Leaving it All Behind: One, Two, Three, GO
BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
(ACT) ONE Culture and Technology
PRAGMATIST: Why are you proselytizing? Just leave it to the tech companies. The innovator/inventors will eventually come up with the right solution. They’re listening to us. We clearly don’t have the right technology now so of course there’s no universality of the use of e-readers so we can’t gauge the market demand for such a platform, in place of books.
CONCERNED IDEALIST: It’s not about technology, it’s about culture, don’t you see? A huge reading demographic doesn’t have access to e-readers, and they frankly don’t care about them. So we can’t leave it to the inventors because they are leaving people behind—people who don’t matter to them.
PRAGMATIST: Of course it’s about technology. If we don’t come up with the right accessible technology that will become a seamless component in reading everything from journalism to literary fiction—long and short—e-readers won’t be adopted. And the trend in mainstream publishing at least is that there is less and less reading of printed materials happening. We are addressing that with technology.
CONCERNED IDEALIST: And if that technology isn’t perfected—worse, if it can’t get better—reading books will be a thing of the past. Books are in all out war with anything and everything competing for attention—and everything else is going to win if the publishing industry doesn’t adapt to the drive for more accessible, interactive, portable content.
PRAGMATIST : I think you’re being prematurely alarmist. You think libraries will go away because everyone—rich, poor, rural and urban—will have portable, cheap or free content that they want? Free content isn’t a sustainable long-term model, we’re seeing that now.
CONCERNED IDEALIST: Free for some, paid for others? Like healthcare?
PRAGMATIST: Don’t get me started.
(ACT) TWO Delivery and Content
CONCERNED IDEALIST: Yes, I do think libraries may just go away. That would be awful. Some libraries are losing some funding, but many libraries are already adopting new models. Internet access is a primary driver for most libraries primarily in less wealthy areas—those which I’m primarily concerned about. Community projects, reading rooms, discussion groups, these are some of the functions that libraries are serving. I can see them evolve into more community-oriented centers for sharing information than just clearinghouses for books. That’s so stale and 20th century.
PRAGMATIST: You’re living in la la land. Have you seen the libraries that don’t receive hundreds of millions of dollars in municipal funding? Some aren’t even open on the weekends. Like I said before, books and reading in general are going to lose out in favor of 140-character, short attention span snippets of information, or games. The faster we plug that gap, the better chance we have of not losing those underprivileged groups. Might as well move the literary and genre stuff, long-form fiction to e-readers.
CONCERNED IDEALIST: There are academic and community leaders, foundations, and global movements that continue empower communities to read. We are never going to leave education in the dust, no matter how doom-and-gloom your outlook is. Reading is a fundamental tenet of education, and everyone knows that doesn’t come from video games. The slower the better, in the case of technology when it comes to disadvantaged communities and underdeveloped countries.
PRAGMATIST: You’re taking those community groups for granted. We have to bridge the gap right now (and I think that’s exactly what is already happening) between the movement to jump to e-readers, and the poor communities with little or no access to the technology that is driving this change. Look how cellphones have leapfrogged over traditional landline communications in underdeveloped countries. Nigeria now has better cell service than Manhattan.
CONCEREND IDEALIST: If the publishing companies can’t figure it out, entrepreneurs and artists will. They already are figuring out new ways to deliver content that is innovative and outside the lines of what publishing companies are used to delivering. The publishing industry knows it can’t survive by relegating itself to underserved communities with a limited interest in new fiction.
PRAGMATIST: Digital content can’t all be free; but it can’t all be premium, then.
CONCERNED IDEALIST: Exactly. We have to strike the right balance between effective technology—delivery—and compelling content that will meet the market needs and experimental aspects of the arts. I’m not sure the publishing companies can accomplish that feat. They are slow-moving to adapt content-wise and have kept marginalized portions of society at the margins of their business model.
(ACT) THREE Paradigm Shift
PRAGMATIST: Then that’s a paradigm shift—a revolution.
CONCERNED IDEALIST: That’s right. It encompasses bridging that gap you talked about but doing it comprehensively and not just among the literary elite, as they call themselves—whether they are the fringe elite or the mainstream elite.
PRAGMATIST: Are you calling early adopters an elite group?
CONCERNED IDEALIST: Aren’t they, though?
PRAGMATIST: How else are you supposed to know what ideas will work without the collaboration of people willing to take that chance?
CONCERNED IDEALIST: Listen to yourself. Don’t you think disadvantaged communities are willing to risk whatever it is they don’t yet have for the prospect of a better quality of life and a clearer shot to education, prosperity, safety, and health? Why can’t everyone who wants to be one be an early adopter? We’re sitting here moaning about Kindles and metadata connecting book searching on Google, and meanwhile school districts across the country and the world don’t have enough money to buy textbooks, no less smartboards or laptops for every kid. And in underdeveloped countries? Don’t get me started. We’re totally getting ahead of ourselves here.
PRAGMATIST: Ok, you’ve made your point. I haven’t thought much about that. So can the publishing industry, the dying, meager publishing industry adapt, or can it?
CONCERNED IDEALIST: We—WE—must collectively work our asses off to support literary initiatives that range from author readings and book drives to fundraising and charitable causes aimed at literacy and laptops for schools and libraries. I know that’s not specific, but the support infrastructure is there, it’s just barebones and we need to chill out with the chattering class thing and start really doing each of our own fair share of community outreach. This support will bolster the “market” that the publishing industry needs to survive.
PRAGMATIST: So we’re not in disagreement, are we?
CONCERNED IDEALIST: No, we want to see literary, genre and offbeat fiction continue to have a shot at broad readership. We want journalism and other content to be free of corporate influence and easily accessible.
PRAGMATIST: And we need to find a pricepoint that is fair to all that will continue to support the developers of content in the industry, all while cultivating new readership and retaining existing readership with content that they just can’t get enough of.
CONCERNED IDEALIST: We just disagree on how we’re going to get there—rush to digital or slow crawl to it while incorporating a sustainable business model for independent publishers and authors. These people may be in closer touch with the reality of the margins and so they can better meet the needs. New York City publishing houses are concerned with profit margins, not margins of society.