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.