Nicholas Negroponte falls into the trap of absolutism

Nicholas Negroponte is someone that I have a lot of respect for: the MIT Media Lab that he is responsible for has given us some the best thought-provoking people and work on the web. He was also instrumental in shaping Wired magazine and the idea of a digital culture. Negroponte has a knack of talking about things in absolute terms which makes for great quotes, but also makes him look foolish in the eyes of the public when the revolution potters along rather than coming in with a bang.

The latest one was reported by TechCrunch where his claim that the physical book will be dead within five years, they do go on and clarify what they think he means though:

By “dead,” he of course doesn’t mean completely dead. But he means that digital books are going to replace physical books as the dominant form.

There are number of things that Negroponte may point to such as the Amazon Kindle, Bill Gates’ proclamation that the best education will be on ‘web, the Apple iPad and the theory behind the OLPC project. However Negroponte’s views did have some detractors in terms of the pace of change.

There are a number of things that need to be overcome before the physical book is dead:

  • Reader behaviour – lets think about a specific example: study guides, students do things in a similar way to the way I did when I studied for my degree. They use the web for research, but they also consult reference texts often spreading them out and having a number open at once so that they can consult from them. Trying to do this with an e-reader is likely to get expensive. As for PDFs on a computer, we still print a lot of long-form documents and the analogy of the paperless office been brought along by computers, only to find computer-enabled offices actually consume something like a third more than they did previously. There is something about consumer behaviour that e-books will need to overcome
  • Pricing – One of the most shocking things about many developed countries is the relatively high-level of poverty in them. I spent a lot of my time growing up in Merseyside which has had Objective 1 status from the EU for a number of years, this basically means that the area is part of the developing world and needed investment to drag it back into Western Europe. This is only going to get worse as the developed world has a declining middle-class and an increasingly large working poor. The kind of people that schools can’t turn around to and say that they can’t rent school text books but instead have to go out and buy an e-book reader with the money that they don’t have already for the school uniform
  • Competition – e-books depend on a level playing field, but there isn’t one at the moment for e-book readers. Many books are already printed in low labour cost places like China, where printers have also invested in automated equipment to drop the the price per book even lower. For various reasons, I don’t buy my books new, a well looked after book is just as good to me. ebooks and ebook readers need to be competitively priced with both secondhand and cheaply-printed books
  • Tactile experience – some people like the smell of a book, they like to feel that they have been holding a first edition (despite the definition of a first edition being ambiguous – but that’s a discussion for a another time). Paper works really well as a display medium and the finishing that can be provided to it cannot be properly replicated in a digital format
  • Content value – it has been found that the easier something is to consume the less value is put on it by consumers. Music is a surround-sound experience yet music companies feel much more under attack than they have ever been before. It is a similar situation with the film and television industries. The vast bounty of news has ironically torpedoed the newspaper industry and companies are rushing to reinvent themselves to cope. What percentage value of the book business can publishers realistically hope to maintain? This all has a knock-on effect, digital kills the concept of collecting which is a key driver of media sales – digital products are joyless artifacts to own
  • Cost of content creation – in order for the ebook to be successful many experts have talked about the way the ebook is more likely to resemble a CD-ROM experience. This puts a very different set of skills in play and increases the cost of producing the book content. Not great, when the perceived consumer value is going in the exact opposite direction
  • The environment – whilst green movements may rave on about the amount of water that a paper mill consumes, it doesn’t compare to the amount of energy consumed in the manufacture of consumer electronics. The era of mass-consumption in the west is considered by some to be changing. Consumers are now looking at having well-designed long-lasting products. Whilst they may not want the clutter of books, they also don’t want an ebook reader that has a designed life little longer than the product warranty. Unless electronics manufacturers take a radically different approach to product design, I could see ebook readers struggling to displace the book

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