After my first novel was published, I was invited to be on a panel at writing convention. In response to a question, I said that books and novels were endangered species. I was about to say the very act of reading might be as well, but I didn’t get to, because at that point the professor who’d organized the conference jumped to her feet, ran down the aisle, snatched the microphone from my hand and explained that I hadn’t really meant what I’d said and people would always want the smell of a new book and the tactile experience, blah, blah blah. She then pointedly handed the microphone to Robert Greer, who sat next to me.
This was seven or eight years before Kindle, so I’m sure my predictions seemed pretty outlandish at the time. But they’re not so outlandish now. Let’s take a look.
Prediction: Paper books will become obsolete.
How good does that prediction look today? Very probable.
Reasoning: Look around you in any airport at the number of people using electronic rather than paper media. Everyone, it seems, has a Kindle. Will paper books disappear completely? Maybe not. We forget that paper is pretty handy stuff and paper books handy things. They’re cheap, relatively portable, and can be reused over and over again. They resist impact and moisture which would destroy an electronic device. Having said that, while paper is good, it’s not really better than e-books, so unless The Today Show says that e-books cause boils to pop up on your forehead, I think this one is a lock. I suspect a generation from now, someone reading a paper book in an airport will be as much of an oddity as someone reading a scroll.
Prediction: Novels will become obsolete.
How does that prediction look today? Probable.
Reasoning: There is a trend away from reading and toward watching. Movies and TV shows are quickly taking share from novels. Nor are they the only alternative crowding out books. There’s also gaming, which will grow even more as characters, plots and graphics become more sophisticated. There will probably continue to be some novels written, but that will likely be for niche markets like listening-while-driving. When the Google driverless car takes off, even that will go away. Maybe novels will survive in the same way other forms of obsolete entertainment survive, like kabuki and opera, as niche interests more used to show off erudition than to actually entertain.
Update to original prediction: Even if novels survive, novelists won’t.
Reasoning: All the growing forms of entertainment, movies, games, audio books and indeed even some forms of the novel, like graphic novels or those series of books that are branded by author (James Patterson) or character (James Bond), are collaborative efforts. Teams of people write and create movies, games, audio books, graphic novels and Patterson books. Over time, all forms of entertainment will become team endeavors. There will still be writers, but they will be Hollywood-style five-guys-around-a-table writers. The one-to-one days, where a solo writer working in isolation writes a novel and a solo reader sitting in isolation reads it, will no longer exist. As a novelist, I don’t much like this prediction.
Prediction: The act of reading itself will become obsolete.
How does that prediction look today? Too early to tell.
Reasoning: Just as well the professor grabbed the mike before I managed to get this prediction out, because this probably would have made her head explode. Look. Step back and think about it: Why do humans read? Basically, because we can’t draw fast enough. Our ancestors started communicating by drawing pictures on cave walls, which in turn evolved into hieroglyphics and pictographs, which eventually became alphabets, which lead to reading and writing. And what a phenomenal advance of civilization that was. The problem is, reading is a really hard skill to pick up. It takes at least five years of almost constant study to get any facility at all, from ten to fifteen years to become adept, and some people never get very good at (as measured by speed and comprehension.)
But now we don’t need reading because we can draw fast enough, more or less, because of programs that facilitate drawing, like Powerpoint. Even better, we can clip art and cut and paste to create visual representations of what we mean without drawing. Even better than that, we don’t have to draw at all because we can take a picture and ship it instantly because of improvements in technology such as smartphones and broadband.
We are now seeing the first signs of that. What used to be a fifty page prose report is now a fifty slide Powerpoint presentation. What used to be five hundred word letters describing that summer vacation is now a photo album with a handful of captions. What used to be a how to manual is now a link to a YouTube video. Handwriting has already bitten the dust. Some of us grew up when penmanship was an integral part of the school day. It’s barely taught anymore. Writing (in the non-mechanical sense) is also disappearing as schools replace term papers with video projects. Even those don’t use scripts, but rather storyboards. Grammar and spelling are on the way out, replaced by phonetic abbreviations.
It’s just a matter of time for reading. If reading survives at all, it will be in the same way computer languages exist today, as something experts learn.
Of course, as I learned when I was on the corporate speaking circuit talking about trends, it’s not particularly hard to predict a trend. What’s hard is to predict the timing. One day life on earth will be wiped out by an asteroid, but it makes a big difference if that occurs in ten millennia or next Thursday. People were predicting smartphones (they called them UPC’s then) in the mid-eighties, but multiple companies including Apple (Newton) and Palm lost a fortune because they were too early, and some of the current crop of wannabe’s (Samsung? Nokia?) will surely be too late.
So when will all this occur? Hard to say. There’s a lot of institutional momentum that will have to grind to a halt first—the publishing industry, schools, etc, and a lot of habits to be broken. And of course, a lot of us old book-reading dinosaurs will have to die out.