Let’s talk about a revolutionary technology. One that has already changed the course of civilisation.
It is also a dangerous technology, one that is spreading previously hidden knowledge among people who may misuse and abuse the technology in ways we cannot imagine.
Everyone reading this is a link in a chain of this dangerous and subversive technology. I’m talking, of course, about the printed book.
To understand how the book has changed society, though, we must also understand how the book has changed reading. That, in turn, will help us understand the future of the book. Because the future of the book is, in fact, the future of reading.
Let’s go back to a time – some may remember as their carefree youth. The year 400. St Augustine, in his work Confessions, describes the scene where he walks in on Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, engaged in scandalous activity. He was … reading silently.
It was a time when reading was an activity conducted aloud, usually with an audience, with the purpose of both teaching and subjecting the writing to peer review. St Augustine takes it a step further.
He describes how Ambrose habitually read silently and carried on doing so even when others entered the room! In other words, Ambrose was both insufferably rude and he presaged the era of people texting while in company.
But before we get to 2018, let’s look at the biggest change in the history of the book. No, not Gutenberg. The early books were still for teaching and learning. Most were Bibles. The true revolution came when people began reading for leisure.
That came with the alarming new trend among the wealthy of private bedrooms, leisure time and reading by candlelight. By the end of the 1800s, leisure reading was aspirational. Much like owning an iPhone X today.
Is it any surprise the novel was born in this time? While there had been many seminal words described as the early novels, the idea of a steady stream of mass-produced novels was not feasible before the advent of leisure reading. The novel, then, was a revolutionary, dangerous and antisocial new trend. People absorbed in their own thoughts, in their own time? Shocking!
Indeed, the Victorians thought this would lead to women having impure thoughts and that way lay the decline of civilisation. Note that it wasn’t the book, but the reading of the book, that caused all the trouble. Factor in Edison (or Tesla) inventing electric light, Penguin inventing the mass-market paperback and Ian Fleming inventing James Bond, and you can see the slippery slope before civilisation.
The challenge for publishers was, how do we hasten the end? The end not being the destruction of civilisation, but putting reading into the hands of every literate human being? Which amounts to the same thing, St Augustine would probably have said. If he produced a revised edition of his book today, he’d probably call it “Facebook Confessions”.
Fortunately, where our grandparents had Edison, Penguin and Bond, we have the Internet, smartphone and 50 shades of Harry Potter. Oh, and we also have Amazon, the ebook and the biggest deluge of self-publishing in history. You, too, can be the author of a book that sells only one copy …
What does this mean for reading? For the moment, nothing truly changes. The debate about having a physical book in your hands versus an electronic book is a fake debate which distracts us from how reading will change. In truth, the printed book is a vehicle for ego.
For the author it is palpable evidence of having authored, an in-your-face, told-youso for everyone who said they’d never do it. For the book owner, it’s a way of showing off that they are readers. At least, that’s the way the next generation will see it, baffled at the idea that dead trees were regarded as a superior format for reading.
Once we have leaders and governments who rediscover science and accept we are destroying the environmental, the printed book will become like the cigarette. A guilty and unhealthy pleasure.
What will take its place? It’s easy to take the ebook, tablet reader or smartphone and draw a straight line to the future. It’s also probably wrong. Who remembers the PDA? Around 1999, research houses looked at PDA sales and projected these to grow in numbers and functionality to the extent that they would be the dominant form of Internet access by 2005. By then they were dead.
The eReader has had a longer life. But it also feels like something that happened in between. In between the printed book and … what?
There are clues. The ebook is made possible by the current dominant form of user interface, namely the touch screen. Already, we have seen this format give rise to the app revolution and to text chat taking over from voice chat. Last year for the first time South African mobile operators made more money from data than from voice.
Now there is a new interface emerging and, ironically, it is built around voice. It goes by the name Siri, or Alexa, or Bixby, or Cortana, or Google Voice Assistant. Along with gesture control, which we already use effectively in the traffic, it is expected to evolve from mere assistance with search and instruction to becoming a de facto interface.
Gadgets will disappear from hands and move to your wrist band, into your ears, on to your spectacles and under your collar. Your voice will be the control, your ear pod will be the receiver and transmitter and your hands before your eyes will provide direction and fine tuning.
This gives the book – or rather reading – two clear directions.
Firstly, it will appear as projected text on any surface. In fact, you don’t even need a surface. If you use augmented reality, the text will be displayed in mid air only for you. Reading glasses will become glasses that project what one reads, rather than magnifying something on a page.
Secondly, it will be read to you via your ear pods. This could be in the form of text-to-speech, via the software already on most handsets, or in the form of audio books. The choice is one of content versus performance.
This reading experience of the future can be a rich one, with earpods providing audio, augmented reality providing visuals and other reading accessories providing feedback, the way gaming accessories do today. It is even possible that reading becomes a social activity again with multiple people sharing the reading experience at the same time, some expressing their reactions via text, others telling them to shut up and stop interrupting.
The strongest likelihood is that reading becomes more immersive, the way listening to music has become, thanks to ever-cheaper headphones delivering ever-improving sound via ever-improving apps. Books may follow the music streaming subscription model where you no longer own music but have access to every song ever recorded.
You will never own a book, but be able to read every book ever published. So the future of the book is not so much about the future of a format, but about the way people consume any given format. It’s not about physical versus electronic, but about which senses are engaged. Superficial text reading may give way to immersive text experience.
This will make reading an even more antisocial activity than ever before. But the experience of reading will no longer be limited to the ability to acquire a book or to following a sequence of textual impressions.
St Augustine will be horrified. But it may well be reading heaven.