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The paper book is dead. Long live the narrative.
As digital books unfold (so to speak) three transformations will occur that are very different than what we know in books and reading today. At the risk of being too cute, call them: wreading, righting and utterly new economic models.
Wreading. All things digital blur. Any formerly crisp boundary in the physical world becomes porous and fuzzy in the digital world by the mere fact that content is no longer captive to the container. While the ideas behind any piece of fiction or non-fiction are intangible, rendered as ink on paper, they are immutable. Kept in the native form of bits, by contrast, the expression of an idea is not only fungible, but the reader can become a writer – what I am calling a wreader. A previously solitary experience becomes a social experience (unlike this one, so far).
Righting. Wikipedia is an example. It is about intellectual property seen as a collective process. The expansion and correcting of content is admittedly more germane to non-fiction than fiction, but the point is that text with digital readers can evolve both in terms of facts and point of view on those facts. To date with physical books, the closest approximation we have is reading somebody’s annotations in the margin. Another example is commentary at the end of a digitally published article. You might argue that the original narrative of such an article is often more considered, deliberate and refined than the comments that follow. True. But the volume (in the sense of loudness) and tone of the feedback is a form of self-correction of ideas, one that we have never had before.
New economic models. Finally, the collapse of current business models behind print media in general is starting to alarm more than just those losing their jobs. We are consuming more and more words thanks to the internet. True, it is easy to dismiss many or most of them as noisy, senseless chit-chat, or the cheapest form of self-publishing. But boy there are some beautiful blogs. Orangette and 2or3thingsiknow are every bit as well written or illustrated as any cookbook or commentary as I have ever read. By any stretch of the imagination these are not published and vetted only by their popularity, a Zagat versus Michelin process.
For these reasons the really new frontier is in editorial. I believe that the number of people who make a living from writing will skyrocket, not go the other direction. The industrial middleman will vanish. The people who help us determine what to read are ever important and new ones will arrive on the scene. The economics of reading and writing will be a cacophony, many small players, some big players, new players, but the total business will be huge.
There will be no single economic model behind it. Stop looking. Deliberation about which one: advertising, subscription, taxation and direct payments — are close to irrelevant. Far more interesting is that we pay twice as much for entertainment and information (almost $200 per month) than we did 10 years ago.
Telephone companies complained that many people were making free phone calls with Skype. But if you looked at the new market of WiFi devices, computer subscriptions and short-term access fees, the total people shell out is far higher than the previous telephone business. It will be the same with books.
Many of us spend far more time reading and typing than we do speaking. That is a big change. We also look at far more images than we ever did before. We play with words much more than we did before, too. We Google something and then Google the result. We get so carried away that we forget what we were looking for in the first place. It’s a process that may keep us up til midnight, but it’s also a natural curiosity amplified by interactive digital media.
So if you are a publisher, sell differently or retire soon. If you are an author, don’t just write for dead trees. If you are a reader, enjoy the unending opportunities, keeping in mind that free sex is different than love. Quality writing, clear thinking and good stories are to be loved and cherished. Physical books, as we know them today, needlessly limit these.
Nicholas Negroponte is the founder the MIT Media Lab. He also founded One Laptop per Child and is the author of the 1995 bestseller "Being Digital." Negroponte currently serves on the Wall Street Journal's Special Committee, as well as GlobalPost's editorial advisory board.