(Originally published in Locus Magazine, March 2007)
"I don't like reading off a computer screen" -- it's a cliché of the e-book world. It means "I don't read novels off of computer screens" (or phones, or PDAs, or dedicated e-book readers), and often as not the person who says it is someone who, in fact, spends every hour that Cthulhu sends reading off a computer screen. It's like watching someone shovel Mars Bars into his gob while telling you how much he hates chocolate.
But I know what you mean. You don't like reading long-form works off of a computer screen. I understand perfectly -- in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I've checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.
This is not an ideal environment in which to concentrate on long-form narrative (sorry, one sec, gotta blog this guy who's made cardboard furniture) (wait, the Colbert clip's done, gotta start the music up) (19 more RSS items). But that's not to say that it's not an entertainment medium -- indeed, practically everything I do on the computer entertains the hell out of me. It's nearly all text-based, too. Basically, what I do on the computer is pleasure-reading. But it's a fundamentally more scattered, splintered kind of pleasure. Computers have their own cognitive style, and it's not much like the cognitive style invented with the first modern novel (one sec, let me google that and confirm it), Don Quixote, some 400 years ago.
The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
Computers want you to do lots of things with them. Networked computers doubly so -- they (another RSS item) have a million ways of asking for your attention, and just as many ways of rewarding it.
There's a persistent fantasy/nightmare in the publishing world of the advent of very sharp, very portable computer screens. In the fantasy version, this creates an infinite new market for electronic books, and we all get to sell the rights to our work all over again. In the nightmare version, this leads to runaway piracy, and no one ever gets to sell a novel again.
I think they're both wrong. The infinitely divisible copyright ignores the "decision cost" borne by users who have to decide, over and over again, whether they want to spend a millionth of a cent on a millionth of a word -- no one buys newspapers by the paragraph, even though most of us only read a slim fraction of any given paper. A super-sharp, super-portable screen would be used to read all day long, but most of us won't spend most of our time reading anything recognizable as a book on them.
Take the record album. Everything about it is technologically pre-determined. The technology of the LP demanded artwork to differentiate one package from the next. The length was set by the groove density of the pressing plants and playback apparatus. The dynamic range likewise. These factors gave us the idea of the 40-to-60-minute package, split into two acts, with accompanying artwork. Musicians were encouraged to create works that would be enjoyed as a unitary whole for a protracted period -- think of Dark Side of the Moon, or Sgt. Pepper's.
No one thinks about albums today. Music is now divisible to the single, as represented by an individual MP3, and then subdivisible into snippets like ringtones and samples. When recording artists demand that their works be considered as a whole -- like when Radiohead insisted that the iTunes Music Store sell their whole album as a single, indivisible file that you would have to listen to all the way through -- they sound like cranky throwbacks.
The idea of a 60-minute album is as weird in the Internet era as the idea of sitting through 15 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen was 20 years ago. There are some anachronisms who love their long-form opera, but the real action is in the more fluid stuff that can slither around on hot wax -- and now the superfluid droplets of MP3s and samples. Opera survives, but it is a tiny sliver of a much bigger, looser music market. The future composts the past: old operas get mounted for living anachronisms; Andrew Lloyd Webber picks up the rest of the business.
Or look at digital video. We're watching more digital video, sooner, than anyone imagined. But we're watching it in three-minute chunks from YouTube. The video's got a pause button so you can stop it when the phone rings and a scrubber to go back and forth when you miss something while answering an IM.
And attention spans don't increase when you move from the PC to a handheld device. These things have less capacity for multitasking than real PCs, and the network connections are slower and more expensive. But they are fundamentally multitasking devices -- you can always stop reading an e-book to play a hand of solitaire that is interrupted by a phone call -- and their social context is that they are used in public places, with a million distractions. It is socially acceptable to interrupt someone who is looking at a PDA screen. By contrast, the TV room -- a whole room for TV! -- is a shrine where none may speak until the commercial airs.
The problem, then, isn't that screens aren't sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren't screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.
Electronic books are a wonderful adjunct to print books. It's great to have a couple hundred novels in your pocket when the plane doesn't take off or the line is too long at the post office. It's cool to be able to search the text of a novel to find a beloved passage. It's excellent to use a novel socially, sending it to your friends, pasting it into your sig file.
But the numbers tell their own story -- people who read off of screens all day long buy lots of print books and read them primarily on paper. There are some who prefer an all-electronic existence (I'd like to be able to get rid of the objects after my first reading, but keep the e-books around for reference), but they're in a tiny minority.
There's a generation of web writers who produce "pleasure reading" on the web. Some are funny. Some are touching. Some are enraging. Most dwell in Sturgeon's 90th percentile and below. They're not writing novels. If they were, they wouldn't be web writers.
Mostly, we can read just enough of a free e-book to decide whether to buy it in hardcopy -- but not enough to substitute the e-book for the hardcopy. Like practically everything in marketing and promotion, the trick is to find the form of the work that serves as enticement, not replacement.
Sorry, got to go -- eight more e-mails.
Eric von Hippel
Erik S. Raymond