Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Some thoughts on digitisation

The news that Mills & Boon is to convert 200 of its titles to the e-book format – adding 70 a month thereafter – is further demonstration, if any were needed, that digitisation is on its way. Yes, it still represents only a tiny slice of the market and arguably sees far more column inches than its revenue warrants, but few are in any doubt that the sector is growing.

One issue many older people have with e-readers and digitisation is simple: books do furnish a room, e-readers do not. A display of books stimulates conversation. “Oh, I’ve read that too – I loved it.” “I’ve just bought this for a friend of mine – is it good?” “God, I remember that cover – just looking at it reminds me of college.”

Here’s another simple point. A wall of books acts as a visual memory. Sometimes, when you’re trying to remember the title of something, it just helps to scan your eye quickly along the spines. Yes, you could scroll through titles on your e-reader but, ironically, that seems more clunky, clumsier than just scanning your shelf. If the human eye was called the iEye, then we might all realise what a cool, unbelievably sophisticated piece of it kit it is.
'If the human eye was called the iEye, then we might all realise what a cool,
unbelievably sophisticated piece of kit it is.'

Yet there is a sickening snobbery to all this. It sort of runs: “Look at me. I’ve got all these books. Hardbacks too. I’m a collector, see? I’m intellectual. The more books you have, the bigger your brain.” That’s putting it in a very blunt way, but I think there’s an element of truth to it.

But I think that attitude is the province of older people. I don’t think twentysomethings think like that. I don’t think they need books around them to validate themselves in the way their parents’ generation do. We’ll notice friends’ book collections and enjoy browsing their shelves; I think younger people browse friends’ Facebook sites, or blogs, or websites. If you like, they are looking at their ‘electronic’ shelves, and I think it could be argued that’s how young people validate themselves: I am such and such because I have these friends on my site and these links are in my Favourites. In a sense, they are still as materialistic as we are: it’s just that when it comes to media – books, music, news – theirs is an invisible materialism, one that is more environmentally friendly. We’re still wedded to objects; they’re comfortable with bytes.

It’s the same with music. We used to look at peoples’ album collections, often sitting on the floor and flicking through piles leant against the wall. Now, people don’t have collections like this. It’s all virtual – just a great long list on a PC or iPod. It sounds paradoxical, but the world is becoming less physical.

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