multimedia possibilities of the brave new digital world will sound the death knell for the type of reading and writing that most of us have grown up with. Indeed, some are celebrating that possibility.

Kevin Kelly foreshadows a new kind of screen literacy where users become adept at manipulating and understanding moving images. And there are others. At a Conference last year, I enjoyed a (shall we say) vibrant discussion with a policy wonk who seemed to be making the argument that reading is a hard skill to learn, so if we can find ways to impart information without requiring kids to read, of educating without the need to read, then no child would be left behind. I’m paraphrasing so if this makes a twitter feed somewhere, I apologise for oversimplifying – the Western Australian chardonnay was particularly refreshing that evening.  But it is the extreme end of a meme which champions multimedia, and the death of reading. Replaced by movies, videogames and interactive experiences.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a gamer from way back, I used to be a multimedia producer and I love the the possibilities of the new. But there’s a tendency to think that new media forms *replace* old media forms, when in reality they *displace* them. Nudge them into exploring the limits of their potential, whilst maintaining their very essence. And so it will be with books. Despite all the developments in media forms over the last century, the act of reading words will remain.

As interesting is the proposition that our attention spans are shorter and with the new technologies, we’re only capable of reading 140 characters at a time. I don’t buy that either – sure there’s evidence that a lot of people only read short form texts; but given the right text, words on a page still matter for many. And don’t forget we have a habit of seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses – there probably was no golden age where everybody read novels for hours at a time. After all, Dickens was originally published in serial form.

It’s not the screen, by itself, that will change our reading habits. If people aren’t reading long-form texts in fifteen years time, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. And by ourselves I mean the writers, editors, media producers, publishers that we all are in this so-called 2.0 world. If we want people to be reading the kind of works that need to be read – novels, substantial non-fiction – then we have to write them.

To paraphrase a former US president. It’s the writing, stupid.

As an example, there’s a trend in newspaper websites – particularly Australian ones –  to highlight different stories on screen editions than in printed editions. So inconsequential tech stories, gossip and sex scandals get the emphasis at the expense of investigative journalism which is buried deep in the site. The on-line editors argue that they’re just giving people what they want, that the constraints of a screen lends itself to short, bite-sized chunks of content of little value.

But such an approach is selling the screen short – and destroying the long-term value of the masthead. Within fifteen years, screens will be as commonplace as paper for many people’s reading – and just as there is currently demand for good writing now, there will be demand for good writing then.

If we want the reading to continue, the writing must lead the way.

In short, I think arguments about what reading will look like in fifteen years are pretty much over. There may be a flurry of activity as we all grapple with the new possibilities. But we’ll still be reading books as we have always known them, only they won’t be on paper, they’ll be on a screen of some sort. Of much greater interest is what this means for the book trade; for publishers, booksellers, authors – because electronic books have the potential to be disruptive – their ease of distribution, their revamped economics will make the next fifteen years very interesting indeed. But there is not the time tonight for that particular discussion.

In The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams wrote:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

We’re on the cusp of a new natural order of things, and I say ‘bring it on!’


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