When I ride the subway, I see a mix of paper and plastic. Invariably several passengers are lost in their ipods (there must be a higher ipod-per-square-meter concentration in New York than anywhere else). One or two are playing a video game of some kind. Many just sit quietly with their thoughts. A few are conversing. More than a few are reading. The subway is enormously literate. A book, a magazine, The Times, The Post, The Daily News, AM New York, Metro, or just the ads that blanket the car interior. I may spend a lot of time online at home or at work, but on the subway, out in the city, paper is going strong.
Before long, they’ll be watching television on the subway too, seeing as the latest ipod now plays video. But rewind to Monday, when David Carr wrote in the NY Times about another kind of ipod — one that would totally change the way people read newspapers. He suggests that to bounce back from these troubled times (sagging print circulation, no reliable business model for their websites), newspapers need a new gadget to appear on the market: a light-weight, highly portable device, easy on the eyes, easy on the batteries, that uploads articles from the web so you can read them anywhere. An ipod for text.
This raises an important question: is it all just a matter of the reading device? Once there are sufficient advances in display technology, and a hot new gadget to incorporate them, will we see a rapid, decisive shift away from paper toward portable electronic text, just as we have witnessed a widespread migration to digital music and digital photography? Carr points to a recent study that found that in every age bracket below 65, a majority of reading is already now done online. This is mostly desktop reading, stationary reading. But if the greater part of the population is already sold on web-based reading, perhaps it’s not too techno-deterministic to suppose that an ipod-like device would in fact bring sweeping change for portable reading, at least periodicals.
But the thing is, online reading is quite different from print reading. There’s a lot of hopping around, a lot of digression. Any new hardware that would seek to tempt people to convert from paper would have to be able to surf the web. With mobile web, and wireless networks spreading, people would expect nothing less (even the new Sony PSP portable gaming device has a web browser). But is there a good way to read online text when you’re offline? Should we be concerned with this? Until wi-fi is ubiquitous and we’re online all the time (a frightening thought), the answer is yes.
We’re talking about a device that you plug into your computer that automatically pulls articles from pre-selected sources, presumably via RSS feeds. This is more or less how podcasting works. But for this to have an appeal with text, it will have to go further. What if in addition to uploading new articles in your feed list, it also pulled every document that those articles linked to, so you could click through to referenced sites just as you would if you were online?
It would be a bounded hypertext system. You could do all the hopping around you like within the cosmos of that day’s feeds, and not beyond — you would have the feeling of the network without actually being hooked in. Text does not take up a lot of hard drive space, and with the way flash memory is advancing, building a device with this capacity would not be hard to achieve. Of course, uploading link upon link could lead down an infinite paper trail. So a limit could be imposed, say, a 15-step cap — a limit that few are likely to brush up against.
So where does the money come in? If you want an ipod for text, you’re going to need an itunes for text. The “portable, bounded hypertext RSS reader” (they’d have to come up with a catchier name –the tpod, or some such techno-cuteness) would be keyed in to a subscription service. It would not be publication-specific, because then you’d have to tediously sign up with dozens of sites, and no reasonable person would do this.
So newspapers, magazines, blogs, whoever, will sign licensing agreements with the tpod folks and get their corresponding slice of the profits based on the success of their feeds. There’s a site called KeepMedia that is experimenting with such a model on the web, though not with any specific device in mind (and it only includes mainstream media, no blogs). That would be the next step. Premium papers like the Times or The Washington Post might become the HBOs and Showtimes of this text-ripping scheme — pay a little extra and you get the entire electronic edition uploaded daily to your tpod.
As for the device, well, the Sony Librie has had reasonable success in Japan and will soon be released in the States. The Librie is incredibly light and uses an “e-ink” display that is reflective like paper (i.e. it can be read in bright sunlight), and can run through 10,000 page views on four triple-A batteries.
The disadvantages: it’s only black-and-white and has no internet connectivity. It also doesn’t seem to be geared for pulling syndicated text. Bob brought one back from Japan. It’s nice and light, and the e-ink screen is surprisingly sharp. But all in all, it’s not quite there yet.
There’s always the do-it-yourself approach. The Voyager Company in Japan has developed a program called T-Time (the image at the top is from their site) that helps you drag and drop text from the web into an elegant ebook format configureable for a wide range of mobile devices: phones, PDAs, ipods, handheld video games, camcorders, you name it. This demo (in Japanese, but you’ll get the idea) demonstrates how it works.
Presumably, you would also read novels on your text pod. I personally would be loathe to give up paper here, unless it was a novel that had to be read electronically because it was multimedia, or networked, or something like that. But for syndicated text — periodicals, serials, essays — I can definitely see the appeal of this theoretical device. I think it’s something people would use.
I won’t pretend that it will be painless. Between the buyouts earlier this summer and the demands placed on us by the IHT and the Website — not to mention the heroic commitment we’ve made to covering the aftermath of Katrina – we don’t have a lot of slack. Like the rest of you, I found the recent spate of retirement parties more saddening than celebratory, both for the obvious personal reasons and because they represented a sapping of our collective wisdom and experience. Throughout these lean years you have worked your hearts out to perform our daily miracle, and I wish I could tell you relief was in sight.
Bob Cauthorn comments on Rebuilding Media about newspapers on the precipice:
The pro-industry spin will talk about combining web-site and print readers, which is disingenuous in exactly 1,465 ways. For example, does someone from Islamabad dipping in for one story on your web site have equal value as a seven-day-a- week local print subscriber?…
…The notion of platform shift — people moving from print to web just, you know, because — is a comfort to the media establishment as it suggests people still really, really, really love their product, they’re just selecting a different distribution mechanism.
Nonsense. The platform shift doctrine is a dangerous — and for some media companies, ultimately fatal — illusion that blinds the industry to necessary changes in the core product. Platform shift is the argument for the status quo: We don’t have to do anything different.
Speaking of not doing anything different, the Wall Street Journal ran this story about magazines experimenting with “digital editions”: “electronic versions of their publications that replicate every page of the print edition down to the table of contents and the ads.”
Cauthorn goes on about possibly breathing new life into print:
If newspapers fix their print products circulation will grow — change format, revive local coverage, alter the hierarchical approach to the news, open the ears of the newsrooms and get reporters back on the street where they belong. If you want to get really daring, re-imagine print newspapers as a three-day a week product rather than as a seven-day a week product.
As a practical matter, print newspapers only make money three days a week anyway. Imagine the interplay between a seven day a week digital product and a densely focused (and wildly profitable) three-day a week print product. Each doing different things. Each serving readers and advertisers in different ways.
The Guardian has just totally revamped its print identity, abandoning the broadsheet for the more petite Berliner format and adopting a slicker style. It’ll be worth watching whether this catches on. New packaging might make newspapers cuter, but not necessarily better.
Heads are spinning in response to Samsung’s planned release of a 16 gigabyte flash drive – a string of eight 2GB flash memory cards. Flash memory is solid state data storage, as opposed to the conventional hard drive, which contains spinning mechanical parts. The implication is that the price of memory for computers will soon drop dramatically, as will the amount of energy used to power them. Moreover, you will be able to carry millions upon millions of pages on something the size of a keychain (people will probably start using smaller ones as business cards before too long). There’s definitely something reassuring about the solidity – to rely entirely on a single, rickety hard drive, or a network, to store documents is incredibly risky and unreliable. Plus, these cards are far more tolerant of shocks, bad weather and all around abuse.
Chosun Ilbo describes the remarks of Hwang Chang-gyu, Samsung’s chief executive, who said:
…the development signaled the opening of the “digital paper age.” “In the same way that civilization rapidly progressed after paper was invented 2,000 years ago, flash memory will serve as the ‘digital paper’ to store all kind of information from documents to photos and videos in the future. Mobile storage devices like CDs and hard disks will gradually disappear over the next two or three years, and flash memory will dominate the information age.”
An excellent essay in last month’s Common-Place, “Blogging in the Early Republic” by W. Caleb McDaniel, examines the historical antecedents of the present blogging craze, looking not to the usual suspects – world shakers like Martin Luther and Thomas Paine – but to an obscure 19th century abolitionist named Henry Clarke Wright. Wright was a prolific writer and tireless lecturer on a variety of liberal causes. He was also “an inveterate journal keeper,” filling over a hundred diaries through the course of his life. And on top of that, he was an avid reader, the diaries serving as a record of his voluminous consumption. McDaniel writes:
While private, the journals were also public. Wright mailed pages and even whole volumes to his friends or read them excerpts from the diaries, and many pages were later published in his numerous books. Thus, as his biographer Lewis Perry notes, in the case of Wright, “distinctions between private and public, between diaries and published writings, meant little.”
Wright’s journaling habit is interesting not for any noticeable impact it had on the politics or public discourse of his day; nor (at least for our purposes) for anything particularly memorable he may have written. Nor is it interesting for the fact that he was an active journal-keeper, since the practice was widespread in his time. Wright’s case is worth revisiting because it is typical — typical not just of his time, but of ours. It tells a strikingly familiar story: the story of a reader awash in a flood of information.
Wright, in his lifetime, experienced an incredible proliferation of printed materials, especially newspapers. The print revolution begun in Germany 400 years before had suddenly gone into overdrive.
The growth of the empire of newspapers had two related effects on the practices of American readers. First, the new surplus of print meant that there was more to read. Whereas readers in the colonial period had been intensive readers of selected texts like the Bible and devotional literature, by 1850 they were extensive readers, who could browse and choose from a staggering array of reading choices. Second, the shift from deference to democratization encouraged individual readers to indulge their own preferences for particular kinds of reading, preferences that were exploited and targeted by antebellum publishers. In short, readers had more printed materials to choose from, more freedom to choose, and more printed materials that were tailored to their choices.
Wright’s journaling was his way of metabolizing this deluge of print, and his story draws attention to a key aspect of blogging that is often overshadowed by the more popular narrative – that of the latter-day pamphleteer, the lone political blogger chipping away at mainstream media hegemony. The fact is that most blogs are not political. The star pundits that have risen to prominence in recent years are by no means representative of the world’s roughly 15 million bloggers. Yet there is one crucial characteristic that is shared by all of them – by the knitting bloggers, the dog bloggers, the macrobiotic cooking bloggers, along with the Instapundits and Daily Koses: they are all records of reading.
The blog provides a means of processing and selecting from an overwhelming abundance of written matter, and of publishing that record, with commentary, for anyone who cares to read it. In some cases, these “readings” become influential in themselves, and multiple readers engage in conversations across blogs. But treating blogging first as a reading practice, and second as its own genre of writing, political or otherwise, is useful in forming a more complete picture of this new/old phenomenon. To be sure, today’s abundance makes the surge in 18th century printing look like a light sprinkle. But the fundamental problem for readers is no different. Fortunately, blogs provide us with that much more power to record and annotate our readings in a way that can be shared with others. We return to Bob’s observation that something profound is happening to our media consumption patterns.
As McDaniel puts it:
…readers, in a culture of abundant reading material, regularly seek out other readers, either by becoming writers themselves or by sharing their records of reading with others. That process, of course, requires cultural conditions that value democratic rather than deferential ideals of authority. But to explain how new habits of reading and writing develop, those cultural conditions matter as much–perhaps more–than economic or technological innovations. As Tocqueville knew, the explosion of newspapers in America was not just a result of their cheapness or their means of production, any more than the explosion of blogging is just a result of the fact that free and user-friendly software like Blogger is available. Perhaps, instead, blogging is the literate person’s new outlet for an old need. In Wright’s words, it is the need “to see more of what is going on around me.” And in print cultures where there is more to see, it takes reading, writing, and association in order to see more.