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Is Print a Preference or a Habit?

Over on the O’Reilly Radar blog, Dale Dougherty posted on students increasingly prefering the sound of MP3 over higher quality music:

[Jonathan Berger] has them listen to a variety of recordings which use different formats from MP3 to ones of much higher quality. He described the results with some disappointment and frustration, as a music lover might, that each year the preference for music in MP3 format rises. In other words, students prefer the quality of that kind of sound over the sound of music of much higher quality. He said that they seemed to prefer “sizzle sounds” that MP3s bring to music. It is a sound they are familiar with.

I remember wondering what audiophiles were up to, buying extremely expensive home audio systems to play old vinyl records. They put turntables in sand-filled enclosures with elaborate cabling schemes. I wondered what they heard in that music that I didn’t. Someone explained to me that audiophiles liked the sound artifacts of vinyl records — the crackles of that format. It was familiar and comfortable to them, and maybe those affects became a fetish. Is it now becoming the same with iPod lovers?

It sounds a lot like the complaints leveled against digital books, which often turn into litanies of the sensate qualities of print: touch, feel, smell, sound. I hear those comments all the time, unsurprisingly from people for whom printed books have been their primary means of reading for most of their lives. But in about 30 years, no one who’s not eligible for AARP membership will remember a world without the Web. Print will always have a place, but by then I doubt it will be a primary format for many, many readers.

What do you think?

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Comments: 6

  1. I’ve commented elsewhere on either TOC or Radar, about the fact that you get started really, really early with the whole print thing. Before you can crawl, before you walk, before you can talk, you’ve probably been given a book. You probably chewed it. Or got excited by the colours and the textures.

    Music that you actively listen to yourself? that comes a bit later, and isn’t there something in the fact that you don’t have to hold music to see it, whereas you do have to hold words (somehow) to read them.

    Also, music – been in mechanical form for about 100 years. Print – since the dawn of mankind (more or less – the early years are a bit hazy I believe) or thereabouts. Yes I know we couldn’t write, but we could sure tell great stories about the bison and the woolly mammoth.

  2. what’s your question?

    “what do you think?” is just an invitation to ramble, and that
    merely adds more dirt and water to the mud we already have.

    but let’s see if i can cut to the stuff that really matters…

    there will always be a place for p-books. always. and forever.
    depending on the price of paper, it will contract and expand.

    (my crystal ball says paper will get very expensive fairly soon;
    it won’t tell me the reason for that, but it hints at a _disease_
    which affects the _trees_ that we use to produce cheap paper.
    of course, if trees go extinct, we’ll be in some deep ca-ca for
    a host of reasons having little to do with a shortage of paper,
    and when you’re in deep ca-ca it’s good to have toilet paper…
    then again, my crystal ball also tells me that we human beings
    will go extinct in 10-15 years — yes, that soon — if we don’t
    get our ca-ca together now to stop exploiting each other and
    the planet at large, so i guess there’s no inconsistency there.)

    but let’s pretend we do actually survive, and all this matters…

    it would be nice if eventually — and preferably sooner rather
    than later — we had all our books “on the computer” (to use
    the expression as i initially formulated it about 25 years ago)
    or “in the cloud” (to use the equivalent term in today-speak)…
    plus all of our music, paintings, art, movies, photographs, etc.
    it’s probably clear to see how “universal access to knowledge”
    — and art and culture — would bring about a better world…

    however — and it is a very big “however” standing in the way —
    it seems that we will need to overthrow our content overlords
    in order to make this dream become reality. they’re determined
    not to let themselves be disintermediated. obviously, they have
    an income-stream that they want to “protect”. but i think that’s
    too simplistic of an analysis, because rich people can always find
    a way to make money by exploiting resources that are _actually_
    scarce, not ones (like digital stuff) they made artificially scarce.
    (food, for instance, is an obvious one. clean water is another.)

    so why the hold-up?

    i would say the situation goes much deeper. i think the reason
    that the rich people who are our content overlords are resisting
    this digital revolution is because they are scared of the _idea_
    of universal access to knowledge. i think they believe (and it’s
    probably _true_!) that — once this pandora’s box is opened —
    the people at the bottom of the pile will realize the pile sucks,
    and there’s no reason for the pile, and we’ll opt out of the pile.
    and without dregs to stand on, the rich will lose their privilege.
    as long as they control our information, they control our minds,
    and they can brainwash enough people into ways of thinking
    which accepts (and even defends!) the status quo the rich enjoy.
    but once we have universal access to knowledge/art/culture,
    our minds will open up and we will overthrow the privileged…
    in other words, once they’ve lost control over our information,
    they won’t be able to exploit us by controlling scarce resources.
    put another way, they aren’t afraid of losing control of books,
    or music, or whatever; they’re afraid of losing control _period_.
    or, if you don’t understand the metaphor, we will _eat_the_rich._
    that’s what they’re afraid of. that’s why there’re resisting all this.

    and surely you’re not so naive to think that it is anyone _except_
    the rich content overlords who are causing the hold-up here?

    it’s not luddites who “like the smell of books”. that’s just silly.

    recall that many people strongly preferred vinyl over c.d.s, but
    the recording industry didn’t give a crap about those people…
    once they decided to switch over to the c.d. format, they did it,
    and it didn’t take ’em all that long to accomplish the change…
    they didn’t ask their customers, or even care. they just did it.

    same with e-books. once they decide to switch-over, boom!
    and just like that, it will be nearly impossible to find p-books
    that were pre-printed in mass-runs… you’ll have to do p.o.d.

    and that probably gives us a timetable for predicting when this
    big switch occurs — i.e., when the big book retailers go under.
    (if the second largest electronics retailer can go out of business,
    the second largest p-book chain — and the largest — can too.)

    when that happens, amazon will raise p-book prices up to “list”
    — while still maintaining deep cuts on their kindle version —
    and the bottom will fall out of the p-book market just like that.

    so, when will the chains go under?

    borders probably has a year left, barnes and noble two or three.

    so look to the publishers to keep dragging their feet for a while.

    to sum up…

    the idea that consumers drive the marketplace is ridiculous.
    they buy what the corporations sell. and end up “liking” it…

    to paraphrase a well-known quote:
    “we don’t do any focus-group research;
    people don’t know what they want until
    we force-feed it to them a year or two.”


  3. David — “Before you can crawl, before you walk, before you can talk, you’ve probably been given a book” is of course true for most Western children born in the past hundred or so years, but it’s hardly a given for either most of the world or most of our history.

    I know several toddlers who are already quite adroit with their parents’ (or uncle’s …) iPhones. Color and sound of course play a part there as well.

    You point about stories is important — those are what matter, not the package they come in.

  4. What is being forgotten, at least so far, is the convenience factor.
    Vinyl wasn’t replaced by the CD magically, overnight. I had a VW with an 8 track in it long before the CD. The 8 track was “more convenient” but the sound was terrible. People accepted terrible sound if it meant being able to play the music they liked in their car. Convenience ruled over quality. (Not a lot of people had an 8 track recorder, for making their own 8 tracks. I did.) Of course the 8 track was relatively short lived until the cassette came along. Vinyl still ruled the “audiophile” universe, but suddenly the cassette, and the recordable 90 minute cassette meant you could have decent sound quality, (not great, but decent), and choose the songs you liked. This meant greater convenience, smaller foot footprint, and the end of the familiar KA-CHUNK when you changed 8 track “programs”.
    Remember mini CD’s? No, didn’t think so.
    The CD was simply the next generation in this long line of small, compact, and portable. Portable = convenience. And CD’s were actually very inconvenient. A small scratch renders a CD useless. Going around a corner would send your CD’s flying, and likely the cases popping open, CD carnage everywhere. To this effect, the CD was still superior. Sure the sound was lack-luster, but I can still repair a broken cassette.
    Where the change came was with the MP3 player. Not the mp3 CD, but the ability to hold 40GB of music in your hand.

    This is convenience at it’s peak. The “younger” generation is not as in love with the “album” as we once were. In fact the idea of a “one it wonder” is no longer a stigma. Itunes is actually based off of the 1 hit format. Buy the song you like, not the album (unless you want to).

    However, does this chain, this example, work in the format of printed books? So far, I would argue “no”. People who “read” books, normally read a book at a time. Since the advent of the paperback, books have been extremely convenient to use. A book is slightly larger than an iphone, and smaller than a kindle. Wait…what? Smaller than a kindle? There’s the problem right there. People want convenience. For the time being the e-reader is actually a step backward. An awkward piece of machinery, larger than a book, more “breakable” than a book, and more expensive than a book.

    Personally, I only read one book at a time. If I am in the middle of one book, and I DO choose to change books, I’m usually at the office, or at home, where my books are on a shelf behind me. I can reach for my book faster than I can surf for one. The convenience as mastered by the MP3 player does not apply to the book.

    But it does have it’s application/use. Finally, the sight impaired have greater access to books. There is also the option to be read books by the built in readers. This is terrific for an existing market, largely overlooked by the printed book market.

    I, however, would be nervous to take out a kindle at the beach, or read it in the tub. Truth be told, 90% of my daily recreational reading occurs in the bathroom, the last place I want to keep a kindle or other e-reader.

    The convenience of the paperback is still it’s greatest asset.

  5. adam-

    those are good points. especially about _convenience_.

    however… i don’t think that means that paper wins out.
    indeed, i think that’s why paper is now largely _doomed_.

    now, from the standpoint of _reading_a_book_, sure,
    your argument stands as-is, for the main part, i agree.

    i even agree with you, although to a lesser degree, that
    most people usually are reading only one novel at a time.
    (notice all the qualifiers limiting the definitiveness there.)

    but this contest isn’t between one p-book and one e-book.
    (if it was, the p-book would win.)

    no sir, this contest is between one p-book and an e-library.

    so, in other words, you can carry around one p-book or you
    can carry around _an_entire_library_. and in _that_ contest_,
    the entire library wins, hands-down. i might only want to
    _read_ one book at a time, but the ability to _consult_with_
    any book in the world at any time is a much larger benefit…

    also notice that “the electronic library” of which i speak is
    _not_ comprised solely of books… even with the kindle,
    you’ve got access to magazines and newspapers as well,
    and — lest we forgot — the whole of the world wide web.
    and yeah, the browser is dog-slow, but the wireless access
    is _free_ once you’ve made the initial $350 purchase, and
    that’s considerably cheaper than you will find it anywhere.

    and — if you are willing to take on its monthly fee too —
    the $200 apple iphone gives you the whole of the web plus
    a phone (which you’d probably buy anyway) and a camera
    (shoddy though it might be) and a g.p.s. capability, and
    access to e-mail and an astounding array of applications,
    among them e-book libraries including amazon’s catalog.

    _that_ is the backdrop that will quickly come to be expected
    — and even _demanded_ — by the next generation of kids.
    they’ll see you, carrying around the one book you’re reading,
    and they’ll laugh at how disconnected you are from the world.

    and their overarching thought will be how your situation is
    so terribly _inconvenient_ that they’d never want to be in it.


  6. Andrew – Not sure what you are driving at with the first bit of your response to my comment. The point I was trying to make was that I think there is a difference between basic literacy and the means by which that occurs, and the means by which we become familiar with music. Both of these things seems to be be encoded into the development of the human species (along with maths), for reasons that are not yet well understood I think.

    So what I was trying to say, was that throughout history you didn’t need a mechanical device to pass on music, but you did need a mechanical device to pass on writing (not language – writing). That device was some sort of physical mark upon a flat substrate of some sort. And that has been with us a long time and as living standards improved, one of the things we did was bring that experience into our lives earlier and earlier (yes in the western world – I’ve only got that experience to talk about).

    So I’m suggesting that perhaps the coupling of the experience to the device is ‘weak’ in the case of music, but much stronger in the case of reading. Which I think is where Adam makes some very important comments about convenience.

    Now when it comes to convenience for my toddler you give me an electronic reading device that can survive a chewing and being lobbed HARD across the room, then I’m interested. You give me Bowerbirds amazing elibrary that exposes my collection of books to me in a much better way than my shelves do, and I’m interested. You make the reading experience match the current reading experience that I have and I’m interested – back to music…

    Where do we listen to most music? In the car, that’s where. Not a pristine audio environment. As much as I love my expensive A/V system, the truth is my experience of that is overwhelmed by my experience of music in a noisy cluttered environment where I’m only paying partial attention to the music. This matters. Guess what – low bit rate MP3s are just great there. And audiophile music has always been a niche thing.

    Is that the same experience for the book? Can you pay partial attention to a book?

    Don’t dismiss the intangibles. People may talk about the feel of paper and so on, but perhaps they are really saying something more fundamental than it first appears. I am teaching my son to read. Like my father taught me, and his father taught him… I’m using print to do it as there simply is no credible alternative at this time.

    The transition to a new delivery mechanism will go through the immigrants rather than the natives for the simple reason that they are the ones with the purchasing power needed to make the economics work.

    We are not there yet. But perhaps Plastic Logic are getting awfully close? (I have no association with them but I was impressed with the demo model).