The Good Revolution: The Book is Dead!

I chuckled at Mark Baker’s recent post where he surmised that The Reader is the Enemy because I agreed that the cues he listed all do seem so damning (haven’t we all said or heard, “grab the reader” and “hold their attention”?).

While Mark reminds writers how we often speak of readers as enemies, there’s the comic strip character Pogo reminding us, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” And that’s a good thing because we ought to be self-policing our own work, being as critical about our craft as we presume our reader enemies to be, testing our products in their shoes, if that were at all possible. When we fail to empathize with our readers, we fail them. But there is more than this behind the tension between writers and readers.

Mark’s post was in response to Noz Urbina’s thought piece for the upcoming Congility conference, Is Communication Mired in the Past? The running current behind both posts is whether the tools and assumptions of the past are still the best we can bring to bear today on the problem of communicating effectively with our readers.

Communication in our generation is in the midst of a revolution. We all cite the last great upheaval in communication as being over 400 years ago with the invention of the printing press and the adoption of the bookish affordances that persist today in what I call steambook technologies like PDF and eBooks. That is, the content of the past is still entrained within the trappings of these shiny reader technologies. At one time, I agreed with these inventions, in part because they allowed me and my readers to stay cozy with the book paradigm, adorned as it was in chrome and glass frames. The epitome of denial is that I have a PDF app on my smartphone, where it is as useless as… reading double-column, page-size PDFs on a smartphone.

We could blame it all on scientists who are ruining the world as we knew it, or on unreasonable end users who insist on deconstructing our quaint writing methodologies. But the revolution against books is almost over, and the new order is already deploying.

In a post examining the legacy of the New Journalism movement, writer Michael Depp noted that a good revolution usually needs three things to ignite: an Old Guard to burn in effigy, a disillusioned populace, and charismatic leaders. In the communication technology battle, the Old Guard are Bookly Sentiments, the disillusioned populace are the Social Media/Twitter generation, and the charismatic leaders have unlikely names like Mark Zuckerberg and Wael Ghonim. Wait, weren’t they part of this thing called Facebook? Ah, what a powerful weapon for the revolution is this strategy of co-opting! Embrace and extend, for “he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled. The times, they are a-changin'” (prescient Bob Dylan).

And therein is my premise: the social media revolution has already changed the nature of the question:  it is not communication that is mired in the past–it is communicators! If “information yearns to be free as in libre,” then steambook paradigms will no longer be enough for readers who are looking for just enough information, just in time, on demand. Books will live on, of course, but the challenge for communicators today is to prepare their content for the New Order as well, pumping it up with structure, metadata, accessible interfaces, and the agility it takes to make that content suitable for new roles beyond the steambook. Are you ready for the New Content movement?

(By the way, good arguments for preserving The Book are in the title, The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book by Sherman Young. I have not yet read it, but it has the correct premise–the old order is gone, but how can we build on the legacy? What will the new book, beyond the steambook, look like? THAT future is in our hands.)

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