Friday, 3 August 2012

Where to Now?

- an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, ipods and minds like empty rooms, i still plod along with books - harper lee - letter to oprah winfrey -

With websites putting server drones in the sky, computers poised to be in everything, Netflix and Spotify and Tumblr, mobile computing, and the internet being what it is, the future seems, in some small ways, to be here. No flying cars or world peace, and Mars seems further away than ever, but we're starting to get this whole distributing media thing sorted. Kinda.

Living through dramatic changes is disorienting; times of extreme flux throw up a diversity of paths and no one knows what will stick. During a revolution you can bet it doesn't seem as cleanly teleological as a history book account, you can bet start and end dates and turning points are rarely clear. Technology and media often work in a similar enough fashion to act as a corollary, as a microcosm of more sweeping social upheaval - we can see how excitement and banality get mixed up and crossover and are unevenly distributed and realise how much more this must be true when you want to kill the king, reclaim a voice, or break up a country.

A banal example: An old friend, chatting about what I've been researching, asked "so what's next for e-reading?" I haven't really thought about it, I said, e-reading's just kind of here. After nearly two decades of media fervour, support and vehement detraction, it suddenly feels like all the promises are on the table: the e-ink Kindles might get a little better, but their screens are the standard when it comes to comparisons with the printed page; the iPad might get a little sharper, or change size, but its forms so far have told us what a tablet can be and what minimum it has to do in terms of touch-response and UI; we're seeing the beginnings of social reading and multimedia books and they're pretty much what we thought they'd be - no one knows if they'll find a mass audience. So what's next for portable digital reading? Perhaps it's just subtle refinement and bedding into the medial landscape, and that may be its most significant sign of strength: e-reading is here, this is what it is, it works, how can we tweak it to be its best? (This is largely how the story of print is told: Gutenberg -> tweaking -> 600 years of history. After the first few generations, how often did people say "so what's next for books?"). Depending on the technology, some books will probably start to have more pictures, video, and audio, but how many and how much? Enough to notice the world has changed again?

The hardware is going to iterate fairly blandly from now too, I think, until current desktop speeds (and beyond) can be achieved on tablets which are able to switch between low consumption e-ink (or similar) and retina-level displays. At that stage, when it comes to reproducing hypertextual, searchable, and internet-linked text, image, video, and audio, what more do we need? The computer in your pocket or backpack can just get faster and thinner (or pass some rubicon into a wearable/foldable/implantable form that's as different to the book as cinema is to painting; at it's most exciting the Google Glass project feels like this), and with the devices set for a few more generations the written word seems in no danger of going anywhere (that fear actually seems pretty quaint by now). But no doubt the publishing industry is changing; the democratisation of content creation, distribution, and price-setting certainly hasn't played out fully, and
 I wouldn't be too surprised by a Netflix/Netflixes-of-everything setup in around 20 years (with boutique offline distribution still going strong in certain print and music circles). For most people's user experience this apparently dramatic change to the ecosystem wouldn't even make much difference, just a twist of process here or there, a wider access, a better thing, but still a very familiar thing.

Am I sad that the big changes in an arena I've cared about seem done? Should I be?

I wrote this post on my mobile phone, and that seemed another little memento mori: I feel like I'm living in one future and waiting for another to be invented, or at least made possible or desirable - my everyday technology is the death of all the unpredictable paths that might have been; the nice clean dates are starting to be written down.

Some things, however, gain in strength in direct proportion to their mundanity. Perhaps what's next for e-reading is its just becoming plain old reading, and that's important too, in fact that's the only place where it does whatever it will do; books, mobile phones, and internet access all changed the world in their ways when their forms became boring. Now reading's next again.

--- UPDATE ---
This post has been reposted at Teleread (many thanks to Dan the new editor). A commenter there (fairly) has issues with the thesis above:

Howard says:
I never cease to me amazed at people who repeatedly over time, think that it’s all been done now. We’ve seen it all. It’s all about design and refinement now …. One wonders at the limitations of their minds.
I can so easily imagine these same people 6 months before the arrival of the iPhone, the iPad, the cell phone ! and of course the internet.

For the sake of completeness here's my response which clarifies my position a little further:

@Howard – I can certainly respect the opinion that something I can’t predict will emerge, I hope it does (always exciting for anyone that enjoys new tech to be completely blown away). But it still feels to me like something’s changed recently. When the iPhone came out at a price point that a large number of people could afford then that seemed ground-breaking (ditto cheap small mobile phones in the 90s). But the Kindle and the iPad everyone could see coming (though maybe not the companies who’d lead these sorts of devices), it was just a matter of time (blogs such as Teleread, for instance, had been speculating for ages. During my MA I cited their rumours of “a future Apple slate device” and had a crack of my own at predicting what such a device might look like/do). They’ve been around a number of years now with little change, and what’s stranger is that no-one's rumour-milling about anything significantly new in the field anymore (strange only in the context of the last few years where e-reading has been really hot on tech blogs).
It’s a similar situation, to my mind, to videogame consoles. The Wii did so well because it seemed like something new in what has, for a long time, been an arms race of graphics, speed, memory, and (recently) multimedia application. Consoles are another great example of something becoming powerful BECAUSE it’s boring, because there’s little more that is truly new that can be brought to the field without its changing entirely (e.g. Virtual Reality). Again, just my $0.02, but as I say in the post, I think it’s a positive for e-reading that maybe it has settled into being what it is.


Alice Kallaway (DandCS) said...

Do you not think that this sense of stagnancy comes from the astounding exponential growth of the last fifty years or so? It is only five years since the iphone first burst on to gadget scene and while I agree that a lot of the technology produced since mirrors its style, it is a very short time in the scheme of things. I believe that we are indeed in a period of defining and improving current technology but that once the economy improves and more money can be put into research, something new will inevitably come along and change the curent mode. What are your throughts on this?

Matt Hayler said...

Hi Alice,

I'm certainly not trying to suggest that no new technologies will come along, maybe (probably) even great new technologies for reading, but yes, I don't think that we're going to see a Kindle/iPad like revolution again for reading the literary forms we've inherited from print culture. E-readers will get cheaper (I wouldn't be surprised to see Amazon give away free Kindles with Prime membership in the near future), they will improve, but I do believe that e-reading as a form is now here and on its way to becoming mundane. We'll almost certainly see new literary forms emerge, and these may require unforeseen kinds of devices, but in terms of words and some pictures to be read in linear order: I think we're pretty much there; near every device with a screen can do it and always will from now on. I do look forward to seeing where the next big consumer-grade media revolution is though, I hope it's not just bigger shinier tvs! The internet of everything could shake things up...

As for the "exponential growth of the last fifty years," I'm increasingly unsure that this is a fact (though I would have agreed as recently as 6 months ago). In terms of manned space flight most nations have regressed, and though a mobile phone and the internet available to a majority of people does change things I don't think we've seen the inspiring projects of the 19th-mid 20th century. Refrigeration, electric light and heat, the rail networks, air travel, synthesis of medical drugs, etc. etc. may yet have their equal in the internet and telecommunications, but in terms of mass social good, in this country at least, I think the hundred years that precedes the moon landing will, in terms of technological progression, outshine the hundred years after it without some radical change in our politics. Neal Stephenson has a great talk on this: - "I saw the best minds of my generation writing spam filters."

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