Books, playlists and the granularity of ideas

I have mentioned this before, but thought I’d revisit it (hey it’s the summer holidays, time for reruns all round). In Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger gives a nice analysis of how the digitisation of content has altered our perceptions of what we thought was the basic unit. In talking about music he says

"For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs … As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track."

Nick Carr disagrees with Weinberger, stating the artistic structure of the album, using Exile on Main Street as an example (wonder why he didn’t choose a Steps album, say). Clay Shirky has a good refutation of Nick’s claim saying that if the artistic integrity of Exile were as strong as he claims, then it would survive digitisation – it doesn’t when you look on iTunes, most people download Tumbling Dice. I’m with Shirky/Weinberger on this, although I know what Nick Carr means, but the album didn’t have an intrinsic artistic integrity, rather the economics as outlined by Weinberger came first, and then some artists began to explore the album as an integrated unit. If digitisation had come first then maybe they would have explored artistic avenues open to them through that means, but they would have been unlikely to come up with the album as the logical conclusion to musical output. It’s atoms and economics that made this so.

I wonder if the same isn’t true of books. They have a longer pedigree and greater cultural value than albums, but essentially they are containers for ideas. Their format, size and existence is largely a result of the economics of atoms. An individual could only be in one place at one time and speak to an audience of limited size. Therefore to get an idea across to a wider audience you need a format that is transportable, easily interpreted and has a low(ish, illiteracy still being a big problem) threshold to participation. This is something the church understood early on.

In the academic world we also have the article, which because of the economics of stuff, is bundled together with other articles in to a journal, ie a smallish book. So even though the article may be smaller in size, it still follows the economic route determined by the book (with the interesting addition that the publishers don’t do any of the work involved in its production and take all the money). But with the digitisation of knowledge then it is free to follow its own path.

I don’t doubt that the book will continue to exist, but it will not hold the monopoly on being the conduit for ideas. Just like Exile on Main St, some books have an integrity that justifies the format (ironically Weinberger’s book is one such), but just like many albums used to be a couple of good singles plus filler, so many books seem to be a good idea stretched over 100,000 words. This isn’t the author’s fault necessarily, they had a good idea, and the book is the dominant means of getting it out.

But this need no longer be the case – an online essay, a blog, a podcast, a collection of video clips – all these are perfectly viable means for disseminating ideas. As well as the book losing its monopoly, so does text – audio and video can be used effectively. We only used text because it was transportable when ideas were tied in with physical objects. And if ideas become the equivalent of tracks, then perhaps the user creates the equivalent of a playlist by pulling these together around a subject of their choice.


  1. As part of my postgrad work (theology) I looked at how the early church used the media of the day to make its message spread. It was to a great extent responsible for the success of the codex, which was developed from the roman wax tablet. Typically these wax tablets were used by lower classes who had been sent to markets etc to fetch material. These people had to also have basic levels of literacy to read the tablet – low class / some literacy was exactly the target audience and therefore the church put their message into a format that these people were most comfortable with. Lessons there for all of us.
    Using a codex over a scroll was also very useful during debate (simply go to the page rather than search the whole doc). I think the early church was also responsible for the first index (4th century??).
    You’ve got me started now!

  2. There’s too much on emphasis ‘ideas’ and not enough on style for my liking. This, I assume, is what makes possible your claim that literature has ‘greater cultural value’ than music (presumably because it contains more ideas). Walter Pater made the case that all art aspires to the condition of music (he was thinking classical) in that it is purely formal, without overt content, or ideas. It’s worth remembering the role of style, or art, too.
    Why did you enjoy the last bit of fiction you read? Probably because of the ‘idea’ it contained; probably because of the manner in which it was written, or the characters that populated it. To write it any other way (the distinction is between story and narrative, following Seymour Chatman at al) would mean the idea may remain the same but the effect could well be different. You can reduce Romeo and Juliet to ‘two would-be lovers die’ – but you’d lose something.
    I like the idea of creating our own contexts and meanings in texts through the an active reading (my research is based on this); taking ideas from here and there and creating ‘mash-ups’. In this way, the increasing drive towards granularity is appealing. It’s just that often we enjoy someone or some group, perhaps more dedicated and talented than us, putting it together for us: in what we call books, or albums.

  3. Hi Phil
    I didn’t say (or mean to say) that literature had more cultural value than music – I said the book had deeper cultural roots than the album, just because it’s been around longer. So we are more attached to the physical artifact of the book than we are the album or CD. In some ways music has a longer cultural heritage than text, so it wasn’t the underlying artistic form I was commenting on, but rather the physical format they have become embodied in.
    I agree totally about style, as Nabakov said ‘style is morality’. It is very important, but I don’t think it’s particularly relevant to my argument here – you can have a style in any new format too, e.g. you can have a sardonic style in your podcast, a rhetorical style in your blog post, etc.
    Or have I misunderstood your point? Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  4. Thanks Martin.
    Not quite misunderstood – and if so, the fault was mine for not being clear enough.
    I think the confusion might lie in how a book is defined in your article. On the one hand, it appears to be a physical artifact than can simply be replaced by current technology. In this sense, you’re right – you can put text online, rendering the printed version obsolete (save the still-dominant portability of paperbacks, an idea with which you might take issue!).
    But I think there is, too, an implication in your post that the book is defined as a long prose text which can be distilled into a single idea or ideas – chunked up, as it were. It seems you are saying that a book’s length is an unnecessary by-product of its printed format, which is solely part of an outmoded tradition (you do introduce exceptions). So, we can reversion existing texts to meet this new online format: or, we can begin to ouput our ideas in granualised chunks (and perhaps, with time, begin to think that way, too).
    This reductionism is my concern. A long prose text – and I’m thinking about fiction as well as non-fiction – is partially the product of the way in which it’s written (I think we’re agreed on that). To write it in any other way might change that idea. Hence my interest in style. Length has a purpose; reducing it to an idea or series of ideas would be to miss this purpose (think the passing of time in a novel and the character development that results).
    I find this reductionism in your claim that books are basically a vehicle for ideas; and some have only a single idea. Such chunks are therefore best suited to connected documents. But it’s an assumption, and I’m happy to be put right. Is this what you mean?
    Thanks for your post. I must get back to my ECA for H806. Any tips? :-)

  5. Phil,
    thanks for the clarification. I think you are right about some of the confusion in my original posting. Novels in particular seem well suited to the type of length of a book (although RSS novels are beginning to appear which hark back to the serialisation of writers such as Dickens). I guess I was thinking more in terms of non-fiction. Here it seems to me that many books are only books because books are the way society recognises expertise and dissemination. Take ‘The Innovators Dilemma’ or ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ – these have great ideas, but I don’t think they stand up as great books. The authors have rather stretched their idea over extended text because that is what the format demands.
    As for the ECA – only the usual advice – read the instructions carefully!

  6. Thanks Martin – I take your point about non-fiction and ‘one trick ponies’, however valuable that trick is. I hope, despite my reservations over what I call reductionism, that blog posts, wiki entries, and podcasts etc augment printed materials as ‘accepted’ ways of disseminating ideas.
    There’s more to say, but the ECA beckons – thanks for the advice!

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