The Future of Reading

Read my take on David Pogue's take.
Feb | 1 | 2010

Feb | 1 | 2010

What is the future of reading? I honestly couldn’t tell you, but evidently other people can.

One of the soothsayers is David Pogue–the personal technology columnist for the New York Times. I was watching a talk with him from the Boston Book Festival recently.

Video has been removed. Bummer, man …

A Few Quibbles

Pogue is clearly a smart guy but I disagree with two of his points. First, he claims that all technology is additive and nothing is displaced. Oh, really? Try to find 8-track tapes or typewriters these days. I’m not saying that I’m going to buy a Walkman tomorrow, but I don’t see how a learned guy like Pogue can claim that new tools and toys displace old ones.

All technology is not additive.

Second, Pogue isn’t happy with the restrictions of e-Readers. In his view, e-Readers should allow for easy transfer of digital books to different media–iPhones, PCs, and the like. Disclaimer: I don’t have a Kindle or equivalent and may have hit my limit with digital devices.

Still, I can understand why publishers and authors don’t want their work so easily “loaned” to others. I suppose that this is the same issue that musicians and record labels faced back around 2000 with Napster.


What do you think about the future of reading? Will books go the way of so many technologies or will you always want to feel a physical book in your hand?

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  1. Jim Harris

    I believe that before the end of this century we will see the end of printed books.

    A critical concept not discussed by Pogue is our shrinking attention spans and growing time management challenges.

    I doubt attention deficit will still be considered a disorder ten years from now. We are living increasingly faster-paced lives in an increasingly faster-paced world. The pervasiveness of the Internet and the rapid proliferation of powerful mobile technology is making our world a smaller and smaller place and our lives a more and more crowded space.

    We have become so accustomed to multi-tasking that the very concept of focusing our attention on only one thing at a time somehow seems inherently wrong to us. All the world’s a stage within this short attention span theater. And all of us are not merely players, we have been cast in several simultaneous roles. Time management has always been important, but nowadays it is even more essential.

    Barring some major scientific breakthrough (or some major breakdown in the space-time continuum), there will still only be 24 hours in a day. Neither the world nor people in it are likely to slow down. Our attention spans will have to remain short. Our time management skills will have to remain vigilant.

    There is an opportunity cost (measured mostly in time, not in purchase price) in reading books that is simply too high. This, I believe, is a leading reason that more and more people, who actually do make the time for reading, are reading blogs or e-books – and not printed books.

    Another time management example, which has existed long before the rise of blogs and e-books, are services that provide sound-bites and bullet points summaries, like Cliff Notes for busy business people, that many executives use to “read” a dozen of the year’s best business books all at once – and often to optimize otherwise wasted time such as commuting and business travel.

    Similarly, it is no surprise that some of the most popular business blogs are aggregations or syndications of dozens of individual blogs into a single digital newsstand of sorts. The best of which provide a service similar to the people who run the sidewalk newsstands in busy cities like New York – the guy who with a few seconds of rapid fire conversation, directs you to the magazine or newspaper you are looking for – or even better, remembers what you like and keeps a copy for you behind the counter and allows you to quickly pick it up, pay for it, and be on your way practically without breaking your stride.

    And, of course, the leading factor of the “Video Killed the Radio Star” effect that will be the death of printed books by the end of this century, is that digital documents of all kinds (not just e-books) are easier to search than flipping through the pages of a printed document to try to find that obscure quote or nugget of wisdom potentially buried within hundreds of pages.

    The future of all human communication will be short digital bursts of multimedia experiences that seamlessly blend an economy of words with audio and video components.

    And eventually, I believe even digitally written words will themselves disappear. All human communication will be interactive audio and video and “literacy” will be meaningless.

    But, not to worry, that won’t happen until the next century.

  2. philsimon


    Great comments as always. I sincerely hope that you’re wrong with the following statement:

    The future of all human communication will be short digital bursts of multimedia experiences that seamlessly blend an economy of words with audio and video components.

    That might mean that I’ll have to be succinct one day!

  3. Graham Rhind

    Something I rarely say, but: I think Jim is wrong – and neither of us will be around in the next century to see who’s right 🙂

    I DO have an e-reader – it’s gathering dust on the desk in front of me. Why? Well, apart from the pleasure of browsing through books physically to choose one to read (weren’t we discussing the death of book shops a few years ago?), the e-reader technology actually puts a barrier between me and what I’m trying to read. I have to download a text (which has to be in a format my e-reader can understand – unlike the universal format of print), turn on my e-reader (wait), plug it in to my PC (wait), download the text (wait), load the chapter (wait) … and in the meantime I’m half way through chapter 1 on the physical book I’ve been multi-tasking with in my left hand, whilst waiting. I can find text in my e-books (if I’m willing to wait … and wait …), but making highlights and annotations are a hassle and I can’t see that significantly improving.

    I can only load a downloaded book onto a limited number of devices (so it won’t last centuries like my paper books). The e-reader is a good deal easer to damage (and far more expensive to mend) than my paper books.

    Naturally, the technology will improve, but there will always be those of us who choose a more relaxed way of living. I read a (foreign) newspaper online now, but only because I can get it on the day of publication (unlike the printed version) – I get nothing like the enjoyment that I had when leafing through the paper version, and I could do that whilst completing other tasks – the multi-tasking Jim refers to.

    Improved technology doesn’t alway speed things up. I’m back using a paper-based diary, because I can see in a second if I’m free to make an appointment and don’t need to keep anybody waiting while I power up my mobile ‘phone, enter a password, locate and run a program, then work my way through tortuous menus to find out what’s what.

    As for multi-tasking and time management issues – well, I find myself these days doing much more in much less time, which gives me more time for my books. I can’t be the only one, surely!

    And I leave you with the thought that CDs and then DVDs were going to kill LPs (vinyl records). They didn’t, and I can’t imagine why, but while there are people around who prefer one form over the other, the medium won’t die. And if I’m wrong, Jim’s progeny may come and laugh over my grave 🙂

  4. Jim Harris

    Oh well, it was simply a matter of time before Graham finally realized how very wrong I can be. 🙂

    After my initial comment, you might be surprised to learn that I neither currently have an e-reader, nor do I plan to buy one anytime soon.

    I am, in fact, surrounded by stacks of printed books. I could probably start my own book store – or, at the very least, my own eBay account for selling used books.

    However, I am not a total hypocrite – despite my copious amounts of free time, I often struggle to read all of the printed books I buy.

    For example, I am a fan of Chris Anderson and own copies of both “The Long Tail” and “Free” – but I haven’t read either book – and I am not sure if I ever will. I have read so many magazine articles and blog posts (including Anderson’s) as well as seen so many interviews about the books, that I already know their core messages.

    There are currently six printed books waiting to be read on my nightstand that I have queued to read before even considering to read Anderson’s books – and that doesn’t count the book I am currently reading, which technically makes seven.

    And I would be willing bet Phil a Coke (even though I prefer Pepsi) that I will buy more printed books before I finish reading half of my current queue – and that some of the new books will be prioritized above the existing ones – meaning another author’s work may join Anderson’s book in the stack of books I own but haven’t read and might never read.

    Maybe I am simply a book collector and not a book reader?

    However, I still stand by my predictions above – I believe that before the end of this century “we” will see the end of printed books.

    But, the end of the century is 90 years away, and like Graham said, neither of “us” will be around to see who’s right. But if history is any indication, probably neither of us is right.

    After all, we still don’t have any flying cars, personal jet packs, robot servants, or holodecks.

    So, it’s a safe bet that future generations will have a good laugh about all of our predictions. 🙂

  5. James Whitesdale

    I really hope that we don’t see the end of books. I like holding one in my hand and would hate to have to look at screens more than I already do.

  6. Brian Weber

    I think Pogue is right on. Technology is additive of some sort of value. It’s the peoples decision where the old technology is still useful…. whether it retains some value that the new technology does not/cannot replace.

    For example….
    Paper books have a personal tactile relationship with a user that cannot be replaced by plastic, glass and metal. The feeling a reader gets as they are holding the slim first 10 pages of a 500 page novel… the aventure that awaits them. This is something that cannot be replaced by a display screen “page 5 of 543”. That is a value the old tech of printed books will and likely always will retain over new tech options.

    As per your example of a Walkman. The reason you and nobody else will be out to buy these is because it retains no intrinsic usable values that aren’t vastly improved on by newer tech.

    Sames reason why some audiophiles keep a turntable and their old vinyl….

  7. Jim Harris

    A point that I didn’t make despite two previous and verbose comments is that for me the real question isn’t “what is the future of reading” but instead:

    Will people still read in the future?

    So far it appears that everyone (myself included) who has commented is someone who likes to read.

    However, if you are not someone, to paraphrase Brian, who sees an adventure awaiting you in a 500 page novel, then you don’t care if it is a printed book or a e-book – you aren’t going to read it.

    So, yes, between us readers, some of us will not exchange our personal tactile relationship with printed books for an e-reader made of the finest plastic, glass, or metal, and equipped with all the bells and whistles of the latest technology.

    But much more importantly, e-readers aren’t going to make non-readers want to read.

    I am arguing that there is a declining interest in reading in general throughout society. And I see this interest declining rapidly across current generation gaps, and dropping even more dramatically in the coming decades.

  8. Melissa Richardson

    I could use the flying car to battle Route 1. I bet the English Majors will finally have high paying jobs once this takes place.. or not. Probably not. English will be a thing of the past. The new major will be Technological Audio & Grunting. Now, what will that class be like? : )

  9. Wodek Szemberg

    The cultural shift that is difficult to guage is the extent to which the disappearance of the singular book represents a major step towards a post-biblical society. When more and more of us read screens rather than pages, we are saying goodbye to the singular book which, however tawdry, had one thing in common with the Bible – the original printed book – two covers. Between the two covers writers tried to offer a facsimile of completeness. No two covers, no completeness.
    Are the e-readers which will contain many books just a technological manifestation of the post-modernist declaration that meta-narratives are over and done with?

    These kinds of questions led me to a producing am hour long discussion about the future of reading. Here is a link

  10. Monis Iqbal

    I too think that printed books won’t end until the end of this world but yes their influence will.
    I know it’s not relevant but somehow this reminds me of the movie ‘Equilibrium’ where arts was cherished by only those who ‘felt’ and had emotions.
    I think printed material will take the form of arts. In our technical domains we easily see e-books or material on internet surpass the published material by a big margin.
    .-= Monis Iqbal´s last blog ..Impact of NOSQL movement on the datastore vendors =-.



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