[27 February 2008]
About two days after I ordered my Kindle from Amazon.com, I noticed a book called Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age, sitting on a shelf in my local bookstore. While I am generally not the type to believe in omens and other such superstitions, I couldn’t help but think that this book was a sign from the heavens that the $400 I dropped on the new electronic book reader was money well spent.
At the very least the back cover copy gave me a philosophical justification for my new purchase should any of my nay-saying friends give me any flack over my extravagance. The book, written by Jeff Gomez, examines the changing dynamic of the printed word in response to advances in technology, consumer tastes, and artistic creativity. While the title, Print is Dead, is more of an attention-getter then a statement of fact, the author does an excellent job of explaining how print in the conventional sense is changing dramatically. Combining publisher, creator, and consumer perspectives, Gomez does a good job of adding to the discussion of the role of books in the age of digital media without the hysteric denial of a bibliophile nor the dismissive arrogance of a techno-freak.
Gomez begins his argument by examining the declining status of newspapers and traditional book reviewers as the populace shifts towards online sources of information. As more people look to blogs, online papers, and other internet options, the longstanding purveyors of news and opinion are in a “change-or-die” situation, as readers and advertising dollars slowly diminish. This is further compounded by the impact of generations “upload” and “download,” who have no qualms about getting their information from the Internet and no romantic or aesthetic attachment to books in their traditional form.
Moreover, while publishers and book fanatics are digging in their heels and unwilling to admit that the tide is changing, many writers are using changes in the media to attract new readers, find innovative ways to promote their work, and experiment with new types of writing. All of these factors are working together to create a new era of information dissemination. Gomez concludes that books and other printed media will always exist, but their role as the primary vehicle of knowledge is on its way out.
While Print is Dead deals primarily with the debate of how books as a medium will exist in the digital world, it also adds insight into myriad peripheral discussions currently taking place. One issue Gomez examines is the democratization of data that has become a defining characteristic of the new generation of online users. In the age of file sharing and illegal downloads, where Google is making a free database of as many books in publication that they can get, there is the growing demand that information should be free and readily available to everyone.
While this debate currently deals primarily with the music industry, Gomez foreshadows parallel concerns in the future with digital books. This trend raises concerns for industries as they try to figure out ways of making money in this new age where people don’t feel inclined to pay for something that they can get for free elsewhere.
Another issue the author discusses is the way art is changing in response to technology. Gomez argues that one of the primary desires of current users is to be able to interact and alter the respective media. The author cites creators that allow users to change their creations and explore new permutations of their work; writers who have hyperlinks that allow access to different options of information, or musicians that allow fans to remix songs and even whole albums. Gomez argues that publishers and artists must be prepared to change in response to the growing desire of fans to not just be passive observers, but active participants.
Some people might find many of the issues brought up in Print is Dead a little disturbing. With the shift to online sources of information many have argued against the rise of “amateur culture” where opinions take the place of facts and professionals are replaced by those lacking credentials. Others take issue with the fans’ desire to engage and participate in creator’s works, stating that this reduces the “sanctity of art” and replaces quality with what is popular. Producers are especially concerned with these rapid developments, as companies desperately try to make money from a populace that isn’t interested in paying. Finally, bibliophiles and other book aficionados are terrified of what digital alterations mean to their beloved tomes.
Yet rather then dismiss these concerns, Gomez does a good job of addressing them throughout his book. For the general concerns he contends that this type of transitional period is necessary and to be expected, and that people shouldn’t halt progress just because it is difficult. For the book lovers specifically, Gomez reminds them that it is the stories and the magic of words that they love, not the medium those words come in.
Since reading Gomez’s book I have become very secure with my purchase of the Amazon Kindle. This electronic book reader is exactly the device that Print is Dead calls for: an Ipod for books. I download books from popular authors at a reasonable price, I read the San Francisco Chronicle every morning, and I have access to blogs, newspapers, and magazines all on one hand-held device. And like Gomez successfully argued, the world is still OK. T
he sky has not fallen and the written word has not lost any of its power. If a person gets nothing else from Print is Dead they should at least remember that that although mediums change, it is ultimately the message that remains important.