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Posted May 10, 2013 12:45 p.m. by dylan
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
➻ Scientific American had a post I missed last month about The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. And it seems that despite the recent surge in e-book sales, our brains still prefer the physicality of the page.
In the U.S., e-books currently make up between 15 and 20 percent of all trade book sales.
Even so, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people's attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.
"There is physicality in reading," says developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, "maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading—as we move forward perhaps with too little reflection. I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms, but know when to use the new."
And if you're worries about getting your book wet in the bathtub, here is an 8-year-old's invention for keeping books dry in the bath.
➻ Of course, Nicholas Carr would concur the reading on digital devices does not encourage the same level of comprehension, and The Shallows: cartoon edition can show you why in 3 minutes and 45 seconds.
Of course, I'm sure Carr would still prefer you read the actual book.
➻ But we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the internet as the cause of all our ills and think an internet-free existence is the solution to our problems. As Paul Miller shows in a review of his year spent offline, I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet, it isn't what the internet is doing to us, but what we are doing on the internet and what we are doing ourselves that makes all the difference:
I'd read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I'd begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was "doing to me," so I could fight back. But the internet isn't an individual pursuit, it's something we do with each other. The internet is where people are. [...]
When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won't have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel.
But at least I'll be connected.
And there is certainly something to be said for that.
➻ Getting back to books, Alexander Nazaryan has some thoughts in the New Republic about When Celebrities Take Over Publishing Companies ...
Every age gets the publishing industry it deserves, whether it’s Babylonian scribes etching the Epic of Gilgamesh into stone tablets, medieval scribes toiling away at illuminated manuscripts or Maxwell Perkins laboring over the sentences of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Which is why, I suppose, today we have imprints from the comedienne Chelsea Handler, the rapper 50 Cent (Handler’s erstwhile beau, but I wouldn’t read too much into it), the chef Anthony Bourdain, and actors Viggo Mortensen and Johnny Depp, not to mention mystery writer Dennis Lehane and former Men’s Health editor David Zinczenko.
All these are small imprints, usually folded into publishing conglomerates and producing only a few books each year—and always announcing the celebrity affiliation with unabashed pride of the sort that must make the wise old men of the publishing world, the two or three still left, cringe. All were founded in recent years, as the publishing industry has searched ever more desperately for a solution to its chronic, worsening woes. They suggest, to me at least, that the business of discovering, editing, publishing, and promoting a book has become little more than that—a business, on par with hawking energy drinks or endorsing restaurant chains. Yes, publishing has always been about making money. The rise of the celebrity imprint indicates that it is now about little more than that.
I don't know that I agree with that, or that there's a huge difference between books written by celebrities and imprints presented by them (other than celebrity imprints show that said celebrities are interested in sharing voices other than their own which seems commendable), but if there is an undeniable truth in the article it is this:
The most depressing aspect of this whole celebrity imprint business: not what it says about publishing, but what it says about ourselves. In their own crass, slick ways, these imprints are indicative of the cult of personality that grips our culture, the facile worship of figures who somehow escape the critical examination we reserve for other aspects of our lives.
That said, I would want to read the "long-lost novel by Woody Guthrie, House of Earth, with an introduction by the historian Douglas Brinkley" whether it was published by Johnny Depp or not. And if these celebrities can get more people reading, then like Oprah Winfrey, I say more power to them. And from a marketing standpoint, I find it far more annoying (as Sally and I have been discussing for years) how publishers present books by women authors, which is why I love Coverflip: Maureen Johnson Calls For An End To Gendered Book Covers With An Amazing Challenge so much.
➻ And we'll leave you with this...
Posted Oct. 5, 2012 11:20 a.m. by dylan
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
➻ First up, we look to James Hannaham at the Village Voice for a review and interview as Stats Man Nate Silver Releases His First Book, The Signal and the Noise. "Speaking with the Odds God," Hannaham discusses Silver's rise from semi-obscurity in the world of sabermetric baseball statistics to wild success on the national stage in the political prediction game. It all came to pass because of the remarkable accuracy of his predictions during the 2008 presidential election on his FiveThirtyEight blog (538 is the number of votes in the electoral college)—which has since been picked up by The New York Times.
That site proved to be one of the most accurate political meta-polls during the 2008 presidential race (he called every state except Indiana) and continues to testify to Silver's influence. So swift was his rise to King of Geekdom (TIME named him to its 100 Most Influential People list in '09) that his followers lacked a bible. Now, though, he's releasing his first book, The Signal and the Noise (The Penguin Press, 352 pp., $27.95), a substantial, wide-ranging, and potentially important gauntlet of probabilistic thinking based on actual data thrown at the feet of a culture determined to sweep away silly liberal notions like "facts." For Silver, the key to successful prognostication is a clear-eyed examination of the difference between "noise," misleading or biased methods or faulty data sets, and "signal"—that which is likely to turn out to be true, and whose significance often seems obvious in hindsight.
In 13 chapters, he covers a panorama of the unpredictable and the state of mankind's ability to conquer it. Or come close, anyway.
"This is not a postmodern kind of book," says Silver ... "It's saying there is truth, but we can't know it, and it's hard for people to accept both those propositions. It requires you to accept that you'll always be a flawed, imperfect creature who's struggling to get better." ...
As far as Silver is concerned, no one in a business or institution that relies on prediction can afford to accept their preconceived notions as fact.
I think this will make for a fascinating, down-to-earth contrast to a highly anticipated book being released by Random House next month, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.
➻ Next we turn from "the unpredictable and the state of mankind's ability to conquer it" to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, A Post on the Occasion of Facebook’s Billionth Member, and the mankind's future capacity to experience—and/or conquer—boredom.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that David Byrne was correct and that the distinguishing characteristic of paradise is the absence of event, the total nonexistence of the new. Everything is beautifully, perfectly unflummoxed. If we further assume that hell is the opposite of heaven, then the distinguishing characteristic of hell is unrelenting eventfulness, the constant, unceasing arrival of the new. Hell is a place where something always happens. One would have to conclude, on that basis, that the great enterprise of our time is the creation of hell on earth. Every new smartphone should have, affixed to its screen, one of those transparent, peel-off stickers on which is written, “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.”
Forget the Turing Test. We’ll know that computers are really smart when computers start getting bored. If you assign a computer a profoundly tedious task like spotting potential house numbers in video images, and then you come back a couple of hours later and find that the computer is checking its Facebook feed or surfing porn, then you’ll know that artificial intelligence has truly arrived.
There’s another angle here, though. As many have pointed out, one thing that networked computers are supremely good at is preventing their users from experiencing boredom. A smartphone is the most perfect boredom-eradication device ever created. (Some might argue that smartphones don’t so much eradicate boredom as lend to boredom an illusion of excitement, but that’s probably just semantics.) To put it another way, what networked computers are doing is stealing from humans one of the essential markers of human intelligence: the capacity to experience boredom.
And that brings us back to the Talking Heads. For the non-artificially intelligent, boredom is not an end-state; it’s a portal to transcendence—a way out of quotidian eventfulness and into some higher state of consciousness. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, but that’s a place that the computer, and, as it turns out, the computer-enabled human, can never visit. In hell, the house numbers, or their equivalents, never stop coming, and we never stop being amused by them.
It's also a place where partisan cable news can never visit, but that's a story for another time.
➻ In the meantime, we turn to The Daily Caller (cofounded by cable news pundit Tucker Carlson) and Matt K. Lewis's review of a book on the positive possibilities of the networked age that Michael has covered extensively here on this blog—Future Perfect. Lewis writes that Steven Johnson’s ‘Future Perfect’ Puts the Political Left and Right on Notice:
Author Steven Johnson is a rare individual these days: A genuine optimist. His new book, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, preaches a gospel of an emerging worldview that “doesn’t map on to the existing left/right political categories.”
He swears he’s not selling “cyber-utopianism,” but Johnson believes the “peer network” structure of the Internet can help us meld the best qualities of conservatism and liberalism into a more visionary third way.
And he might have a point.
Consider the website Kickstarter, which allows individuals to voluntarily support creative projects. As Johnson notes, the site is “on track to distribute more money than the National Endowment for the Arts” (a potentially positive development for conservatives who lament having their tax dollars involuntarily go to such projects.) Why couldn’t, as Johnson suggests, local governments incorporate a similar sort of “participatory budgeting” model to decide which projects to fund?
This might sound like a quixotic attempt at “direct democracy,” but Johnson (who is the author of several other terrific books, including “Where Good Ideas Come From” and “Everything Bad is Good For You”) insists that finding new solutions requires casting aside cynicism and embracing optimism.
And it is refreshing to read an ostensibly political book in which the author genuinely seems to have no ideological agenda or partisan ax to grind. Johnson’s advice, thus, rings at least sincere.
“I think one of the key things that the Left needs to acknowledge is that the libertarian position that kind of comes down from Hayek,” he tells me, “in the long run, will outperform and out innovate centralized bureaucratic institutions.”
But while Johnson dismisses the notion that elite planners can solve all our problems, he also argues that tomorrow’s best innovative solutions won’t come exclusively from the market-based sources. “The idea is not to replace the market with the state,” he avers, “but to enhance and extend the market with other decentralized systems that aren’t necessarily driven by profit incentives.”
If this sounds naive, think of Wikipedia. Thousands of people voluntarily contribute to creating and maintaining this online encyclopedia — for free. (As author Dan Pink, has pointed out, sometimes financial incentives actually reduce motivation and participation.)
Achieving Johnson’s vision won’t be easy. A lot of people are invested in preserving the current political system. ”The Left needs to get rid of the idea [of] top-down, state-centralized master plans [and] big, top-heavy unions — all of these things that have been institutions of the left for a hundred years,” he says.
“But the Right has to give up the idea that everything is going to be solved by the market.”
➻ One thing Douglas Rushkoff would like you to know about the future is that the iPhone is Not Your Saviour
Yes, we've been here before.
First time, for me anyway, was the CD-ROM craze. Flashy interactivity, new authoring tools and seemingly infinite storage space led many media publishers to believe that CD-ROMs would be to the digital era what books were to that of text. They obsolesced themselves as a viable format (mostly by being slow and boring) even before networking speeds made disks irrelevant.
The dotcom boom appeared just as infinite to those in the know. While Amazon has been left standing, Pets.com and Etoys crashed as quickly as they rose. The vast majority of online retailers surprised the Wall Street analysts betting on them.
Social media was supposed to solve that problem for the tech industry and NASDAQ alike, but climaxed in the IPO of Facebook, a disappointment so far-reaching it has dragged dozens of social media companies along with it, and sent investors and entrepreneurs looking for greener pastures.
Like wireless handheld devices and the apps running on them.
Everywhere I turn, every conference I attend, every magazine story I read seems to be based on one aspect of these technologies or another. Everyone is hard at work on an iPhone app that lists, maps, or socializes some data set in some new visual way. Pictures over text, text over maps, restaurants close to subways, or apps showing subways with WiFi to download more apps.
Don't get me wrong: Wireless is big, and these devices are here to stay, at least until we get comfortable with apps being embedded in objects and technology being implanted in our bodies. And while the opportunity for corporations to make billions on these apps may be overstated, we may still see a new peer-to-peer marketplace emerge between independent developers and the users of their bounty of applications.
But the extent to which entrepreneurs, developers, and even columns like this one depend on Apple and the rest of the wireless computing industry for new grist far exceeds their true impact or potential.
So go, get an iPhone. Enjoy it. But find something or someone else to save you.
Or, possibly, maybe you can find something or someone else to save? It would probably be more rewarding.
➻ And then there's Dave Pollard, author of Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur's Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, who would like you to know Why We Cannot Save the World at all.
➻ So, I suppose the Mayans had it right. It's the end of the world.
Posted Sept. 28, 2012 10:45 a.m. by dylan
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
➻ So it seems that, for all the folks out of work, and despite the fact that the median wage in this country has remained stagnant for decades and actually declined over the last ten years when adjusted for inflation, the only way the national conscience is stirred on labor issues these days is when it affects the outcome of a National Football League game.
Forgive me for quoting a partisan source here, but it seems to me that Dave Zirin at The Nation has the right perspective on this whole debacle:
[T]he entire country received a high-def, prime-time lesson in the difference between skilled, union labor and a ramshackle operation of unskilled scabs. When [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker is sticking up for the union, you know we’ve arrived at a teachable moment worth shouting from the hills. People who care about stable jobs with benefits and reversing the tide of inequality in the United States should seize this moment. We should ask ... politicians of both parties drinking from the same neoliberal fever-swamp, Why do you think we need skilled union labor on the football field but not in our firehouses, our classrooms, or even our uranium facilities? Similarly players need to be asking questions to the owners: how can you actually posture like you care about our health and safety ever again after subjecting us to this hazardous environment the first three weeks of the season—or, as Drew Brees tweeted, “Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?”
I think using this as a teachable moment for the larger economy would be apt. First of all, it seems to me that the reason the economy tanked in the first place is that we removed the referees from the field of finance and business. It turns out that the economy, like football, is a lot more free when it is fair, when the playing field is level, when everyone's playing by the same rules, and when the rules are enforced evenly across the board. Second, maybe we can find a way to put our teachers in shoulder pads or pinstripes and turn schooling into a spectator sport? Spelling bees do seem to be becoming very popular these days. Can we look into full contact spelling bees?
➻ Turning to those that train our workforce, Nicholas Carr—author of The Shallows—had a great piece yesterday over at Technology Review about The Crisis in Higher Education. With college tuition forever rising and (as mentioned above) wages stagnant, many are turning to online education.
Carr sets the scene by turning the clock back a century:
A hundred years ago, higher education seemed on the verge of a technological revolution. The spread of a powerful new communication network—the modern postal system—had made it possible for universities to distribute their lessons beyond the bounds of their campuses. Anyone with a mailbox could enroll in a class. Frederick Jackson Turner, the famed University of Wisconsin historian, wrote that the "machinery" of distance learning would carry "irrigating streams of education into the arid regions" of the country. Sensing a historic opportunity to reach new students and garner new revenues, schools rushed to set up correspondence divisions. By the 1920s, postal courses had become a full-blown mania. Four times as many people were taking them as were enrolled in all the nation's colleges and universities combined.
The hopes for this early form of distance learning went well beyond broader access. Many educators believed that correspondence courses would be better than traditional on-campus instruction because assignments and assessments could be tailored specifically to each student. The University of Chicago's Home-Study Department, one of the nation's largest, told prospective enrollees that they would "receive individual personal attention," delivered "according to any personal schedule and in any place where postal service is available." The department's director claimed that correspondence study offered students an intimate "tutorial relationship" that "takes into account individual differences in learning." The education, he said, would prove superior to that delivered in "the crowded classroom of the ordinary American University."
We've been hearing strikingly similar claims today. Another powerful communication network—the Internet—is again raising hopes of a revolution in higher education. This fall, many of the country's leading universities, including MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, are offering free classes over the Net, and more than a million people around the world have signed up to take them.
Now, obviously the U.S. Mail is not the internet (after all, mail service is reliable in rural America), but it's always helpful to look at analogous circumstances when deciding how to proceed with a similar idea or innovation. Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity "is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I would argue it's also insane to deconstruct what has worked very well in the past. An affordable education and an organized labor force built the strongest middle class in the world here in America. Online education has the chance to be a great force for good, even freedom, in the world if we can figure out how it supplements (rather than supplants) the current educational infrastructure and helps keeps costs down, rather than becoming our generation's mail correspondence courses.
➻ Now, on to publishing—another former ivory tower losing its luster. Peter Osnos, founder of one of my favorite publishers—PublicAffairs—wrote an interesting article for The Atlantic last week about Paul Krugman and the Economics of Books.
Krugman's publisher is the highly respected W. W. Norton & Company, founded in the 1920s and notable because, among other reasons, it has been owned by its employees since the 1960s. Norton's other authors include Michael Lewis, Joseph Stiglitz, Stephen Greenblatt, and Fareed Zakaria, as impressive a group of writers and thinkers as any in the country. Fortunately for Norton, it was not one of the five major publishers targeted by the Department of Justice in its antitrust allegations over e-book pricing.
[...] The list price for the book is $24.95, and every bookstore I called is selling it at that price. You can also order it directly from the publisher's website, but that comes with a shipping charge and sales tax where required.
Here is where the pricing becomes interesting. Amazon's hardcover price is $14.71, with no shipping charge for customers who pay an annual fee of $79 for Amazon Prime and two-day delivery. The Kindle edition is $9.48. At BN.com the hardcover is $14.71, but the e-book price is $13.72 (BN.com has free shipping for orders over $25). Moreover, in the Barnes & Noble bookstore, the hardcover is $24.95. On Apple's iBook, the price is $11.99. The Sony store charges $14.99, and on Kobo, which was recently named the e-book provider in the coming year for independent booksellers, the price was $15.49. Only Google Play matched Amazon at $9.48.
So, given these choices, what would you do? [...] Publishers believe that Amazon's goal is to condition its millions of customers to the lowest prices available for the hardware it sells and the content they carry, with the ultimate intention of driving vendors to accept less for what they sell. Mike Shatzkin, an oft-quoted publishing consultant, told the New York Times, "I think everybody competing with Amazon in the ebook market had better fasten their seatbelts."
In her opinion, approving the DOJ settlement with the publishers, Judge Denise Cote removed any obstacle to discounting with the argument that consumers have the right to expect the lowest possible price. "It is not the place of the court," she wrote, "to protect these bookstores and other stakeholders from the vicissitudes of a competitive market." For now, the estimable output of W. W. Norton, including Krugman's End This Depression Now, will continue to be available at a variety of prices. But over the longer term, with possibly serious consequences for the viability of publishers and booksellers, the odds favor the public's instinct to get the best bargain. To reiterate a crucial point I have made before: Publishers will always need the revenue to support authors and the staffs that edit, produce, and market their books, and to provide a reasonable profit for their owners. If the squeeze becomes too tight, the result will be fewer books that matter—like End This Depression Now—whether in print or digital formats.
Low prices moved consumers from the Main Streets of America to shopping in big box stores on the edge of town a generation ago, and now they're moving us from the edge of town to shopping online. The publishing industry is a microcosm of this trend, a bellwether of where we shop. Neighborhood bookstores took a hit when Barnes & Noble and Borders arrived on the outskirts of our communities, and now both the big box stores and independents must compete with Amazon, a company that employs no one and pays no taxes in your hometown (though I suppose that may change when same-day delivery becomes a reality—as it surely will). I just hope we don't all pay a price for the low prices we're paying, and that the companies keeping consumer prices low are also keeping the well-being of the American worker in mind—being that the consumer and worker are largely the same people.
After all, if Gallup Chairman James Clifton is right, the real battle for economic ascendance is not going to be in the price wars, but in The Coming Job Wars.
➻ But, as Wal-Mart stops selling Amazon Kindles, it seems that the war for consumers, not skilled workers, is only escalating.
➻ All this while another of my favorite publishers Knopf Remembers Longtime Editor Ashbel Green. From Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke at The New York Observer:
Mr. Green, who was known as “Ash,” started working at the publishing house in 1964 and went on to edit over 500 books by a stable of well-known authors, political figures and journalists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vaclav Havel, George H.W. Bush and Walter Cronkite.
“I really think that most editors wake up each day hoping they’re going to find something they love,” Mr. Green told the Missouri Review in 2000. “I have a real sense of excitement when a new writer comes in with a novel or a collection of stories or an idea for a political book–someone you feel has a fresh voice, whom you can publish with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Mr. Green was also known for helping young editors.
He was both a friend and mentor to Andrew Miller, who came to Knopf from Vintage to take over Mr. Green’s stable of writers when Mr. Green decided to retire in 2007.
Mr. Green would invite Mr. Miller and their assistant over to his Upper East Side apartment for drinks about once a month—a kind of involvement with younger editors that is rare in book publishing.
“He was a mentor to me by example,” said Mr. Miller. “He never had a bad thing to say about anybody. He was unflappable. He handled bad news with equanimity. He handled authors and agents so well and was always so kind—which is harder than it seems.”
Hopefully some of the editors he mentored are passing that spirit on, keeping the industry honest as they strive to keep it up-to-date.
➻ We'll get there, but Why Is It So Hard?
Posted March 27, 2012 12:00 p.m. by dylan
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
Regular readers of this blog know that we're very interested (or at least I'm very interested) in how the internet is changing not only how we socialize, shop, and work, but how we think and function as human beings—individually, culturally, and as a society. Going back to 2007 when Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur went up against David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous, and continuing through last year when Nicholas Carr's The Shallows was released around the time of Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus, we've been fortunate that publishers have put out books by great thinkers that take opposing sides of the issue that we can compare and contrast. It always sparks a lively conversation.
Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, doesn't take sides in the debate. It is a book about overall digital literacy and the skills necessary to navigate our increasingly digital world, and he covers a lot of ground—from mastering personal attention to crap detection 101 ("How to Find What you Need to Know, and How to Decide If It's True"), from mastering participatory skills and using collective intelligence to the uses and limitations of social networks and how to use all of this to make you smarter individually, Rheingold has really got it covered. He is also both practical and prophetic (a rare combination) and the book is written for everyone—both in its philosophy and implementation. The philosophy of the book keeps it interesting, the tools he provides keep it immediately relevant and applicable.
First up, as to not scare you away, I'll give you a taste of the practical side:
Who Needs to Read This Book, and Why?
- Adults who are Adept at using online tools and networks, but face challenges of time and attention management, and seek a balance between their physical and virtual environments
- Intelligent but perhaps less knowledgeable and fearful and fearful parents of young people who are going online for the first time, or spending more and more time online
- Young people who are immersed in the digital "hanging out, messing around, and geeking out" online that is such an important part of youth culture today, but are ready to learn deeper, broader ways of using social media productively and collaboratively
- People who are old enough to remember the world before it was webbed, and are simultaneously puzzled, attracted, and fearful about new media
- Businesspeople who want their employees to be net smart with each other inside their enterprise as well as social media literate when dealing with customers—net smarts within enterprises are different from social marketing competencies
- Educators who want to help students connect old and and new
While we're waiting for research to provide more definitive evidence about what our media practices are really dong to our minds and social relationships, I think we can all benefit from adopting some of the rules of thumb discovered by mindful digital media users.
In that last sentence is the key to the overall philosophy of the book—mindfulness. Rheingold explains how the way we use technology in its infancy shapes the development and implementation of that technology and, therefore, the course of humanity itself. So it's incumbent upon us to use emerging technologies as mindfully as possible.
Pontificating on the present moment and how it fits into the long arch of history, he writes:
I don't believe that technology itself, a fixed human nature, or the powers that be wholly determine who ends up in control and who ends up being controlled by others when a communication medium is adopted. But I recognize that that powers eventually emerge that try to close gates, meter resources, and lock down liberties. I'm enough of an optimist to persist in believing that this hasn't happened quite yet, despite real advances in the direction of control by governments and corporations around the world. Right now (and for a limited time), we who use the Web have an opportunity to wield the architecture of participation to defend our freedom to create and consume digital media according to our own agendas. Or by not acting in our own interests, we can let others shape the future.
If I am correct that informed actions might still influence the outcome, declaring that technology is alone will solve social problems caused by the use of technology is dangerously naive; at the same time, it is dangerously nihilistic to dismiss all the mental and social tools that microchips make possible as irredeemably destructive. People's actions influenced the ways print media shaped the cultural evolution of the past five hundred years. The early users of the telephone insisted on using it to socialize, not as the broadcast medium envisioned by the first telephone companies. Just as people in previous eras appropriated printing presses and telephones in was that the inventors and vendors of the enabling technologies never imagined, the shape of the social, economic, political, and mental infosphere now emerging from the combination of inexpensive computers, mobile communication devices, and global digital networks is not yet fully hardened, and thus can still be influenced by the actions of literate populations. We're in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology.
Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg presses did not immediately enable people to overthrow monarchies, drive the Protestant Reformation, and invent science as a collective enterprise. The interval between the technological advance of print and the social revolutions it triggered was required for literacy to spread. Print, a technology that leverages the power of the human mind by making possible mass distribution of written documents, required decades for the intellectual skill of decoding those printed pages to spread through populations. The sheer scarcity of painstakingly crafted manuscripts (the word manuscript literally means "written by hand") had constrained literacy for thousands of years. Thirty thousand pen-and-ink books existed in Europe in Johannes Gutenberg's lifetime, but more than ten million printed books became available within fifty years of his invention. The sudden abundance of printed material meant that the mental know-how that had been reservedfor elites for millenia abruptly became available to anybody who was able to put in the effort to learn to read. For decades and centuries after Gutenberg, newly literate populations began to learn what to do with the new media of their time, and then they started to foment the Reformation, institute political self-governance, and systematize the discovery of knowledge.
Digital literacies can leverage the Web's architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today's digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. Most important, as people who are trying to get along day to day in a hyperscale, warp-speed civilization that seems so often to be beyond anyone's control, digital literacy is something powerful we can learn as well as exercise for ourselves and each other. [...]
When enough people become proficient at these skills, then healthy new economies, politics, societies, and cultures can emerge. If these literacies do not spread through the population, we could end up drowning ourselves in torrents of misinformation, disinformation, advertising, spam, porn, noise, and trivia.
That may be too black and white, and being a professor, Rheingold probably uses a few more words than he really needs to (check out the length of these excerpts compared to the ones we usually post), but he has a lot to teach us, knows how to do so, and his professorial tangents entertain as they educate. As someone who often struggles getting comfortable with how digital technology and media fits into my life, this is a great read, a welcome resource and an important addition to the growing number of books on my shelf about the internet and the human condition.
Posted March 16, 2012 11:11 a.m. by dylan
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
➻ Josh Cook wrote an Entirely Too Long, Incredibly Wonkish Book Industry Post: Extravaganza! yesterday that those interested in the industry really need to check out. It's a long, somewhat meandering post filled with extended metaphors, but he boils down his overall points early on for those who don't want to read it all:
- Most retail stores buy their goods from producers and wholesalers for $X per item. Bookstores buy their books at X% of the cover price of the book, regardless of whether or not the actual dollar amount that works out to is profitable for that book at that store in that market. It's like the road not taken, because it makes all the difference.
- Amazon's books are cheaper than everyone else's because they lose money on pretty much every new book they sell. Their prices aren't “cheap,” they're subsidized by the other goods they sell as well as by the dozen plus other companies they own.
- Using a particular item as a loss leader for a particular time is very different from using an entire industry as a loss leader all the time. One is a long-standing retail technique and the other distorts a market and devalues the products in it.
- Initially, the overhead for ebooks is not significantly less than the overhead for print books and so, initially, ebooks should not be priced significantly lower than print books. (Notice the adverbs.)
- ... If books are important to you and/or you believe books are important to culture in general, don't buy all of your books from Amazon. No problem with buying some. Even buying most is acceptable. Shifting 10% of your Amazon purchases will save the entire world.
Amazon is so into discounting that the list price for Splenda there is $553—or maybe Some price comparisons on Amazon are 'crazy'.
➻ If you'd like a more humanitarian reason reason to shift some of your purchases away from Amazon (and other major online retailers), look no further than the companies it contracts its warehouse work to. Cook mentions it briefly in his extended piece, but it's not in his five points and he doesn't link to the most powerful, poignant, impressive, and persuasive piece of writing on the subject that I've read, which is Mac McClelland's expose of her "brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying ... time inside the online-shipping machine," I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave. Written for Mother Jones, she begins the story:
"Don't take anything that happens to you there personally," the woman at the local chamber of commerce says when I tell her that tomorrow I start working at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. She winks at me. I stare at her for a second.
"What?" I ask. "Why, is somebody going to be mean to me or something?"
She smiles. "Oh, yeah." This town somewhere west of the Mississippi is not big; everyone knows someone or is someone who's worked for Amalgamated. "But look at it from their perspective. They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they're gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they're gonna increase the goals. But they'll be yelling at you all the time. It's like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they're going to tell you, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough,' to make you work harder. Don't say, 'This is the best I can do.' Say, 'I'll try,' even if you know you can't do it. Because if you say, 'This is the best I can do,' they'll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You'll see people dropping all around you. But don't take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you."
The rest of the story is of her time working there, and it is worse even than the introduction makes it sound. It illustrates the desperate situation the working poor are in in this country—some of whom have taken to road and become workampers:
Workampers are people who drive RVs around the country, from temporary job to temporary job, docking in trailer camps. "We're retired but we can't…" another explains to me about himself and his wife, shrugging, "make it. And there's no jobs, so we go where the jobs are."
The experience leaves McClelland cold to shopping at major online retailers (which she gives you a list of), and feeling bad for children:
I feel genuinely sorry for any child who ever asks me for anything for Christmas, only to be informed that every time a "Place Order" button rings, a poor person takes four Advil and gets told they suck at their job.
And just to be clear, we have just one shipper/receiver here at 800-CEO-READ, and he takes at least two breaks a day to play me in table tennis.
➻ Seth Godin recently pondered Who decides what gets sold in the bookstore? and how An ebookstore is more like a web browser than a bookstore—interesting reads both that demonstrate a different moral conundrum being introduced by the rise of eBooks:
There’s been a long history of ubiquity at the bookstore. With a few extreme exceptions, just about every book is available at every bookstore if you’re willing to order it. Universal availability feels like part of the contract we make with bookstores–we expect them to sell everything. In the digital world, this goes triple, because there’s no issue of shelf space to deal with.
I just found out that Apple is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.
Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon store. IE page 35, David Weinberger link.”
And there’s the conflict. We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.
So now I have to root for Amazon. I try not to be too much of a Luddite, but this is a world I really don't want to head into. I'll just return to my painting and the distant dream of opening an antiquarian bookstore.
➻ To pull the lens out to the overall age we're in, we turn now to Alec Ash's interview with Nicholas Carr on [the] Impact of the Information Age for The Browser's "Five Books" series. It's a really in-depth—running 1,200 words long before they even get into the book recommendations—and interesting piece that fans of Carr's The Shallows should love. His first book recommendation is Tom Standage's Victorian Internet.
The reason why I start with Tom Standage’s book is because we tend to think of the information age as something entirely new. In fact, people have been wrestling with information for many centuries. If I was going to say when the information age started, I would probably say the 15th century with the invention of the mechanical clock, which turned time into a measurable flow, and the printing press, which expanded our ability to tap into other kinds of thinking. The information age has been building ever since then.
Standage covers one very important milestone in that story, which is the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century. The telegraph was the first really efficient system for long-distance, almost instantaneous communication. It’s a short book, a very lively read, and it shows how this ability to throw one’s thoughts across the world changed all aspects of society. It certainly changed the business world. Suddenly you could coordinate a business not just in a local area, but across the country or across oceans. It had a lot of social implications too, as people didn’t have to wait for letters to come over the course of days. And as Standage points out, it inspired a lot of the same hopes and concerns that we have today with the Internet.
Head over to the interview to get the rest of Carr's recommendations, and feel free to, you know, ignore those buy buttons that link to Amazon.
➻ "I woke up I was already me. I was somewhat afraid I was something."