Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Rats Are Alright


- to envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. that, finally, the door opens…and it opens outward - we've been inside what we wanted all along. das ist komisch - david foster wallace - from 'some remarks on kafka's funniness' -

There's a post over at The Digital Reader where Mike Cane invokes an old Seth Godin post to say that bookstores are now catering to the 'rats.' Rats are, in Cane's interpretation of Godin's analogy, what's left when everyone else has jumped the sinking ship (the analogy is pushed too far and breaks down in both cases, i.e. the rats are red herrings). In this case the rats are those customers for whom books are a once in a while casual purchase, maybe one or two a year, consumers with little overall investment in literary matters as a whole. Rats, to Cane and Godin, are the people who don't matter to bookstores because they don't generate stable retail income, and, as soon as book stores begin to die, they are the people who will find new amusement without a second thought for what came before, as evidenced by said lack of purchasing power: if you're committed you will buy. In short, rats don't put up a fight for any industry, they cannot be turned to in order to abate an inevitable decline.
iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.
Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.
(from Godin, cited by Cane)

When the 'best' book buyers have headed off to Amazon and the Kindle, or now to Apple and the iPad, or to Barnes and Noble and the Nook, etc., then it's only the dregs-ish book buyers that remain, right? The ones that have no effect, the ones that are no use?

Well, apparently Amazon only have a 6% equivalent of the print market in Kindle ebooks (we're talking about 2009, let's ignore the other industry players for the moment, I don't think things have changed too drastically this year, or at least we've yet to see).  I think, to judge by the amount of people who jumped the music industry ship, that they as an industry had a lot more heavy users who were a lot more motivated to jump. But maybe that 6% equivalent that Amazon have acquired represents the cream (retail figures-wise) of the print book buyers, and those people each rack up 500 book sales a year, and the remaining rats only buy one book, and the entire book selling industry is screwed… Well, not according to the 2009 sales figures (American figures, just to keep in line with Godin) which stayed essentially the same, bar a few low-to-mid single digit percentage drops here, and some similar raises there, compared with 2008. These figures come after two years of Kindle sales poaching the 'best' readers. These figures come in the midst of a recession felt world-wide (where uncommitted rats might tighten their book buying belts). These figures come in a year with no Harry Potter or Twilight (surely the rattiest of novels?). In fact ebooks in general only accounted for 1-3% of total book sales in 2009, suggesting that the defection, if it is of the elite reader/buyers, might not be such a crushing blow to the industry.

Imagine if it was true, imagine if all the hardcore book buyers had jumped ship…it didn't matter at all. The industry stayed just about the same. It would have turned out that the rats, en masse, are its bread and butter (because I think the whole rat metaphor's condescending as hell I will mix it all day long).

I think it's strange to suggest that hardcore book buyers (read 'book lovers,' read 'bibliophiles') would leave behind the bookstore for the Kindle.  That, to me, sounds like a kind of ratty thing to do.  If I just bought one or two books a year, but I was (for the sake of argument) a lover of shiny novelty, then maybe I'd check out one of these ereader things everyone's talking about and buy a few more (e)books on it once I had it too (i.e. I would contribute to overall ebook sales, at least in years one or two, far more than I used to contribute to the print book industry which has lost my sales).  If I was (I wish) able and willing to buy 500 books a year I would imagine that nothing could drag me away from doing such a thing. You don't buy hundreds of books a year because you like words, or stories, you do it because you like books. The music industry analogy doesn't really hold because it's relatively easy to get over the mediocrity of CD packaging (bar some high level examples of the form). But when you have to hold an object in your hands every time you interact with it then it can lead to some…intense emotions.

But all of this is broad brushstrokes (of course). We have no figures to tell us how readers (and what kind of readers) move this way and that. We have no way of knowing whether people that buy 100, or 300, or 500 books a year are reading good things, or bad things, new things, or old things, whether they're bibliophiles or merely prolific readers. We have no way of knowing when and if they're going or have gone.  And as for the rats, we have no way of knowing when they'll jump ship, or if they'll be pushed, and if they go then where they'll land.

Whatever though, these people on one book a year aren't rats. Their one-or-two-books-, one-or-two-albums-, one-or-two-DVDs-a-year is what keeps everything afloat because they're legion…which does make them sound a bit like rats I guess, with their power laying in their numbers. And in fact, if you look at my bookstore buying then I'm a rat, I buy one emergency present there around Christmas, but otherwise it's all libraries and The Book Depository. And I love music, but yeah, I'm probably a rat to HMV, because I try and buy straight from the artist where I can. I jumped from the high street ship years ago.

Sometimes the people who appear to be rats by some skewed indicator of retail capitalism (which Cane and Godin both seem to play into: "if you don't buy enough, you're a rat, you're not important to the industry we care about" (even though, as I've argued, you probably continue to drive it with your couple of sales)), sometimes these are the people who care the most, but they're simply driven outside of the systems which were meant to provide for them, but instead did anything but.

*Update*


Why did the music stores disappear? Why did the video stores disappear? Why did Blockbuster just file for bankruptcy? Why are Barnes & Noble and Borders both closing stores?
I think he takes exception to the term “rat,” really. Blame Godin for choosing the metaphor. The fact remains, changing the terminology, that when your best customers leave, you can’t support a business with casual customers.

I offered the following in a comment:

I can’t lie, I found the ‘rats’ term to be loaded, and the more I thought about it, it seemed to be reflected in the sentiment, that those left behind are the unsavvy ones, that if you don’t buy enough then you’re not ‘good’ for the industry everyone else is escaping anyway.

I agree, a business built on casual customers struggles to get going, but I’m not so sure that it can’t be sustained on them. Casual customers support supermarkets for instance (there’s not so much loyalty to a particular brand that people will travel for them, people tend to transition quite well), and I think this is a useful analogy to what music and book stores became long before digitisation.

Barnes and Borders and Blockbusters and Tower, I believe, are all in trouble because they never catered to a hardcore clientele, they catered to the supermarket crowd, those who wanted cheap and easy, not to the real ‘best’ customers who would stick with them when times got tough, but those who, when the money ran out, went for cheap, free, and easy elsewhere.

If Tower had cared for people who really loved music they’d have made long term sustainable profits on a small scale, rather than the short and explosive gains that late stage capitalism prides. Tower is boom and bust, Borders is boom and bust. Local bookstore and music stores are sustainable and dependable, bar the threats imposed on them by the wider market. Local indies suffer when they’re driven out of business by the big names, which then themselves die on the features they were built on (cheap, easy) when digitisation takes over. Then the indies can’t come back because now ‘free’ (or even just ‘non-physical’) is normalised.

I wonder how many bibliophiles with a great local bookstore have switched to the Kindle?

The conversation is continuing in the comments over at Mike's blog if you're interested in taking a look.

*Update 2*

I'm waiting for Mike to moderate another comment I left over there, and I thought I'd repost it here in the meantime as the sentiment is perhaps a little clearer:

I’m just not so sure that the reason it’s got to that stage [where big bookstores are closing] is that the dedicated hardcore buyers defected to new media leaving the book stores to perish. Dedicated buyers would, I assume, love to stay with the bookstores they know and trust, but those stores got shut and replaced with massive book superstores. These hardcore buyers had no commitment to the big book stores (which were never really for them, but instead for the rest of the population who were far more casual in their buying, who wanted ease not terrifying variety, a good book not a long search, who prided good prices and efficiency over shop character and staff knowledge, and who can blame them, books aren’t their obsession, they merely quite like, or even like them a lot, and their few dollars, multiplied over and over and over sure added up…), so when there was another option which, while not as good as the dead indie stores, gave back the variety they’d missed, the big buyers, the hardcore, went online, and maybe switched to ereading too. And as ereading gets more popular, the casual crowd are seeing that it’s perhaps even easier and more efficient than the big stores, even though they were aimed at them, ever were. So now they go online too, and some of them find out that you can even download stuff for free, which is even better than cheap and efficient. So the big stores die (and in their death throes deploy a certain kind of competition which kills off the last of the indies). When the dust settles, the big stores long gone, with few indies able to return, everyone who gives a damn about reading will be online and ereading. This is a fate, and maybe not a bad one. I have no doubt that there are others too.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

E as in 'Electronic' vs. P as in 'Physical'


- glory be to god for dappled things – / for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; / for rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; / fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; / landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; / and áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim - gerard manley hopkins - from 'pied beauty' -

When I fell in love with music it was because I was promised three chords and the truth, and because it seemed perfectly logical, when faced with the problems of sexism, racism, classism, elitism, religion, or 'the man,' to just say "fuck" over and over again until someone listened. I tried for six months to like dance music like everyone else at my school, so I wouldn't get my head kicked in, or so I thought, but I was 13 and she was 16, and she had a Nirvana t-shirt, black lipstick, and purple Doc Martins, smoked rapidly disintegrating roll ups, and talked with fire about what music made you feel, from your body to your soul. In my head music still kind of looks and sounds like her.

***

When I fell in love with books it was because I thought no one else had yet. I must have been 9 or maybe 10 the first time I bunked, not a class, but a lunch break to go and hide down a tunnel of blackberry brambles behind the school kitchens, to eat my packed lunch and read in cool isolation. With the screams of a game of kiss chase, where I knew I had no hope of being pursued, blissfully muted into white noise, with the sun directly overhead, with fruit just about to burst from green to black all around me, that's where I first learnt the meaning of 'dappled,' a word with a look and a sound that I still love. The triumph of a new word that fit perfectly, the uneasy moment where your immediate surrounds seem a pale simulacra of a fiction you've just ceased reading into being.

***

When I got given my first mix tape I had no idea what it was. She ran up, put it in my hand, and walked away without a word, like she knew that what she was doing needed gravity, mystery, like it just had to start with unanswered questions and a cold rectangle of plastic and a yellow glittery star glued in the top righthand corner. I knew I wouldn't be able to talk to her again unless I'd listened to what was on that tape and worked out what it meant. Half an album on each side, by bands I'd never heard of. I still remember: drums, volume, sex, guitars. The next time I saw her we went for a walk, and she asked me what I thought, and I kissed her. I bought a walkman and wore that tape out on the bus, still sitting at the front, but not talking to the driver like a geek anymore. I swapped songs with the guy I'd start a band with on a bus like that, which means that if anything's managed to go ok so far it's probably because of that tape.

***

I fold down pages, underline quotes, and write in the margins of books because they're mine. And I've got books with messages written in them from people who cared enough to lean over and scribble something to me in class. And I've got books where I tore out a blank page so someone could write a hasty letter to save themselves from much more shame, or try, just once, to get him to go that party, because, who knows, he might say yes, and that would be something, wouldn't it, that would mean something, that he wanted to go, when he could be anywhere else after all. And I've got books that brought home photos used as bookmarks after I'd leant them out. And I've got books that still smell like perfume after I leant them out. And I've even got a book which now says, in gold pen, "I wish I'd invited you instead," which is, for long gone reasons, the most painful book I own.

So, god knows, I get it. I get that you worry about the damage, and that you look at kids with mp3 players the same way that people who grew up with vinyl looked at your tapes and CDs and understood the appeal, but still sadly shook their heads at what had passed. I get that you think it would be the end of the world if books went the same way too.

And I get it when you say "it's not the same."  And I get it when you say "ebooks will never be the only way that people read."  And I get it when you say "they don't smell right," even if you do insist on saying it over and over again, the same way you tell me that "you can't read them on the beach."

I get it.

But the other day I found a mobile phone with its SIM still safe, and I swapped it out, and read old messages on a new screen, and was quietly stunned that something like that, a bit of mobile, which is meant to be so cold, could make me feel those things all over again.

Given enough time, enough energy, and enough hormones we can attach meaning to almost anything. Anyone who loves them knows that books are much more than words on a bundle of pages. But they're not of course, the bundle is exactly what they are, we just bring  something else, something better, and do our best to attach it, and, with practice, do.

If you have any doubt that people will find a way to humanise their digital things then you must really think that those things stop humans being humans, because making things not things anymore, but objects, our objects, is what we do. Every stickered laptop, every swapped memory stick, every annotated electronic text, every emoticoned IM, every abbreviated SMS, every nail-varnished mobile, every cheap home movie, every bedroom recording, every tagged photo, every lovingly tended Myspace, Deviant Art, and Live Journal profile is testament to the fact that we spend our days making things ours, as in mine, and ours, as in you and me together.

How long do you really think it will be until ebooks are more than words on a bundle of screens?  How long are you willing to bet against people using things into beauty?

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Are Bound-Books Qwerty?


- knowledge which is not projected against the black unknown lives in the muscles, not in consciousness - john dewey -

My copy of Stanislas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain is, shamefully, still residing on my shelf.  I've been distracted by Heidegger, Hubert Dreyfus (to help me understand Heidegger), Graham Harman and Bernard Stiegler (to confuse me about Heidegger again), and I've basically neglected my reading on the neuropsychology of reading to pursue the phenomenology of technology.  I got linked to Dehaene's interview with Scientific American, however, and my interest has been sparked all over again.  In the interview the following exchange takes place:

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: [I]f the brain of a dyslexic is organized differently, does that suggest that it might have other abilities - or is dyslexia purely an impairment?
DEHAENE: This isn't fully known, but I was intrigued by recent research which indicates that dyslexic children and adults can be better on tasks of symmetry detection – they have a greater ability to notice the presence of symmetrical patterns, and the evidence even suggests that this was helpful in a group of astrophysicists to detect the symmetrical spectrum of black holes!
My theory is that mirror recognition is one of the functions that we have to partially 'un-learn' when we learn to read – it is a universal feature of the primate brain that is, unfortunately, inappropriate in our alphabet where letters p, q, d and b abound.  By somehow managing to maintain this ability, dyslexics might be at some advantage in visual, spatial or even mathematical tasks.
More generally, we are touching here on the very interesting issue of whether cultural recycling makes us lose some abilities that were once useful in our evolution.  The brain is a finite system, so although there are overwhelming benefits of education, there might also be some losses.

I've always found this idea striking, that the notion we 'push out' old knowledge by gaining new knowledge might actually be sort of true.  There's evidence, for example, that some people who become blind experience a withering of the visual areas of their brains, and a concomitant enlargement of the auditory or somatosensory apparatus, the 'super senses' of the visually impaired riffed on in Daredevil.  This can be seen as a gain (of greater auditory/tactile sensitivity) at the expense of a loss (of, unused but still functional, visual cortex).  There are hundreds of other examples in the literature, from learning braille expanding the size of the region controlling fingertip sensation at the expense of the surrounding areas, to juggling expanding grey matter in visual and motor regions (also see Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself).

But it wasn't really brains that came to mind when I read the Dehaene interview, it was typewriters, or rather keyboards.  The standard qwerty keyboard was designed by Charles Latham Sholes in the 1870s.  The agreed upon design prior to this was

“a rectangular arrangement of keys…in alphabetical order.  The levers manipulated by the keys were large and ungainly, and the size, spacing, and arrangement of the keys were dictated by these mechanical considerations, not by the characteristics of the human hand…Why did the alphabetical ordering change?  To overcome a mechanical problem.  When the typist went too quickly the typebars would collide, jamming the mechanism.  The solution was to change the locations of the keys: letters such as i and e that were often typed in succession were placed on opposite sides of the machine so that their bars would not collide…In the end, the keyboard was designed through an evolutionary process, but the main driving forces were mechanical.  Modern keyboards do not have the same problems; jamming isn't a possibility with electronic keyboards and computers…In the end, the qwerty keyboard was adopted throughout the world with but minor variations.  We are committed to it, even though it was designed to satisfy constraints that no longer apply…and [it] is difficult to learn…There is a better way - the Dvorak keyboard…It is easier to learn and allows for about 10 percent faster typing, but that is simply not enough of an improvement to merit a revolution in the keyboard.  Millions of people would have to learn a new style of typing.  Millions of typewriters would have to be changed.  The severe constraints of existing practice prevent change, even where the change would be an improvement” (Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, pp146,147,&148)

This story resonated, somehow, as I read Dehaene talk about the dyslexic brain as, not deficient, but processing differently, perhaps still performing in some ways as an illiterate brain where, similar to the evolution of keyboards, 'the severe constraints of existing practice prevent change.'  The brain of the non-reader, of course, is not somehow inferior, and on Dehaene's account may actually outperform literate individuals at certain tasks (see also Maryanne Wolf's discussion of the artistic abilities of her dyslexic son (who draws very proficiently upside down!), and other examples of dyslexics who excel at visual and other tasks).  In order to learn to read you've got to unlearn something that the brain comes hardwired with, 'mirror recognition,' so that skill's pathway can be put to use in the task of reading.  The same can be said of keyboards: to switch to a possibly preferred mode (Dvorak) would be to give up the ease of the (culturally) 'hard-wired' qwerty keyboard.  Sticking with qwerty is a dys-function, a different proficiency than one which might be currently culturally preferred.

This is the worry I have with the sometimes desperate tone of those committed to bound-book reading, or those expounding the virtues of the digital: are bound-books qwerty, the hardwired function we'd actually, in the current environment, be better rid of, but can't yet shed?  Or are they the more efficient Dvorak that the next generation might lose, unable to deploy them because the ebookish dys-function is becoming  culturally hardwired?  A strange metaphor perhaps, but one which has been buzzing round my head.  The keyboards, and the evolution of the brain, show that use breeds use until it sticks and becomes normalised, becomes 'common sense,' becomes 'how it is,' and then it's really hard to see what might actually be best for the time you're living in.

I really don't know if this is the time for books or ebooks en masse.  I've made my own decision (books until tablets get cheaper, and easier on the eye, probably 18 months away), I'd just hate for anything as culturally important as reading to be dictated by what the herd has followed (this is more important than Betamax vs VHS…).  That's why maintaining the debates, the questions, about the future of reading is so vital, and why sticking to our guns in the face of any evidence contrary to our opinions might spell disaster.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Surplus to Requirement


- he snorted and hit me in the solar plexus...i bent over and took hold of the room with both hands and spun it.  when i had it nicely spinning i gave it a full swing and hit myself on the back of the head with the floor - raymond chandler - from pearls are a nuisance -

Commenting on Clay Shirky's new book on 'Cognitive Surplus,' John Miedema informs us that:

"As Shirky observes, Wikipedia was built out of one percent of the hours spent watching television in a year.  However, before the web, we also spent more time reading long-form books, shaping the capacity for complex cognition, something that’s changing with the switch to scanning snippets on the web.  As MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte observed: 'my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared.'  This deficit also has enormous consequences.  The capacity for complex thought is required to meet the complex social, political and environmental problems of our day.  Bottom line, does the surplus exceed the deficit?"

That Wikipedia stat makes me incredibly happy.  I genuinely think that the time I've spent away from television (three years and counting, barring the occasional box set of The Wire, Generation Kill, etc.), time spent with the internet, has improved my thinking immeasurably when combined with better reading and being surrounded by some very smart and very erudite people at university who make me feel bad enough that I try a bit harder.  And I'm new to creating regular written content, but surely the cognitive surplus devoted to writing here is better for me than anything I ever watched week to week on that other screen.  I also relax with the internet in the same way I used to with television, flaking out for an hour (or two, or three), but Boing Boing, The Guardian, Wired, Pitchfork, and every other digital thing I browse just for fun always seems to get my head working against the grain of whatever homogenising influence British television had.  The net's good like that; diversity breeds complexity which breeds challenge which breeds thought, and it comes relatively effortlessly provided you 'click through,' provided you search around, provided you engage.

So, I agree that the Shirky point is one worth making: the internet has the capacity to drag people's leisure time into more productive use than television does.  And I also agree that reading "shapes the capacity for complex cognition" (check out Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid or Stanislas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain for more on this).  But the idea that "scanning snippets on the web" is reducing the "capacity for complex thought" honestly seems a touch…ludicrous.  The full quote from Negroponte is: "I love the iPad…but my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared, as I am constantly tempted to check e-mail, look up words or click through."  This seems to be a different quote than the one which is cited as evidence in Miedema's post, where it is appropriated into suggesting that the net in general has robbed Negroponte of his capacity to consume extended written work.  Regardless, as more people use tablet computers, and generally read on screen, might we see a death of long-form reading, a move to reading snippets, and the end of activities which develop 'complex cognition?'  My guess is no, certainly not, or at least not on this evidence.

Negroponte, I assume, is a busy man.  He probably gets a TON of email which needs regular checking.  But otherwise the behaviour he describes doesn't seem so new.  I still look up words I don't know from books, I just tend to Google them now rather than go to a dictionary.  But as far as I'm concerned that's not breaking up reading, that is reading, that's what you do to read properly.  It's the same with 'clicking through' - that's just pursuing leads.  If where you were held all the answers, or formed the meat of what you were interested in, then you'd stay there.  Clicking away to new content, to the detriment of where you were before, just suggests that where you were simply wasn't where you wanted to be, not that you were incapable of reading it (I've discussed this before).

The other thing about being busy, besides the email, is you don't get to practice the things in your life that you see as being in any way peripheral.  Last year I read around 120 books, a lot of them poetry and novels.  This year I've only read 40 so far, (cover to cover at least), very little of which was poetry, barely any novels, it's mostly been a lot of technical and theoretically dense works.  I'm a different reader than I was last year; not better or worse, just different.  Actually, maybe a bit worse.  My point is that reading is a skill that waxes and wanes with use like any other.  If you don't practice playing guitar for a time then you will get worse, even if you remember the gist.  If you stop reading poetry, unfortunately, your critical head isn't going to be as good as when you were knee-deep in it.  And if you don't get a chance to read long-form works then suddenly a 300 page tome will seem gargantuan.  I suspect that Negroponte is able to get the things he perceives as crucial to his work and leisure from short-form writing and other media forms, otherwise he'd be practicing long-form reading by necessity.  If you're whittling to essentials then long-form reading might well fall by the wayside, even if you feel bad that that's the case.

And this is ok.  I fail to believe that Negroponte's work with OLPC, and everything else he gets involved in, doesn't flex the muscles of his complex cognition, even if how he spends his leisure time is less taxing than it used to be.  If he was reading Confessions of a Shopaholic would he really be working his mind harder?  Reading, as an action in isolation, isn't a substitute for thinking, we've known this since Plato:

"Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources.  What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.  And as for wisdom [they] will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.  And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society" (Phaedrus p96)

Reading is not an unalloyed good, critical thinking is.  Some written work has the capacity to prompt such thought, much doesn't.  The same applies for the internet, for cinema, for music, for visual art, and, yes, for television, though at varying ratios (Sturgeon's law, however, has always seemed about right to me).  If reading is important to you then you need to practice, and you will.  If the presence of a new device in your life gets in the way of this, as an adult, then maybe your priorities just lay elsewhere, maybe what you were looking for, information, distraction, whatever, is better provided by another medium.  When it comes to teaching children then yes, we absolutely need to indoctrinate every last one of them into the specific skill of absorbing large swathes of written information, not because it's essential or somehow noble, but because any one of them might go on to lead a life where they will need it.  Early pedagogy is about providing the fullest range of likely options for valuable later use that we can muster.  But as adults: readers read.  They just do.  Anyone who stops reading just because youtube has funny videos they can suddenly access, well, maybe reading wasn't really for them, maybe it was getting in the way of putting their cognitive surplus to use in the same way youtube now does.  Or maybe youtube scratches a necessary itch in a way reading couldn't.

It is no service at all to suggest that the internet causes people to read less, as if that was a bad thing in and of itself, as if some panacea for the ills of the world was being squandered while a puerile vice mushroomed irrefusibly.  The truer argument lies with suggesting that people's cognitive surplus, their downtime from their activities needed strictly to survive and thrive, might be better spent in more meaningful or enabling activities.  The medium is not the point, we shouldn't try to yoke people to media that they would willingly abandon at the first sign of something easier - this only masks the more profound problems of our society: the devaluing of inquiry, the rising infantilism of mass culture, the privileging of the easily gratifying.  But these are not new problems, parts of the internet only continue them, and books are far from immune to their ravages.