Print & Digital Part II– a fragmentary reconstruction

Funnily enough, after compiling the latest reports on this sweeping debate between print and digital,  the entire written article that your Salonniere had been composing for the last month and a half has been regrettably and irretrievably lost. Pangs physically felt, this latest mishap certainly doesn’t warm one’s heart for digital technology. But, time marches on and more important tasks are at hand, so rather than reconstruct the last two month’s composition, as with Sappho’s poetry, though not nearly half as scintillating, here are shards from that long over-due piece:

Just in time for the unveiling of the Apple tablet, the salon concludes its musing on the battle royale between print and digital media. Although the outcome of how print books survive against the rip current of digital technology will only be revealed by time, here are, hopefully, some lasting thoughts to mull over while the tides shift, starting with the tsunami wave that’s just hit, Apple’s new gewgaw, the iPad.

Image from Gizmodo

This tablet promises to be a boon for print publishing of periodicals, textbooks, and pulp lit. Apple will also soon be transforming our gaming and television consumption habits. Said to be the sexiest status symbol after the iPhone and the most efficient way to consume media on the go. On the educational side, Stephen Heppell: Professor of new media environments, Bournemouth University sheds more substantive light on this with his reaction in The Guardian’s blog post “The Apple iPad: Reactions”:

This is the beginning of what I like to describe as post-appropriation technology: devices that won’t be appropriated by education in the way that calculators, or laptops, or networks were.

This device won’t be easily banned, won’t be “moulded” to fit education, and will be hugely effective as a web browser, bookshelf, video player, game console and communication device. This time, instead of technology being bent to fit schools (as with the Interactive Whiteboards for example), schools must move themselves to meet the new technology. That makes this a significant moment.

Again, the most exciting aspect about Apple’s new fandangle for the lit world is their open call for apps, which should help generate revenue and encourage sustained readership for publishers from Conde Naste to Penguin. What we’ll probably also see is smart-tech marketing. Advertising will, in no doubt explode, when users will not only have “tips” on what to buy, where, and for which season, but all app browsing will include built on “purchasing power.” While reading The New York Times, see an ad for raincoat that seems a perfect fit for your wardrobe or love that micro-plane featured in your latest virtual issue of Bon Appetit. Like the hugely successful Haiti relief fund-raising effort coordinated by Red Cross’ simple texting method, with one click that cheese grater or those Stacey Adams shoes could be delivered to your doorstep while you’re leafing through the e-pages of Cosmo. Spending money’s never been easier.

Apple hopes to resuscitate periodicals and should rightly so be applauded. More applause for Apple also giving price-setting control to publishers, a blunder they acknowledged making with the iTunes when all songs were set at 99 cents. There’s been plenty of coverage and debate on trying to ensure publishers retain as much control over price and readership as they can. The New York Times makes the case for magazine publishers in “With Apple Tablet Print Media Hope for a PayDay”

At least three publishers, Hearst, Condé Nast and Time, have also created mockups of their magazines for tablets, even before such devices have hit the market. “Apple upended the smartphone market with the introduction of the iPhone, and it’s likely that they will, if they enter the tablet market, lead the pace there,” said Thomas J. Wallace, editorial director of Condé Nast. He said that “2010 is going to be the year of the tablet, and we feel we are in a very good position for it.”

To successfully sell their material on the coming wave of tablets from Apple and other hardware makers like Hewlett-Packard, media companies may first have to adjust other parts of their digital strategies — so consumers don’t simply use the tablet’s browser to get the same content free on the Web.

Such shifts are under way.

Magazine publishers, for example, maintain sophisticated databases about their customers, which lets them cross-sell products, renew subscriptions and entice advertisers with statistics about their wealthy readers. A big part of the business is automatic renewals charged to credit cards.

But when magazine publishers sell applications through the iTunes store, they do not get credit card information or even the name of the buyer.

Writers and publishers alike are more than just a little bit curious to see how this shakes out, but if we’ve learned anything, we know the tide is always changing. Like the iPod, how music is created hasn’t changed so drastically as how we listen to it and how its marketed and packaged. The price battle continue to be a thorn in publisher’s side, and, as with the music industry, very little of that money goes to the artists. Though another round of applause should probably go to Apple for raking the ire between Amazon and Macmillan who are in the thick of a heated price-war over the cost of e-books. Macmillan wants to ensure that e-books don’t devalue print in the same way that iTunes 99 cents per song undermined the value of the album.

And what of print books? No Kindle, Nook, Blio, or iPad can stand up to the formidable power of five hundred years steeped in religion, ritual, and history. Print books demise is by no means imminent. Just check out The British Library’s newest exhibit:

Klencke Atlas, which is 350 years old, will be displayed as part of British Library exhibition on maps

Klencke Atlas

Image from The Guardian

Unquestionably, print books are talismanic. They hold power between their pages and invoke the sacred. Digital books have another five hundred years to go before they could ever retain such might.

Circumstance and content will predicate form, so we must consider the appropriate vehicle for the kind of trip we’re looking to take. Do we want a window to a sea of information through an iPhone or do we want to be immersed in another time and world between the pages of the Tale of Genji? Do we want to take a quick spin around the block or hop to another continent? Are we just checking last night’s Laker’s score or do we want to step into someone else’s mind? Some of us still care to tote around a hefty copy of Ulysses because if we’re trekking that steep Joycean climb we want the world to know. A Kindle’s not going to announce your intellectual prowess to the world like a doggy-eared Penguin edition of Moby Dick. Many still covet our printed material and display them in bookcases like the rare curios they are, and others will be relieved to free up their living room space and travel light with their Nook. Or, maybe, we’ll save our Times and National Geographic consumption for the iPad and keep Alice Through the Looking Glass cozily bound between two covers, so we can take her to the poolside and pass her on to future generations of readers, so our daughter or niece can view the funny notes we scribbled in the margins, and find the pressed rose petals we forgot about years ago.

Of course, we should be wary of how form affects our cognitive and social skills. There are plenty of studies underway on how digital technology shapes how we think and interact. Check out Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain or PBS’s newest series, Digital Nation. Even Socrates lamented the advent of the written word for fear that it would undermine oratory skills. Though we’re not the same oral society that the Greeks celebrated, our current President serves as a proficient orator who Plato and his mentor surely would commend.

So what does all this mean for writers? Should we hide under the sheets and not come out until doomsday or should we embrace the robots? Why not take the middle road? We can argue for both can’t we?  Some people will love and horde printed material like religious fanatics and others will prefer to click away. People’s tastes are fickle. This is what drives the different technologies.

As the headlines bombard us, let’s remember that most reported news is financial news. Meaning anything that gets airtime tends to revolve around economics. If you’re out to make money that’s all well and good, but the bottom line to making art is that there is no bottom line. Very little has been said about art-making with the Kindle, but this is due to accessibility. With time and a drop in price, writers and artists will be able to exploit these technologies opening new avenues for story-telling and giving audiences more options to enjoy. Which is how we still have enclaves of devotees who cling to lace-making. There are musicians who insist on playing Old Timey tunes even though Pink stole the stage during the last Grammy’s. And there are those who wear nothing but hand-dyed batik while others line up at Old Navy. More media, smaller audiences. That’s the name of the game today. Why do we have to pit one against the other? Must we always be forced into an either/or scenario? Can we not use both mediums to our advantage?

We’ve only just scratched the surface to this new age of digital technology. And, if we open the pages of print books some five hundred years ago or read stories from fifteen hundred years ago, we’ll no doubt discover that we’ve always just been scratching the surface, sure as our desire to learn and experience new things keeps burning. That’s the beauty of it all.


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