Vox: Laurie Steed

Posted on August 23, 2011 by in Verity La Forum

 

I would challenge a couple of statements in the preamble to the question. While cinema has undoubtedly played a major role in the shaping of global and indeed western culture, I think television, music, and even video games have all played equally important parts in the formation of said culture. I bring this up not to be pedantic, but to approach the question more generally, as to better state my answer.

My point here is simple. Just as we couldn’t have predicted the rise of certain technologies like those listed above, I can’t say what e-form will emerge as the new literary standard; hell, I can’t even say that one single form will become the standard. Things may occur this way, but it’s just as likely that competing companies will develop their own formats to attempt to gain their rightful share of the market. As was the case with digital music, interested parties may come up with interesting (if infuriating) solutions. As a user format, the MP3 was easily the most accessible format for recording and listening to digital music. The MP4 came soon after, and opened up DRM encoding in individual files. This format presented users with a legal digital alternative to piracy while also helping companies like Apple forge partnerships with major record labels keen to profit from emerging technologies.

I would like to say book publishers will decide on a DRM free publishing standard, but this seems unlikely. Book publishers are trying to minimise price shrinkage in their move from print to digital, but here’s the rub; in a digital market, the price point has to be lower, if only because there’s almost always a free (if illegal) way to attain said products that doesn’t involve DRM or a limited stock selection.

Book publishers, then, are in a whole lot of trouble. Rather than relying on local booksellers, with whom they have a long-standing business relationship, they’ll soon be dealing with information companies like Google and Apple, neither of whom seem particularly keen to support grass roots industry. True, it’s likely that print books will exist in some form for many more years, and this will buy publishers some time, but the digital realm is already close to conquered; in Amazon, Google, and Apple, we have our three main contenders for multimedia dominance, each is keen to keep their piece of the pie, and each will most likely discover a format that’s hard to share, easy to read, and remarkably cost-effective when placed alongside its print competitor.

Booksellers are similarly burdened. Unless they realign themselves to fit better with a gift/collectable market (or a niche market at best), they will serve only those buying on a whim, those ignorant of online retailing, or those too rich to care about price. Those who’ve looked into online retailers (such as bookdepository.co.uk) will find it increasingly difficult to defend high local prices when they can obtain the same product for ten dollars cheaper, with postage included.

Regarding the second question, blogs are fascinating things. At best, they tap into shifting notions of time; they unite people around the globe, they tap into niches and they encourage discussion. At their worst, they are intolerable, navel-gazing insights into people who should really be out helping the elderly.

Blogs, then, are artefacts in the purest sense, in that they’re already articles of archaeological interest; they signal things how things were at a particular time and a particular place. I feel that traditional blog platforms are fast losing their relevance, thanks mostly to micro-blogging platforms like Tumblr and social media platforms such as Twitter, which is itself a micro-blogging platform of sorts. Put simply, blogs have become victims of their own availability; the information glut of open access blogging has lead to relevant, interesting content becoming increasingly difficult to find amongst a) the commercially-funded blog b) the self-obsessed blog c) the porn blog (I’ve heard these exist) and d) the spam blog, which is self explanatory. I’ve listed four horrible types of blog here without scratching my head, but my list is by no means exhaustive…

Digital archaeology could begin with the blog, but if we’re being pedantic, then both bulletin boards and html are probably better places to start.

Whatever our definitions, one thing is certain, we’re experiencing an unprecedented change from industrial (i.e. the production of material goods) to digital (the production of data as ‘goods’), and I for one, am sceptical. In a digital world, there is no real-world depreciation of product; the plus of this is less shit in the world; less waste, less unwanted goods. The downside is we’re creating a digital oligarchy, whereby the distribution of all digital content is handled by a small number of key players; these players will forge relationships with the largest businesses in any sector; in book publishing, that’s four multinationals: Penguin, Bertelsmann Media Worldwide, VerlagsGruppe GeorgVon Holtzbrinck and Harper Collins.

Where then, do smaller publishers fit in? The Small Press Network (SPUNC) is trying to ensure that they stay relevant in the digital marketplace, but I don’t envy such a mission. Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer, i.e. you and me, to choose what we prioritise, regardless of what Amazon, or Apple or YouTube is telling us. It’s a chance to sift information according to our needs, your interests. It’s a chance to support like-minded people who create innovative and collaborative ventures, both in the real world and online. And it’s a chance to seek knowledge for knowledge itself, outside of capitalism or the acquisition of goods.

For me, such a future is more exciting than any single file type or format.

 

 

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