Open Book Reflections: So where is the book heading, after all?

Our Open Book Reflections series concludes today with a short essay on the future of the book from our mastermind Content Manager and resident social anthropologist Tarryn-Anne Anderson.

The Open Book Festival panel on “The Future of the Book” was a speculative, crystal-ball gazing affair which brought to mind the words of that great master of the force, Yoda: “Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.” Yoda’s caution is particularly fitting given that its theme of loss was one that also seemed to set the tone for the conversation.

Panel chair, Nick Barley, opened the event with a quote by Ewan Morrison, published in the Guardian in August 2011. “Within 25 years”, Morrison wrote, “the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of ‘the writer’ as a profession. Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.” Morrison’s bleak words began what was an interesting and dynamic discussion by panel members Stephen Johnston (of Random House Struik), Arthur Attwell (our very own interminably awesome founder and CEO), and Shathley Q (Phd in Literary and Cultural Theory, and Comic Editor at PopMatters). James Gleick, the fourth member of the panel was unable to make the discussion, and thus was present only in the transmogrified form of his latest book The Information.

The tripartite structure of the discussion led us over the course of the hour to cover the information age – its architecture and perceived nature, the response of the publishing industry to this changing landscape, and finally sought to delve into how we might imagine this landscape (and dwell in it) in the years to come. Shathley Q began, off the back of Morrison’s statement, with the bold statement that the future of the book looks like Facebook. It is social, collaborative, and exists as part of a network culture – an idea which, he argued, may well see the decline of the notion of “singular genius”. The idea that books will be produced by teams is not as prophetic as Morrison may have believed. Already, Attwell noted, publishing houses assign teams to produce books. In fact, this is something that publishers do incredibly well. The idea of the collective (as in ‘vs. the individual’) and the accompanying concept of the ‘network’ is one which permeates many discussions on ‘the information age’, purely because it has come to represent the way we think about the digital.

Yet the assumption that if we are in the “information age”, that this means that the future of book publishing is purely digital (and thus the end of print books) is not necessarily correct. In The Information, Gleick argues that information is the life-blood of our world. His narrative seeks to explore how it is that humans interact with information, more than as mere interlocutors but rather as “creatures of [that] information”. Books, both digital and print, form part of the information landscape which we live in, because information does not only reside in bits and bytes, it also resides in minds and upon pages.

Johnson, in a hat-tip to Umberto Eco, quoted from the latter’s 2011 publication This is Not the End of the Book saying that “either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

Morrison’s comment that books as we know them will cease to exist is based on the concept that technology, or the digital, will change the way that we ‘know’ books and the way that we use and absorb them. The future of the book, the panel seemed to agree, is in the potential of the book. This potential, however, requires that we first reach a consensus about the nature of the book. “Publishing”, Attwell said, “is the storytelling industry – this will never end.” He noted further that we are, at the moment, preoccupied with trying to replicate the book-reading experience on a screen. As we move forward, however, we will become more comfortable with letting go of the analog. We will no longer need swishing sounds or flipping ‘pages’ when we swipe. Ultimately, however, the function of the book remains.

Questioning, finally, how we might experience this future, Barley asked the panel to explore the imaginative possibilities of the book. To this Attwell speculated that we may increasingly see a blurring between reading and gaming, in a process that he refered to as the gamification of reading. Already we have seen different textual layers being incorporated in digital reading mediums – be they soundtracks or instructional videos. In my opinion the short answer is that reading behaviours will shift and change (as we sometimes forget that they always have – that’s just the way with behaviour), and that these changes will be entangled with developments in reading technologies to the extent that we cannot tell which one produces the other.

Shathley Q, perhaps following Yoda, brought up the possible “dark side” of the future. His comments related specifically to the constraints of DRM (Digital Rights Management), and the the Digital Millenium Copyright Act which seeks to perpetuate the use of DRM. These tools seek to prohibit the wide-based sharing of material in a way that could be argued to be returning us to the elitist modes of access to books of yore. Much like books being holed up in medieval monasteries, and accessible only to the ordained, they are now confined through DRM to specific products and are accessible only to Apple or Kindle users.

After opening questions to the floor, it seemed that the majority of the audience were most afraid of losing the hard-bound copy of the book. In light of this, Yoda’s warning may be more pertinent than ever. It is not that the future itself will be a harbinger of loss and darkness, but that in our probing of the future, in our speculation of what might come to be, our fear of losing is our worst enemy. Perhaps it is because we hang too tightly to the things that we fear we may lose that we fail to see the ways in which these things are changing and adapting. The result is that we are left groping around in the darkness, with no light by which to read our old bound books.