The future of books: from Gutenberg to e-readers

September 20, 2013
Digital_Life_Tech_Test_Tablets_and_E_Readers_0c259 Has the reading experience changed much since the introduction of e-books? (Mark Lennihan – AP)

The current thinking, much in vogue in places like Silicon Valley, is that we are in the middle of a new revolution in book publishing on par with the one launched by Johannes Gutenberg more than 500 years ago. This time around, it is the Internet, not the printing press, which is bringing unprecedented change and disruption to the way we create, distribute and read books. In fact, Gutenberg has even been unofficially adopted as the patron saint of Silicon Valley, and the same types of people who are willing to talk about a “Third Industrial Revolution” are also presumably willing to discuss Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon.com brought us the Kindle, as a Gutenberg for the digital age.

But, how much has the experience of reading a book actually changed in the past generation – or, for that matter, since the age of Gutenberg?

Yes, on the surface, the book publishing industry appears to be undergoing a period of unprecedented disruption – perhaps the greatest disruption since the age of Gutenberg. We now increasingly consume e-books on mobile phones and tablets, and we consume more types of content than ever before. We download books from the Internet rather than buy them at independent bookstores and national chains. And we are finding innovative new ways to publish and distribute books that disrupt the middleman, thereby creating entirely new links between author and reader, both emotional and economic.

However, the future of reading still looks a lot like the past of reading.

The reason is that, even as technological change continues to accelerate at an exponential rate, we as readers are only capable of changing at a linear rate. In short, technological change is revolutionary, but human change is evolutionary. The experience of reading, the love of narrative, and the craving for new stories has been hard-wired into our DNA, and there’s very little Silicon Valley can do to change this, other than by re-wiring our brains. As Bezos, who founded Amazon and recently agreed to purchase The Washington Post,  has remarked, “Human nature doesn’t change. The human brain doesn’t change.”

This might explain why Apple’s first foray into selling e-books on its iPad presented a skeuomorphic view of reading. Books were presented as tomes with impressive covers, bookshelves appeared wooden, and even the physical sensation of turning a page was rendered with a uniquely digital animation. Readers seemed to buy into the idea that reading an e-book on a tablet should not be fundamentally different from reading a traditional book, so they adorned their e-book readers with “covers” and found creative ways to create “libraries” for their e-books. As readers, we needed time to adapt.

If you take a long-term, anthropological view of reading – that is, you observe how people read and the various behaviors associated with books over time — then not much has really changed in the past 500 years since the invention of movable type and the Gutenberg printing press. The technological innovations we highlight today have usually existed in another form in the past. The ability to annotate our e-books, for example, dates back to the ancient practice of “marginalia” in printed books. We have always enjoyed forming personal relationships with authors, meeting fellow book lovers, and celebrating the act of storytelling – so what is actually so innovative about hooking social networks into the reading experience or creating new types of multimedia formats, if they accomplish the same goals?

Which might mean that the future of innovation in the book publishing industry has less to do with “improving” books with digital technology – that is, turning them into interactive, multimedia platforms – and more to do with tapping into the emotional and psychological associations created by books. Consider that the poster art for the National Book Festival taking place in Washington, D.C. this weekend celebrates the act of reading in a playful manner – by using words and images to re-create the warm feeling you get when you hold a beloved book in your hands. When tech innovators are able to bottle that “warm feeling” in a physical object other than a book, that will be when we can really talk about the next Gutenberg revolution.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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