What’s the Matter with Ebooks: An Update

In an earlier post I speculated about the plateau in ebook adoption. According to recent statistics from publishers we are now actually seeing a decline in ebook sales after a period of growth (and then the leveling off that I discussed before). Here’s my guess about what’s going on—an educated guess, supported by what I’m hearing from my sources and network.

First, re-read my original post. I believe it captured a significant part of the story. A reminder: when we hear about ebook sales we hear about the sales from (mostly) large publishers and I have no doubt that ebooks are a troubled part of their sales portfolio. But there are many other ebooks than those reported by the publishers that release their stats, and ways to acquire them, and thus there’s a good chance that there’s considerable “dark reading” (as I called it) that accounts for the disconnect between the surveys that say that e-reading is growing while sales (again, from the publishers that reveal these stats) are declining.

The big story I now perceive is a bifurcation of the market between what used to be called high and low culture. For genre fiction (think sexy vampires) and other genres where there is a lot of self-publishing, readers seem to be moving to cheap (often 99 cent) ebooks from Amazon’s large and growing self-publishing program. Amazon doesn’t release its ebook sales stats, but we know that they already have 65% of the ebook market and through their self-publishing program may reach a disturbing 90% in a few years. Meanwhile, middle- and high-brow books for the most part remain at traditional publishers, where advances still grease the wheels of commerce (and writing).

Other changes I didn’t discuss in my last post are also happening that impact ebook adoption. Audiobook sales rose by an astonishing 40% over the last year, a notable story that likely impacts ebook growth—for the vast majority of those with smartphones, they are substitutes (see also the growth in podcasts). In addition, ebooks have gotten more expensive in the past few years, while print (especially paperback) prices have become more competitive; for many consumers, a simple Econ 101 assessment of pricing accounts for the ebook stall.

I also failed to account in my earlier post for the growing buy-local movement that has impacted many areas of consumption—see vinyl LPs and farm-to-table restaurants—and is, in part, responsible for the turnaround in bookstores—once dying, now revived—an encouraging trend pointed out to me by Oren Teicher, the head of the American Booksellers Association. These bookstores were clobbered by Amazon and large chains late last decade but have recovered as the buy-local movement has strengthened and (more behind the scenes, but just as important) they adopted technology and especially rapid shipping mechanisms that have made them more competitive.

Personally, I continue to read in both print and digitally, from my great local public library and from bookstores, and so I’ll end with an anecdotal observation: there’s still a lot of friction in getting an ebook versus a print book, even though one would think it would be the other way around. Libraries still have poor licensing terms from publishers that treat digital books like physical books that can only be loaned to one person at a time despite the affordances of ebooks; ebooks are often not that much cheaper, if at all, than physical books; and device-dependency and software hassles cause other headaches. And as I noted in my earlier post, there’s still not a killer e-reading device. The Kindle remains (to me and I suspect many others) a clunky device with a poor screen, fonts, etc. In my earlier analysis, I probably also underestimated the inertial positive feeling of physical books for most readers—which I myself feel as a form of consumption that reinforces the benefits of the physical over the digital.

It seems like all of these factors—pricing, friction, audiobooks, localism, and traditional physical advantages—are combining to restrict the ebook market for “respectable” ebooks and to shift them to Amazon for “less respectable” genres. It remains to be seen if this will hold, and I continue to believe that it would be healthy for us to prepare for, and create, a better future with ebooks.

The Digital Divide and Digital Reading: An Update

Last month I wrote an article for The Atlantic on the state of the digital divide, the surprisingly high rate of device (smartphone and tablet) adoption at all socio-economic strata, and what these new statistics mean for ebooks and reading. An excerpt:

According to Common Sense, 51 percent of teenagers in low-income families have their own smartphones, and 48 percent of tweens in those families have their own tablets. Note that these are their own devices, not devices they have to borrow from someone else. Among middle-income families (that is, between $35,000 and $100,000), 53 percent of tweens have their own tablets and 69 percent of teenagers have their own smartphones, certainly higher but by a lot less than one might imagine.

If we pull back and look at households in general, the gap narrows in other ways. This winter, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop published the first nationally representative telephone survey of lower-income parents on issues related to digital connectivity. The study, conducted by the research firm SSRS, included nearly 1,200 parents with school-aged children, interviewed in both Spanish and English, via landlines and cell phones. It was weighted to be representative of the American population.

In this comprehensive survey, a striking 85 percent of families living below the poverty line have some kind of digital device, smartphone or tablet, in their household. Seventy-three percent had one or more smartphones, compared to 84 percent for families above the poverty line. These are vastly changed numbers from just a few years ago. A 2011 study by Common Sense showed that in lower-income (under $30,000) households with children, only 27 percent of them had a smartphone, compared to 57 percent for households with children and income over $75,000.

It’s worth pondering the significance of these new numbers, and how we might be able to leverage widespread device adoption to increase reading. My conclusion:

We must do everything we can to connect kids with books. Print books, ebooks, library books, bookstores—let’s have it all. Let’s give children access to books whenever and wherever, whether it’s a paperback in the backpack, or a phone in the back pocket.

[Read the full article at The Atlantic.]

Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings

As the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Adams, noted at the beginning of last night’s Jefferson Lecture, Ken Burns was an extraordinarily apt choice to deliver this honorary talk in the celebratory 50th year of the Endowment. Tens of millions of Americans have viewed his landmark documentaries on the Civil War, jazz, baseball, and other topics pivotal to U.S. history and culture.

Burns began his talk with a passionate defense of the humanities. The humanities and history, by looking at bygone narratives and especially by listening to the voices of others from the past—and showing their faces in Burns’s films, as Chairman Adams helpfully highlighted—prod us to understand the views of others, and thus, we hope, expand our capacity for tolerance. We have indeed lost the art of seeing through others’ eyes—perspective-taking—to disastrous results online and off. It was good to hear Burns’s fiery rhetoric on this subject.

His sense that the past is still so very present, especially the deep scar of slavery and racism, was equally powerful. As Burns reminded us, the very lecture he was giving was named after a Founder and American president who owned a hundred people and who failed to liberate even one during his lifetime.

While there were many grand and potent themes to Burns’s lecture, and many beautiful and haunting phrases, in my mind the animating and central element in his talk was a personal story, and a person. And it is worth thinking more about that smaller history to understand Burns’s larger sense of history. (Before reading further, I encourage you to read the full lecture, which is now up on the NEH website.)

* * *

When Burns was just a small boy, only 9 years old, his mother became terminally ill with cancer, and the family needed help as their lives unraveled. His father hired Mrs. Jennings, an African-American woman who was literally from the other side of the tracks in Newark, Delaware. Burns clearly bonded strongly with Mrs. Jennings; he loved her as a “surrogate mother” and someone who loved him and stood strong for him in a time of great stress and uncertainty.

Then came a moment that haunts Burns to this day, a moment he admits to thinking about every week for over 50 years. His father took a job at the University of Michigan, in part so that his deteriorating wife could get medical care at the university hospital. The family would have to move. They packed up, and on the way out of town, took a final stop at Mrs. Jennings’ house. As Burns recounts the moment:

She greeted us warmly, as she always did, but she was also clearly quite upset and worried to see us go, concerned about our family’s dire predicament. Just as we were about to head off for the more than twelve-hour drive to our new home, Mrs. Jennings leaned into the back of the car to give me a hug and kiss goodbye. Something came over me. I suddenly recoiled, pressed myself into the farthest corner of the back seat, and wouldn’t let her.

Burns sees this moment, which he had never recounted publicly before last night and which immediately hushed the audience, as a horrific emergence of racism in his young self. Internalizing the “n-word” that was used all around him in the early 1960s, he couldn’t bring himself, at this crucial moment, to simply lean forward and hug and kiss Mrs. Jennings.

In this way, and in this story, Ken Burns’s Jefferson lecture was, perhaps more than anything, a plea for forgiveness. In the largely white audience, you could sense, at that tense, core moment of his talk, the self-recognition of those in the darkness, who knew that they, too, had had moments like Ken’s—a deep-seated inability to treat a black friend or colleague or neighbor with the humanity they deserved and desired.

* * *

Upon further reflection, I think there is something in the story of Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings that Burns may not have fully articulated, but that, even through his painful self-criticism, he may understand.

That moment of “recoil” is, I believe, more emotionally complex. Undoubtedly it includes the terrible mark of racism that Burns identified. But he was also a 9-year-old boy whose mother was dying, who was being driven away from his childhood home, the address of which he still remembers by heart as a 62 year old.

Young children respond to intensely stressful moments in ways that adults cannot understand. Surely Ken’s recoil also included feelings of not wanting to leave, not wanting to acknowledge that he was being driven away from all that he knew, with another, certain, grim loss on the horizon. Perhaps most of all, Ken didn’t want to be separated from someone he deeply loved as a human being: Mrs. Jennings. Kids don’t have the same coping mechanisms or situational behavior that adults have. Sometimes when they don’t want to affirm the horror of their present, they retreat into themselves. I hope that Ken Burns can let that possibility in, and begin to forgive himself, as much as he wishes that Mrs. Jennings and his father, who lashed out at him for his recoil, could return and do the forgiving.

If he can begin to forgive himself and recognize the complex feelings of that moment, then the story of Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings can serve as both an example of the cruel, ongoing impact of racism in the United States, and also as a source of how change happens, albeit all too slowly. Surely Ken Burns’s unconscious reflection on this moment with Mrs. Jennings has been writing itself, subliminally, into his documentaries, and through them, into our own views of American history.

Burns mentioned toward the end of the lecture how African-American pioneers and geniuses such as Louis Amstrong and Jackie Robinson changed the racial views of many white Americans. But just as important, and perhaps more so, are the more complicated, daily interactions such as that between boyhood Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings, experiences in which cold, dehumanizing stereotyping battles warm, humanizing sentiment. It takes constant work from us all for the latter to win.

[With thanks to my always insightful wife for our conversation about the lecture.]

For What It’s Worth: A Review of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”

This is what we know: On November 24, 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan sold its latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, through an online auction house. As one of the most innovative rap groups, the Wu-Tang Clan had used concepts for their recordings before, but the latest album would be their highest concept: it would exist as only one copy—as an LP, that physical, authentic format for music—encased in an artisanally crafted box. This album would have only one owner, and thus, perhaps, only one listener. By legal agreement, the owner would not be allowed to distribute it commercially until 88 years from now.

Once—note the singularity at the beginning of the album’s title—was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, a young man who was an unsuccessful hedge fund manager and then an unscrupulous drug company executive. This career arc was more than enough to make him filthy rich by age 30.

Then, in one of 2015’s greatest moments of schadenfreude, especially for those who care about the widespread availability of quality healthcare and hip hop, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI for fraud. Alas, the FBI left Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in Shkreli’s New York apartment.

Presumably, the album continues to sit there, in the shadows, unplayed. It may very well gather dust for some time.

This has made many people unhappy, and some have hatched schemes to retrieve Once, ideally using the martial arts the Shaolin monks are known for. But our obsession with possessing the album has prevented us from contemplating the nature of the album—its existence—which is what the Buddhists of Shaolin would, after all, prefer us to do.

RZA, the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, had tried to forewarn us. As he told Forbes, “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of music…This is like someone having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

Many have sought ways that the public might listen to Once, but few have taken RZA at his word. What if Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is meant primarily as art, as a precious artifact that only one person, like a king, can hold? And if we consider this question, do we really need to listen to the album to hear what it’s saying?

*          *          *

In 1995, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei took an ancient, priceless Han Dynasty vase and dropped it onto a brick floor. It instantly shattered. He took a series of high-speed photographs of the vase drop, which he assembled into a triptych; in the middle photograph the vase seems like it’s in a levitating, suspended state. It exists, but it is milliseconds from not existing. It is forever there, whole, and yet we know it is forever in pieces.

dropping_vase

He shouldn’t have destroyed that singular vase, you may be thinking. You must think more deeply, and enter the Shaolin temple of your mind.

*          *          *

In the old mill town of North Adams, Massachusetts, a cluster of nineteenth-century factory buildings has been converted into the largest museum of contemporary art in the United States: Mass MoCA. One entire building, from top to bottom, is dedicated to the work of Sol LeWitt.

Sol LeWitt is an unusual artist in that he rarely painted, drew, or sculpted the art you see by him. Instead, he wrote out instructions for artwork, and then left it to “constructors”—often art students, museum curators, or others, to do the actual work of fabrication. LeWitt liked to be a recipe writer, not a chef.

“Wall Drawing 1180: Within a circle draw 10,000 straight black lines and 10,000 black not straight lines. All lines are randomly spaced and equally distributed.”

Somehow, incredibly, this ends up looking like a massive picture from the Hubble Telescope: an infinite field of stars emerges after weeks of drawing thousands of squiggly and straight lines with a pencil.

lewitt

Sixty-five art students and artists, none of them Sol LeWitt, made the Sol LeWitt exhibit, and it is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see. The patterns, the colors, the way that LeWitt’s often deceptively simple recipes result in a sumptuous banquet for the eyes, is remarkable.

But the exhibit will only last for 25 years—eight of which have already ticked by—after which the museum will paint over all of the art. Touring the exhibit, you can’t help but think about this endtime: All of this beauty, and yet on some Monday morning in the not-really-that-distant future some guy with a 5-gallon bucket of white paint from Home Depot and a wide roller brush on the end of a long wood handle will cover those walls forever. Will he sigh before making the first stroke?

Until that Monday morning in 2033, the Sol LeWitt exhibit exists. You have 17 years remaining, but time moves more quickly than we like, doesn’t it? I have told you to see it, but will you make the trip to North Adams? Right now, for those who have not seen it, it’s Ai Weiwei’s Han vase in mid-drop. It’s just that the gravity is lighter, the fall slower. But the third photograph, the smashed pieces, is coming.

Do you fear the loss of that magical field of stars and scores of other wall-sized artworks? Or have you closed your eyes, meditated, and concluded: Even if I never get to North Adams, LeWitt’s recipes will still exist, and they are the true art.

*          *          *

In 2008, as Mass MoCA was constructing the Sol Lewitt exhibit, they also hosted an exhibit of the art of Spencer Finch. Finch was fascinated by Emily Dickinson, and wished to recreate the moments in which she looked out of her window, thinking and writing poetry. Could these ephemeral views be recaptured, made physical for us so many years later?

“Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004),” tried to do so. Finch used lighting and light filters to make a cloud of just the right wavelengths that Dickinson would have seen outside of her bedroom on a particular day.

finch

You cannot capture a moment, you mutter softly, waving your hand, nor Emily Dickinson’s thoughts.

*          *          *

Open your favorite streaming music app, and search for the blockbuster 2013 song “Get Lucky.”

Make a playlist that includes the original Daft Punk version, which should come up as the first hit, but also add to the list three other covers of the song by artists you have never heard of, which you will find by scrolling down the search results page.

These versions exist because of something called a “compulsory license,” which means that by paying a defined fee to an agency, you are allowed to record a cover song without asking for, or receiving, permission from the artist who wrote it. The song becomes a recipe and you become the constructor.

Now visit a friend. Play the “Get Lucky” playlist on shuffle mode. When all four songs have been played, ask your friend to identify the original version. The guitar and bass and singing will sound surprisingly similar in each version. Your friend will probably ask, increasingly frantically: “Which is the one true song?”

Do not answer. Thank your friend, bow, and leave.

*          *          *

“Get Lucky” was co-written by Nile Rodgers, the mastermind behind some of the greatest pop music of the last 40 years, starting with Chic, the disco band that gave us infectious dance hits like “Good Times.” Shortly after “Good Times” was released as a single, the enterprising music producer Sylvia Robinson brought a funk band into a recording studio and had them copy Chic’s bassist Bernard Edwards’ memorable bass line from that song. She also sampled its string section. Adding some rappers no one had ever heard of before, she created “Rapper’s Delight,” which seemed laughable to those who really knew the inventive, emerging hip hop scene, but which rather effectively set rap music on a course for mainstream (and white) popularity.

Rodgers initially hated “Rapper’s Delight,” believing it was a wholesale copy of “Good Times,” and he and Edwards sued for copyright violation. Later, after he won and was listed as a co-writer of the song, he declared himself proud of “Rapper’s Delight.” He realized it was a brilliant theft that changed pop music forever, and yet didn’t diminish Chic’s original work.

“Rapper’s Delight” was far from the only hip hop song to borrow; in fact, the reuse of older recordings was standard within the new genre, and part of its enormous creativity. The technique reached its apogee in arguably the three seminal rap albums of the late 1980s: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Each of these albums had over a hundred samples, mixing and matching from different genres to make sounds that were totally new.

They were large, you nod, they contained multitudes.

*          *          *

In 1992, the science fiction author William Gibson, who had coined the word “cyberspace,” released a new work entitled Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). The text was issued, most famously, in a deluxe edition on a 3.5” floppy disk encased in an artisanally crafted box. The disk would encrypt itself upon a single reading, so you only had one shot to read the text as it scrolled across your screen.

This Agrippa cost $2000, and only a very small number were made. Gibson publicly revelled in the work’s combination of the ephemeral and the valuable. He loved that the book, after viewing, would become like a television tuned to a dead channel.

Almost immediately, however, the text of Agrippa was surreptitiously released on an underground electronic bulletin board called MindVox. Anyone can now read it online, and view the deluxe packaging as well.

What is the nature of art, you consider, without its packaging? What is its value?

*          *          *

The British artist Damien Hirst is probably best known for putting a dead shark in a large tank of formaldehyde and giving it the existential title “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” In 2007, he asked the jewelers who fabricate items for the British monarchy—scepters for the king—to make a human skull out of diamonds and platinum, based on a real skull he bought. The skull’s teeth were added to the final product. Hirst called this artwork “For the Love of God.” Many critics called it “tacky.”

hirst

But “For the Love of God” was as much an exercise in the finance that goes along with the contemporary art scene, where prices for works regularly head into eight or even nine figures at auction. The fabrication of the skull apparently cost £14 million, and Hirst tried to sell the bejeweled skull to bidders for £50 million. Although there were rumors of a sale, ultimately there were no takers. A mysterious consortium then evidently bought the skull, but for less than £50 million, perhaps much less, and oddly, Hirst seemed to be one of the investors. Some analysts believe that Hirst actually lost money on the deal.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was also rumored to be for sale for a much higher number, perhaps as much as $5 million, but Shkreli ultimately bought it for $2 million, which is far less than the Wu-Tang Clan would make from a regular album release.

*          *          *

What is Once Upon a Time in Shaolin really worth? Is its scarcity its worth, and its worth its true art and value?

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin may not be as scarce as we imagine. It surely exists beyond the sole copy in Martin Shkreli’s apartment. It exists in the sense that members of Wu-Tang created it and still have its music in their heads and could likely recreate it if they wanted. Perhaps RZA is humming some of the songs in his shower right now. It exists as a recipe.

But it may also exist in actuality, albeit in pieces, like the wisps of a cloud. The master recordings may have been destroyed, but the way that digital recording works mean that elements of Once existed more than once on magnetic media and probably, somewhere, continue to exist regardless of what Wu-Tang Clan has done with the completed master. Parts of the album can probably be dug up, like the scepter of an Egyptian king, or the disappearing poetry on a phosphorus screen.

If samples were used, they exist on other recordings; if a drum machine was used, those beats exist, identically, on many other machines. Any computers involved surely have files that have not been truly erased, and that could be dug up by digital archaeologists. There may be assembly to be done, and perhaps the final product would be different from the “original.” Or would it?

And perhaps too many traces of the full Once Upon a Time in Shaolin exist for it not to leak, just as Agrippa did.

Of course, then it will just be another stream of bits among the countless streams in our ephemeral era, severed from its unique packaging. It will take its place on millions of playlists, its songs sitting alongside tens of millions of other songs.

We will have gained something from Once’s liberation, but then we will have lost something as well.

*          *          *

The abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, who recently died, was once asked about the nature of art. “I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living,” he said, with more than a bit of Shaolin wisdom. “This is an illusion, of course.”

George Boole at 200: The Emotion Behind the Logic

Today is the 200th anniversary of George Boole’s birth, and he certainly merits a big celebration at University College Cork, where he was the first professor of mathematics, and even that rare honor: a Google Doodle. The focus has been on his technical breakthroughs, since his brilliant advances in mathematics and logic formed the foundation of modern computing.

But on this bicentennial it’s also worth looking at the emotional motivation behind Boole’s supposedly dispassionate technical work—and at ourselves in the mirror. As I wrote in my book Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith, Boole lived in a time of painful polarization, unfortunately not so dissimilar to ours. While his attention was on religion rather than politics (although those were intertwined, as they are in our day), Boole found the divisiveness unrelenting and sorely lacking in compassion.

My thesis, documented in his notebooks and letters home, and in his published articles and books—his Laws of Thought includes as much about social and philosophical concerns as it does mathematics—is that Boole saw his logic as a way to transcend the overwrought differences of his time to find an ecumenical way to work together toward divine truth. Boole hated that it had become so hard for opposing sides to talk to each other about many issues, and that even minor distinctions were amplified by the modes of discourse and by everyone’s quick jumps to strong opinion and judgment.

Boole’s contemporary and fellow mathematical logician Augustus De Morgan summarized the problem when he wrote that if you asked someone if the craters were larger on the dark side of the moon than on the side we can see, “The odds are, that though he has never thought of the question, he has a pretty stiff opinion in three seconds.” To counter this dogmatism, Boole and De Morgan not only created symbolic logic, but also through their generous interactions with those of many sects and faiths, tried to be true to the spirit of their work.

So today let us honor George Boole the mathematician, but also George Boole the human being. His entreaties to respect all sides, to be charitable with those with whom you disagree, to not jump to conclusions but instead to pause and think carefully first, to try to find a way bridge divides—these are all too rare qualities in our age as well as his.

What’s the Matter with Ebooks?

[As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted to this blog for over a year. I’ve been extraordinarily busy with my new job. But I’m going to make a small effort to reinvigorate this space, adding my thoughts on evolving issues that I’d like to explore without those thoughts being improperly attributed to the Digital Public Library of America. This remains my personal blog, and you should consider these my personal views. I will also be continuing to post on DPLA’s blog, as I have done on this topic of ebooks.]

Over the past two years I’ve been tracking ebook adoption, and the statistics are, frankly, perplexing. After Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, there was a rapid growth in ebook sales and readership, and the iPad’s launch three years later only accelerated the trend.

Then something odd happened. By most media accounts, ebook adoption has plateaued at about a third of the overall book market, and this stall has lasted for over a year now. Some are therefore taking it as a Permanent Law of Reading: There will be electronic books, but there will always be more physical books. Long live print!

I read both e- and print books, and I appreciate the arguments about the native advantages of print. I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times, but every Sunday I also get the printed version. The paper feels expansive, luxuriant. And I do read more of it than the daily paper on my iPad, as many articles catch my eye and the flipping of pages requires me to confront pieces that I might not choose to read based on a square inch of blue-tinged screen. (Also, it’s Sunday. I have more time to read.) Even though I read more ebooks than printed ones at this point, it’s hard not to listen to the heart and join the Permanent Law chorus.

But my mind can’t help but disagree with my heart. Yours should too if you run through a simple mental exercise: jump forward 10 or 20 or 50 years, and you should have a hard time saying that the e-reading technology won’t be much better—perhaps even indistinguishable from print, and that adoption will be widespread. Even today, studies have shown that libraries that have training sessions for patrons with iPads and Kindles see the use of ebooks skyrocket—highlighting that the problem is in part that today’s devices and ebook services are hard to use. Availability of titles, pricing (compared to paperback), DRM, and a balkanization of ebook platforms and devices all dampen adoption as well.

But even the editor of the New York Times understands the changes ahead, despite his love for print:

How long will print be around? At a Loyola University gathering in New Orleans last week, the executive editor [of the Times], Dean Baquet, noted that he “has as much of a romance with print as anyone.” But he also admitted, according to a Times-Picayune report, that “no one thinks there will be a lot of print around in 40 years.”

Forty years is a long time, of course—although it is a short time in the history of the book. The big question is when the changeover will occur—next year, in five years, in Baquet’s 2055?

The tea leaves, even now, are hard to read, but I’ve come to believe that part of this cloudiness is because there’s much more dark reading going on than the stats are showing. Like dark matter, dark reading is the consumption of (e)books that somehow isn’t captured by current forms of measurement.

For instance, usually when you hear about the plateauing of ebook sales, you are actually hearing about the sales of ebooks from major publishers in relation to the sales of print books from those same publishers. That’s a crucial qualification. But sales of ebooks from these publishers is just a fraction of overall e-reading. By other accounts, which try to shine light on ebook adoption by looking at markets like Amazon (which accounts for a scary two-thirds of ebook sales), show that a huge and growing percentage of ebooks are being sold by indie publishers or authors themselves rather than the bigs, and a third of them don’t even have ISBNs, the universal ID used to track most books.

The commercial statistics also fail to account for free e-reading, such as from public libraries, which continues to grow apace. The Digital Public Library of America and other sites and apps have millions of open ebooks, which are never chalked up as a sale.

Similarly, while surveys of the young continue to show their devotion to paper, yet other studies have shown that about half of those under 30 read an ebook in 2013, up from a quarter of Millennials in 2011—and that study is already dated. Indeed, most of the studies that highlight our love for print over digital are several years old (or more) at this point, a period in which large-format, high-resolution smartphone adoption (much better for reading) and new all-you-can-read ebook services, such as Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle Unlimited, have emerged. Nineteen percent of Millennials have already subscribed to one of these services, a number considered low by the American Press Institute, but which strikes me as remarkably high, and yet another contributing factor to the dark reading mystery.

I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I suspect that we’re not going to have to wait anywhere near forty years for ebooks to become predominant, and that the “plateau” is in part a mirage. That may cause some hand-wringing among book traditionalists, an emotion that is understandable: books are treasured artifacts of human expression. But in our praise for print we forget the great virtues of digital formats, especially the ease of distribution and greater access for all—if done right.

Information Overload, Past and Present

The end of this year has seen much handwringing over the stress of information overload: the surging, unending streams, the inexorable decline of longer, more intermittent forms such as blogs, the feeling that our online presence is scattered and unmanageable. This worry spike had me scurrying back to Ann Blair’s terrific history of pre-modern information stress, Too Much to Know. Blair notes how every era has dealt with similar feelings, and how people throughout the ages have come up with different solutions:

These days we are particularly aware of the challenges of information management given the unprecedented explosion of information associated with computers and computer networking…But the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period. Ancient, medieval, and early modern authors and authors working in non-Western contexts articulated similar concerns, notably about the overabundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them (such as memory and time).

The perception of overload is best explained, therefore, not simply as the result of an objective state, but rather as the result of a coincidence of causal factors, including existing tools, cultural or personal expectations, and changes in the quantity of quality of information to be absorbed and managed…But the feeling of overload is often lived by those who experience it as if it were an utterly new phenomenon, as is perhaps characteristic of feelings more generally or of self-perceptions in the modern or postmodern periods especially. Certainly the perception of experiencing overload as unprecedented is dominant today. No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new.

Blair identifies four “S’s of text management” from the past that we still use today: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing. She also notes the history of alternative solutions to information overload that are the equivalent of deleting one’s Twitter account: Descartes and other philosophers, for instance, simply deciding to forget the library so they could start anew. Other to-hell-with-it daydreams proliferated too:

In the eighteenth century a number of writers articulated fantasies of destroying useless books to stem the never-ending accumulation…One critic has identified the articulation of the sublime as another kind of response to overabundance; Kant and Wordsworth are among the authors who described an experience of temporary mental blockage due to “sheer cognitive exhaustion,” whether triggered by sensory or mental overload.

When you ask historians which place and time they would most like to live in, it’s notable that they almost always choose eras and locales with a robust but not overwhelming circulation of ideas and art; just enough newness to chew on, but not too much to choke on; and a pervasive equanimity and thoughtfulness that the internet has not excelled at since the denizens of alt.tasteless invaded rec.pets.cats on Usenet. Jonathan Spence, for instance, imagines a life of moderation, sipping tea and trading considered thoughts in sixteenth-century Hangzhou.

Feels to me like there are many out there grasping for a similar circle of lively friends and deeper discussion as we head into 2014.

 

The Digital Public Library of America, Me, and You

Twenty years ago Roy Rosenzweig imagined a compelling mission for a new institution: “To use digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a part of that mission for over twelve years, at what became the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, with last five and a half years as director.

Today I am announcing that I will be leaving the center, and my professorship at George Mason University, the home of RRCHNM, but I am not leaving Roy’s powerful vision behind. Instead, I will be extending his vision—one now shared by so many—on a new national initiative, the Digital Public Library of America. I will be the founding executive director of the DPLA.

The DPLA, which you will be hearing much more about in the coming months, will be connecting the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums so that the public can access all of those collections in one place; providing a platform, with an API, for others to build creative and transformative applications upon; and advocating strongly for a public option for reading and research in the twenty-first century. The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country, but instead will extend their commitment to the public sphere, and provide them with an extraordinary digital attic and the technical infrastructure and services to deliver local cultural heritage materials everywhere in the nation and the world. DPLA_logo The DPLA has been in the planning stages for the last few years, but is about to spin out of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and move from vision to reality. It will officially launch, as an independent nonprofit, on April 18 at the Boston Public Library. I will move to Boston with my family this summer to lead the organization, which will be based there. It is such a great honor to have this opportunity.

Until then I will be transitioning from my role as director of RRCHNM, and my academic life at Mason. Everything at the center will be in great hands, of course; as anyone who visits the center immediately grasps, it is a highly collaborative and nonhierarchical place with an amazing staff and an especially experienced and innovative senior staff. They will continue to shape “the future the past,” as Roy liked to put it. I will miss my good friends at the center, but I still expect to work closely with them, since so many critical software initiatives, educational projects, and digital collections are based at RRCHNM. A search for a new director will begin shortly. I will also greatly miss my colleagues in Mason’s wonderful Department of History and Art History.

At the same time, I look forward to collaborating with new friends, both in the Boston office of the DPLA and across the United States. The DPLA is a unique, special idea—you don’t get to build a massive new library every day. It is apt that the DPLA will launch at the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, with those potent words carved into stone above its entrance: “Free to all.” The architect Charles Follen McKim rightly called it “a palace for the people,” where anyone could enter to learn, create, and be entertained by the wonders of books and other forms of human expression.

We now have the chance to build something like this for the twenty-first century—a rare, joyous possibility in our too-often cynical age. I hope you will join me in this effort, with your ideas, your contributions, your energy, and your public spirit.

Let’s build the Digital Public Library of America together.

The Other Academy Awards

Two related problems have been bedeviling the current discussion of new modes of academic work. First, it remains unclear to many academics how we can effectively assess digital scholarship, given its many shapes and sizes and often complex, collaborative production. This problem is receiving so much attention right now that we devoted our entire last issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities to it.

Second, given that many of these digital genres—multimedia scholarly sites, sophisticated digital collections, long-form academic blogs, and the like—are published directly to the web, a need has arisen for post-publication, rather than traditional pre-publication, peer review. Last week I was on a panel at the 2013 American Historical Association annual meeting on the future of history journals and peer review, and many in the audience were journal editors who were skeptical about the notion of post-publication peer review. Indeed, for many history and humanities scholars, “post-publication peer review” is an oxymoron; the only true form of peer review is the one that occurs before publication, and that helps to determine in a binary way whether an article or book is published in the first place.

Yet there is an obvious form of post-publication peer review already in wide use—awards—and I would like to suggest that we use them even more widely to help solve the problem of how to assess digital scholarship. As they currently stand, academic awards are icing on the cake. The prizes that the AHA gives every year—mostly books, with a few additional categories for articles, films, reference resources, and lifetime work—are wonderful signifiers of highly distinguished work. To receive one of these prizes is a major career achievement. One of the goals of the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History, awarded by the AHA since 2009, was to validate the very top work in this new field.

One award isn’t nearly enough for our field, however, or for others that increasingly involve digital work. We need to recognize a broad swath of scholarship and innovation using awards, since it’s an effective way to signal creative, good work. Awards can be a clear form of professional validation for digital scholarship that is understandable to everyone in academia (including those outside of digital humanities), and that doesn’t rely on more controversial forms of post-publication peer review such as open review or crowdsourcing. How do we know that a professor’s blog is worthy of significant credit, that it is more than just musings and is having an impact in a field? A certifying scholarly organization or review panel has deemed it so, from a crowded field.

Furthermore, like the Grammys, we need to give awards not just for Record of the Year but for Best Jazz Instrumental and Achievement in Sound Engineering. Knowledgeable review panels with a deep understanding of the composition of digital work should be able to give out both general awards for digital projects and distinct awards, for instance, for outstanding work in user interfaces for digital archives.

Thankfully, there are already initiatives on this front. A new slate of annual Digital Humanities Awards has just launched, with an international review committee. (Nominations due today!) Now we need scholarly societies to back both interdisciplinary and disciplinary awards with their imprimatur. From conversations I’ve had recently, I sense that is likely to happen in the near future.

Of course, we need to be aware of the rather valid objection that awards can be overdone. We should avoid the digital equivalent of an award for Best Zydeco/Metal Duet. (Actually, that sounds incredible.) Last year the Recording Academy sensibly lowered the number of Grammy categories from 109 to 78. Furthermore, it’s important for awards to have some minimum number of entries or nominations every year, and as with book awards, peer review panels must retain the option of giving no award in a year if none of the options are deemed worthy. Awards must be meaningful.

Right now, however, we should think more broadly, rather than narrowly, about giving awards for digital work. There are precious few opportunities for digital projects to receive external validation. I continue to believe that other forms of post-publication peer review are needed as well (especially for developmental editing rather than vetting), but let’s at least start with a larger slate of rigorously determined awards and some (virtual) gold statues.