Permanence, novelty and digital revolutions

The release of the iPhone in 2007, the Kindle in 2009, the iPad in 2010 and a myriad of other smartphones and tablets alongside them have built up, over the last seven years, to the beginnings of truly mobile entertainment and communication.

There are thousands of blogs and articles positing every conceivable opinion on what this revolution might mean for book and newspaper publishing (as well as television, radio, games and the elephant in the room, work). So many articles that it’s impossible to know what the future might hold. So for most of those last seven years I‘ve been playing a game. When I get on a tube or a bus I count the phones, tablets, newspapers and books I can see. Sometimes I can see five people, sometimes about thirty.

Four to five years ago, my tiny sample sized evaluation of reading habits would have come down firmly on the side of the smartphone. An Ofcom survey in 2011 found that 27% of adults in the UK at that time had a smartphone, and almost 59% of those had bought their first smartphone within the last year – so 2010 – 2011 was when smartphones began their rise to ubiquity. Back then I could look down a carriage and see the death of the book happening in front of my eyes. There were journeys were every single person was glued to their smartphone. There were some where the only relief from the phone was that occasional iPad or Kindle.

But those were the years when everybody’s smartphone was new. They had novelty value.  In all the many articles I read that predict the future for the publishing industry, for reading, for our ability to think and learn, novelty value and impermanence seem to me to be woefully underrated.

A recent article in scholarly kitchen described the trend for independent society publishing to move to large commercial publishers as ‘a permanent fixture of the STM landscape’. Whilst I don’t have an issue with the analysis as a sound one that looks at a current trend, I don’t think that anything is permanent.

The 2011, printing our photos was a dying activity. I bet since then many of us have experienced a sudden hard drive or smartphone death, robbing us of years of memories. We’re now being told by Google to print out treasured photographs, or risk losing them.

When we read the tech press, or get excited about new hardware, or try to understand new business models, it’s important to remember that the shiny, exciting, newness soon gives way to real scrutiny. And if the new doesn’t work, we get bored of it very quickly.

I’ve had more than one conversation in the last few months with people questioning whether they even need or value a smartphone, given that owning one seems to mean being at work 24 hours a day. Meanwhile some figures from Waterstones suggest that Kindle sales have peaked and they are confident enough about bookselling to be opening more stores.

I’m not making any argument about which form of reading is ‘best’. Just pointing out that trends don’t always go in the direction we expect.

My tube -based survey of public reading habits is ongoing. Last week, on the Northern line, a carriage of twenty people showed me five jabbing at smartphones, five reading tablets or kindles, five looking at newspapers, and five gazing into space.

Personally, I’m glad to see that gazing into space is making a comeback.

 

Author: Megan Toogood