This morning's pondering comes as a result a result of a thought trail which started with this excellent article by Katie Fransen on why she was deleting her Goodreads account after the announcement of Amazon's acquisition of the service. In essence she talks about her fear that the continual domination by Amazon of the market by its acquisition of anything that is good in the book arena, threatens the independence of the reading public. To be fair I am not a voracious book reader, and I am unclear on what the future is in this area, but it has started me thinking about the core of what she was getting at. There is an old metaphor that the best way to cook a frog is to put it in water and heat it up slowly, so it does not perceive the danger. I wonder if in many ways culture is now at a similar risk? E-books are becoming increasingly popular and the public are embracing them in many parts of the world. Ease of access, especially through places like Amazon mean it has for many become the reading mode of choice. E-books are comparatively cheap to the individual buyer and the moment you have finished one, you can get another almost instantly. No more, angst that you have finished a book after the stores are closed and are reduced to reading the back of the toilet paper packet. Yet what if Amazon continues to dominate this market until there really is no alternative and then prices slowly increase with little to stop them due to a market monopoly?
Also, what of the romance of reading, of the beautiful cover? The experience of picking up the physical item, turning the pages, keeping it for years and building a collection on your shelf. Lending it to a friend and so on. These are all things that are easy to dismiss when they are still possible by a trip to the bookstore. What if we wake up one day and realise this is no longer there? What if the slow growth of this means what we are loosing is imperceptible until it is too late? Will we regret they way the mode of reading has shifted and how we did not appreciate the final details of the printed book, the independent bookseller and the romance of the relationship to literature and the physical book?
Also, let's remember the e-reader is a convenience based on the "first world". The e-reader only flourishes because of reliable electricity sources to both charge the devices and access the content online. By moving to a market where nearly, if not all of our reading is done through this medium, we put our access to this content at risk and certainly at the mercy of reliable, affordable and equitable access to both the content and the infrastructure that makes it possible. Surely, the beauty of the physical book is the technology is reliable, and available to a anyone who can pick up the item and read. As long as you have light and can read, the knowledge and/or entertainment contained within is accessible to anyone.
Everyday there are moves by corporations and governments to try to control the internet for moral, political or financial reasons. We cannot rely on the fact that this means of access to reading content will always be so accessible and subject to low regulation (if indeed it is). If we wish to ensure that we do not run the risk of returning to a society of increasing haves and have-nots based on access to information, it strikes me that we should be protecting this by ensuring that easy access to reading material does not become the privilege of those with the means to do so.
Of course I am not blind to the fact that always there have been haves and have-nots when it comes to reading. That literacy is a huge divider in society and effectively marks off those who can read and function within a literate society and those who cannot that. That literacy is one of the prime influences on a person's ability to earn and better themselves. Yet more people are now literate people than ever before and to come back to my analogy of the frog. It would be a sad day if we woke up and realised that the gap was widening again because of the a lack of access to affordable, reliable, and accessible reading material.
Lastly, I think there is an interesting implication for us all to realise about the ways that we are now starting to consume content. This applies to both reading content, but also watching and listening to it. Increasingly the model that is being applied by content providers and creators is one where upon paying your money you do not own the content you have acquired but rather have a licence to use and consume it. This is an issue that is well-known to librarians and those who are interested in this area, but to the general population it is invisible. On the face of it the distinction is subtle to the basic user. They acquire the content that want and can use it. However, in our heads we still assume that the money we pay to a supplier of content means we can have something for all time. Yet, technically this is not the case. That book you bought 20 years ago and is still sitting on the shelf for you to pick up time and time again, might be a thing of the past.
What continues to concern me about this model is it means that the real ownership of information held in whatever medium remains with a select few and access can be controlled at will. Where the printed book, once published effectively ensured the un-fetted distribution of information, we are fast-moving to a reality where this isn't so. This is not all doom and gloom of course, because as we have already seen, in countries where access to social media like Twitter is not controlled, these platforms have become very effective ways of spreading information quickly amongst a huge amount of people. It's very easy to turn of Twitter though....
So why am I writing this? I am very conscious that in parts this blog sounds like the musings of a conspiracy theorist. I'm not, but I am aware. I guess I am wondering this long weekend, if we as a society need to be doing more to ensure the survival of the physical item, book or otherwise and the culture that surrounds it. Not only for the richness of what it gives in terms of an overall experience, but in what it represents to us as a society in terms of the evolution to an increasingly literate planet.