Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Magpie's Library

If you've read some of my earlier posts, you know that I'm not entirely entranced by the prospect of ebooks seizing a commanding market share from ordinary books full of pages to keep the covers apart. As in many other fields, the headlong charge toward advancement at any cost is being done without regard to the potential consequences - the overriding thought seems to be "wouldn't it be cool if we did this?" instead of "what would happen if we did this?"

On April 4, the Slipstream section of the New York Times ran Brad Stone's article "Is This the Future of the Digital Book?", examining the efforts of online entrepreneur Bradley Inman to reinvent fiction for the Internet generation, combining "great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream" into works intended to be read on mobile platforms. The concept is called a "vook," I suppose a combination of "video book," which Stone speculates "might just represent a possible future for the beleaguered book industry."

Interesting on its own, isn't it? It seems that way to me, though I can hardly be sure because I am most emphatically not part of the vook's target market - the only "mobile device" I own is a watch with a big hand and a smaller hand. Nevertheless, the more niches we have in which to indulge our creativity, the richer our culture will be and we'll all be better off as a result. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the habits that something like a vook would encourage, and the constant, viscous undercurrent of assumption that the day of the book is ending.

"Even worse," Stone writes, "on multipurpose reading devices like the iPhone, more immediately gratifying pastimes like video games are a click away for readers with short attention spans."

The way I see it, that one sentence is ground zero of the argument as to why vooks are necessary, that otherwise people won't read them because they're Just Too Long. This is exactly the wrong way to go about this. We should not and can not cater to people who cannot invest a modicum of time in something, whose attention can be held only by throwing an array of beeps and buzzes and flashing lights at them. Low attention spans have been a problem for decades; we should be fighting them, not encouraging them.

Moreover, I find that the concept of the vook as an integrated platform of text, video, and other multimedia would of necessity diminish the author's control of the creation. Today, an author only ever has to answer to an editor, and until then all the work and sweat is her or his own. The only barriers to entry for an author today are talent and skill. I wrote "The Platinum Desolation" in Notepad; I needed nothing else.

Vooks, on the other hand, would require infrastructure. Few authors have high-quality film equipment and access to high-quality actors. Rather than fill vooks with amateurish multimedia that would repel readers rather than attract them, I can easily see the publishing companies becoming more and more involved in that side of production. The story would cease to be the author's vision and instead be taken over by the company so that it is put together along lines Scientifically Proven to draw customers in.

Futurist Jamais Cascio over at Open the Future has written recently about the concept of "resilience," writing on how a healthy future civilization must disengage from the brittle just-in-time, so-long-as-it-works methodology we've built our society on. Vooks, and ebooks in general, are just as equally a part of that. They are entirely reliant on the Internet as it currently exists, and in fact are worthless without it. I have trouble imagining an equivalent of my recent discovery of Analog back issues from 1965 where vooks are concerned. In the electronic world, things just don't seem to age as well.

The future has the potential to be a wonderful place, but with every day that goes by it feels like we want to see it so badly we're not even bothering to build a bridge there.

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