Arts/Literature

ArtsWeek: Dinosaurs, dodo birds, books and novelists

CATEGORY: ArtsWeekAfter 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.

40 replies »

  1. I think you’re wrong on a number of counts. Oh, I agree that books on paper will continue to decline. The electronic devices are so much more portable, allowing you to carry virtual private libraries with you, anywhere. They also allow you instant access to any book you like, almost anywhere, anytime. Once the issue of screen fatigue was fixed, they were bound to become ubiquitous because of their utility — in the same way the codex replaced the scroll.

    Will novels become obsolete? Record sales figures for such series as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” would suggest otherwise. In fact, I’m told that the hottest category for fiction these days is young adult (YA). This would suggest that there are many new young readers who love fiction in novel form, and that would suggest a lifelong market of new readers.

    Will novelists go away if, in fact, the novel still exists? Doubtful. There have been teams of writers writing low-level fiction for many, many years. Those teams will continue to exist. But your comparison of novel-writing to movie-making and game-making is specious. Those finished forms require teams because the work is so massive and/or the skills so diverse. It’s virtually impossible for one person to learn all the skills needed to make a first-rate narrative film or game. If he or she could do so, there would never be enough time — not to mention the impossibility of running the camera, sound, electrics, special effects, etc. on a film set when all are needed at the same time. Yes, there are teams of writers in television, but this is because of the demands of turning out a weekly series. It’s hard to imagine a single writer pumping out scripts at the pace demanded by television series. There are also (sometimes) rewrites of scripts for Hollywood-style, narrative films. Those films only rarely do well, artistically. Yes, there are films that do well at the box office that are written this way, but they’re much more rare than the average person might think. Usually, they involve continuation of a series with lots of special effects and a built-in audience with collective, questionable taste. These blockbusters often bomb (see “Battleship”), because they’re just stupid.

    The best films are still largely the product of a single writer or, perhaps, a single writer with light editing done by another writer. But even if they’re not, there is still a single, creative driving force, and that’s the director. It’s why we tend to credit the success or failure of a film to the director, and even call it something like “Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.”

    Reading is very unlikely to become obsolete. In fact, I’d say that economics will drive just the opposite because of skills requirements in the marketplace and the way the human brain works.

    It’s interesting to me that you used the example of graphics-laden PowerPoint presentations handed out in lieu of reports (though I would suggest that “50-page reports” is hyperbole, except for those reports that had a great deal of numerical backup to an executive summary, which is all most people ever read). 50-page PowerPoint presentations are often filled with murderously complex models of “how things work” that no one ever bothers to look at for more than a second — let alone absorb and internalize. Much of what’s on a PP presentation would have appeared in that 50-page report, as well: Gantt charts, bullet points, table of contents, etc. In that sense, a hard copy of a PP presentation is nothing new, at all. The old written reports would often even include photos on a page or two if necessary to make a point, and even some simple graphics. Not much different, there.

    The example of sending back photos from a vacation trip with captions instead of a 500-word letter is an exercise in efficiency. In most cases, the photos and captions are better at conveying the experience than the 500-word letter could ever be, absent an extremely gifted writer taking a great deal of time and care in crafting that letter. Same with instructions on how to use something. Showing is almost always better than telling. I can learn new software MUCH faster by taking a series of video lessons than by reading through, and laboriously working through, a printed manual. Lessons in handwriting have bitten the dust because keyboarding is so much more efficient. Video projects in school are quite rare unless it happens to be a video class. In fact, I have a daughter graduating high school this year who has never had a single, assigned video project, ever, in her entire school career. She HAS had projects in which she could use video, or other media, if she liked, but there has never been a required video project. How could there be? One would have to have access to a video camera, editing software and a computer to run it, the skills to use that editing software, sound equipment (in many cases), the skills to use the sound equipment, etc. While one can find these things spread among the general populace more now than you could a decade ago, they’re still not universal, especially among financially challenged families. And any decent school will hold video projects to higher standards than what can be achieved on a cellphone camera. And if they don’t, then their standards for written reports are likely to be equally bad. As for the assertion that there is no script, and everything is done on a storyboard, I challenge you to present proof of this. I, along with a different contributor to this blog, have done many videos for some of the world’s largest organizations. In every case, we have had a script. I cannot remember *ever* having a storyboard.

    Unlike you, I think it is quite difficult to predict a trend that isn’t completely obvious to everyone because one is in the middle of that trend. I also think it’s quite easy to propagate a Malthusian fallacy. I think you have gone wrong on both counts.

    Repeated research into human learning, conducted over decades since at least the 1930s, always produces the same results: individual learning styles aside, certain skills/information/meta-modes are best learned using certain media. That’s a terrible simplification on my part, but I can’t compress Knowles, Bateson, et. al. into this already over-long response. Basically, if one wants to learn how to be a good skier, it will not happen from watching a video on skiing. If one wants to learn and internalize the intricacies and theory of water-rights law, you’re probably not going to pull it off watching a couple of cartoons. If you want to learn how to design and build a quantum computer … well, you get the point. The fact is, there is no better medium for learning abstract information than print. Print is not very good at changing opinions on a gut level. Thomas Paine would have made films to incite people instead of writing pamphlets had he had that technology at his disposal.

    As high-paying jobs become increasingly complex, and as high-paying jobs requiring low-level skills disappear (at least in the developed world), there will either be a push towards education that leads to high-paying, complex jobs, or there will be capitulation to widespread poverty. While the second option is possible, I would not bet on it (at least I wouldn’t bet on it as an overarching theme. Certain areas may capitulate quite readily.) Acquiring these skills, absent a sudden change in human cognition (unlikely), will require high-level reading skills. High-level reading skills lead to comfort, and even pleasure, in reading. This bodes well for the written form of communication well into the future, when new technologies, as yet undreamed of, may well make the written word obsolete.

    Until that time, I wouldn’t bet on it.

    • JS raises some of the issues I was thinking about. His observation that collaborative writing for popular entertainment is nothing new is correct, although he doesn’t go back far enough. You had this kind of team writing even prior to Shakespeare’s time, with the likes of John Webster (subject of the single funniest line from Shakespeare in Love that nobody got) being right in the thick of it later on.

      I also wonder about the importance of quality. Committee creative is inherently inferior to work produced by a single great mind. And while teams will continue to write scripts, do we assume that over time quality wins out? I don’t know. Hollywood isn’t necessarily about artistic brilliance.

      And in the business sector, yeah, I’ve been told nobody wants to read your report, so can you turn this into a PPT deck. The result was a 73-slide monstrosity, and the company I’m talking about is still making the same mistakes that I pointed out over a decade ago. And lagging behind their competitors, who don’t make those mistakes. And if they’re read my report, they’d KNOW this. So does Darwinism eventually claim the idiots?

      Great questions, interesting discussion. All hail ArtsWeek!

      • “Committee creative is inherently inferior to work produced by a single great mind.”

        I’m not sure I agree with this, but it may depend on whether you’re limiting yourself to artistic works or are trying to claim this about all creative enterprise.

        • There are probably creative exercises involving lots of collaboration that worked out okay, but I doubt many of them were artistic successes. A team of writers working on a Fast & Furious sequel? Sure, why not. But that’s setting the bar pretty damned low.

          I’m open to examples where I’m wrong.

        • Well, most great films are committee creative things. Sure, an Orson Welles might be the driving creative force behind “Citizen Kane,” but he did need a dynamite cinematographer and gaffer to get the effects he wanted. Now, if you mean “committee creative” as opposed to “single, driving force,” I know of no examples where art created by committee rose to the level of that created by a single, driving force.

          Is engineering a creative exercise. Yeah. Do the best engineering projects usually have a single, driving force? You would know more about that than I, but my limited reading would suggest that this is the case at least most of the time. Am I wrong?

        • In my experience, whether you’re wrong or not depends on what level you’re talking about. At the top level there’s usually a driving person who may or may not be a creative driving force. But down in the engineering trenches it’s almost never a single person who drives the creative aspects of a design. Most modern electronics is too complicated for any single person to be enough of an expert on all the various pieces to be a creative driving force behind an entire project, unless the project is reasonably small.

          And it’s down in the trenches where most of the creativity happens, IMO. I may come up with a totally creative idea, but the idea is going to go through multiple reviews, at least a couple of iterations, and a bunch of lab testing. By the time all that’s done, my totally creative idea is now partly owned by everyone who has worked on it, found problems with it, fixed those problems, improved various aspects of it, and so on.

          Perhaps this is a worldview question, though. I see the world through the eyes of an existentialist, so everything – good and bad – is inherently a group effort, even if I’m the one who came up with the idea initially. I may well claim 75% of the credit, but I can’t ever claim 100%.

          And besides, my great idea only works when it interfaces to a power supply someone else’s great idea made work and a computer that a third someone else’s great idea made happen.

          The way I see things, there are no isolated great minds – everyone is a product of their interactions with everyone else. But again, that’s how I view the world. YMMV.

        • Yes, films require teams. But they don’t require a team of writers. I’d argue that the tech functions in film production are analogous to editors and publishers and press guys in the book process.

        • Brian, I agree with you that virtually no act of creativity is built upon nothing. Shakespeare owes much to both the morality plays of his day in nearby Coventry, and to the Greek and Roman playwrights he studied in grammar school — not to mention other Elizabethan writers. Composers, painters, writers, et. al. owe much to those who came before them, both on the artistic and technical side.

          I think there could be a good long discussion over a favorite beverage or two about the nature of creativity, the nature of art, and the variations in the benefits of a collaborative process under various circumstances, and degree to which a single vision drives the end result.

          Thanks for the stimulating thoughts.

      • I disagree with you about film, Sam. I think this is a common disagreement between performance artists and writers.

        Take this direction in a script for the movie, “Psycho” (not the real script. Just an example.)

        “We see Marion Crane step into the shower. Suddenly, a figure appears. We cannot see the face of this figure, but we can see that it is wearing a dress and has long hair. It is also holding a knife. There are a series of shots in which we witness Marion Crane’s murder by this figure.”

        Now, I’m sure you’ve seen “Psycho,” and you know that this sort of written direction doesn’t even approach the power of what Hitchcock did with that “series of shots.” It’s a power that lives in nightmares, even now.

        The script for “Psycho” is really rather pedestrian. What’s brilliant about “Psycho” is the direction.

        • No doubt – good acting and good direction can make more of a script than it deserves. (In fact, you and I have seen that recently, haven’t we?) But once again, your example here isn’t on point to where we started. The argument is about multiple WRITERS. Writers in project collaboration with other functions is a different story. For instance, I have collaborated on some music – I write lyrics, somebody else writes the music, then it gets performed and recorded and produced. Several steps in that collab chain. The BEST results have come when I have been able to handle the lyrics myself.

          I know this doesn’t mean that it’s always true for everyone, and it’s also true that writers working alone are capable of absolutely horrid output. But in my experience, I can’t say I have seen much good writing by committee.

  2. I think JS makes a few good points about novelists versus screenwriters and such, but so do you about the disappearance of physical books. I also think books will disappear, eventually, but who knows how long. (And thanks for the bleak look at my ,by the way)

    Something to add: I frequent several used bookstores in my area, and every time I go I talk to the people who own/work there. We’ve talked about kindles/nooks/e-readers a few times and they all say the same thing.

    People buy them and they come and say “you probably won’t see me much anymore, I got a kindle.” (used bookstores are close-knit communities). I ask the owner if they see them much and they say it always lasts for about a month, maybe longer.

    Then the kindle owner comes back in and when the owner asks them what’s going on they always say some form of the same thing: “The e-reader is nice when I’m traveling or reading, but paying 6+ dollars for a book I can never hold…it seems like so much. Plus, I miss the feel of holding a book in my hands and browsing the shelves.”

    Does that mean anything really? Well, no. But maybe books will last a little longer than we think.

  3. You might like some of Dan Simmons’ SF novels – several of them have post-literate societies where technology has made everything perfectly accessible. But most of them also have tiny populations where people don’t have to think much either, and humanity is essentially stagnant. I’m thinking specifically of Illium and Olympos, but his Hyperion and Endymion novels have some of this too. All good books, regardless.

    I think your point about PowerPoint (PPT) is simply wrong, for many of the same reasons that JS and Sam have described. Allow me to add a few more. The information content of most PPT presentations I’ve ever seen (or created) is a tiny fraction of the information content of a report. Many concepts are simply harder or less efficient to express in pictures than in words. I’ve personally been accused of creating PPT presentations that are too dense even after I’d lightened them up as much as possible without having to distort my results. And when I’m presenting something based on a report, I’m nearly always asked questions weeks later that would have been answered had the presentation viewers taken an hour to read my report instead of assuming that every single detail was included in my presentation.

    Management and design by PPT is one of the worst trends in modern business that I have experienced for a couple of reasons. First, it forces the PPT’s author to oversimplify and fit everything into hour-long meeting slots. Second, presentation viewers too often come away with a false confidence that they understand. When I’m in someone else’s presentation, I almost always get more out of the report(s) that accompany the presentation than I do out of the presentation itself.

    I feel similarly about how-to videos and manuals – videos have their place, but I can digest a manual faster and get more out of it than most how-to videos. Videos are only useful to me if I have a specific, exact issue that can be exactly addressed by the video. If I’m not sure what I need, then a manual, with its greater opportunity for serendipity, is more useful.

    • Neil Stephenson writes the same sort of stuff in which most people deal with the world through pictograms, but his worlds are places in which the creative class is either so productive that the rest of the world tends to fall into a low-economic-class service economy, or has been altered in some way so that the educated class is sequestered.

    • There are so many embedded assumptions in here I’m not even sure where to start.

      1. You’re assuming your PPT presentations are as well done as your reports. They probably aren’t based on your comment about density and inability to stress the most important points. Bad PPT’s are no better than bad written reports, and no worse.

      2. You’re assuming that if you’d delivered the information in a report, that people would have read it. Not likely. That’s part of why we’ve gone to presentations, so we can be sure of what info people have seen and not seen.

      3. You’re assuming that if people had read your report, that they would have absorbed more than they did in your presentation. Why, pray tell, would you think their reading skills are that much better than their listening skills?

      4. You’re assuming that your personal preferences can be extrapolated to the world, which is a stretch. Obviously, not everyone can digest a manual faster or there wouldn’t be how to videos. I have strong reading skills, am an engineer by training, and go to YouTube every chance I get when I need to follow a how to procedure, so there’s at least one counter point.

      There are many arguments against PPT (see Tufte,) but I think the fact that business has almost completely switched to PPT is proof that most people find more valuable (or at least prefer) information delivered through presentation or visual means. I think that pretty much supports my points about watching crowding out reading, and about the challenge most people have reading.

      I get that you and Sammy hate PPT. Of course you do. You’re writers. Why in the world would writers not hate PPT? It levels the playing field and takes away one of our great advantages (and pleasures.) That doesn’t mean that it’s not a good thing, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that it’s not proof of my point that it is displacing reading.

      • It isn’t that Sammy hates PPT. Sammy is good with PPt. VERY good. The problem is that it is a PRESENTATION tool, not a writing tool. It simply does not serve the same function any more than Excel is a good tool for graphic design.

        Organizations that don’t realize this are fucking themselves every day. I’ll show you the report I note in my earlier comment and let you think about that company over the last decade, then you can tell me whether or not you think they missed the boat by not spending 20 minutes reading a Word doc.

      • I’ll admit that there are a bunch of assumptions built into my comment, Otherwise, but not necessarily all the ones you identified, or not in the same way you think.

        There’s no way my PPTs are as good as my reports. Compared to my peer group (engineers), my written reports are awesome. But that’s specifically because I’m a writer, and my peers are not. Plain and simple. Again, compared to my peer group, I’d say that my PPTs are in the top 25% – not awesome, but way better than average. But keep in mind that my peer group is engineers, who are also not likely to be strong presenters any more than they are likely to be strong writers. But I’ll admit that if you put my PPTs alongside those created by actual experts in creating PPTs, my PPTs will pale in comparison. But most people who are good at making PPTs are good at it because creating PPTs is a primary part of their job description, while creating PPTs is secondary, even tertiary, to mine. If I created PPTs 30 hours per week, every week, I’d be a hell of a lot better at them too.

        In my job, however, I don’t think I have ever seen an example where the presentation format wasn’t a constraint to the explanation of technical depth. There’s a reason why college classes are taught in lecture/presentation format alongside written material – the lecture isn’t enough by itself. I’d be thrilled to know of counter-examples, however, if for no other reason that it would help me improve my own PPTs.

        I make no assumption that people would read my reports. Reading a report takes a lot longer, even when the report is well done (and writing well is as much a learned skill as crafting a good PPT is). But that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes a report is the most efficient way to present information. The more detailed the information is, the more likely it is you need a report to truly understand what’s going on. Just today I was engaged with a journalist associate on Facebook regarding the image at the following link: http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=9110 . The image tells a story, right? But what happened to cause the dip between 2007 and 2009? Does “energy only” measurements and projections include transportation and industrial uses? None of that’s in the image, and adding all that kind of information to a PPT presentation with this image in it would clutter up the presentation with “unnecessary” or “extraneous” details. To get those details you have to dive into the data, the explanations of how the graph was created, maybe even the equations used. And that’s simply not going to go into any effective PPT presentation. But it will go into a report (or maybe the backup slides that usually lack sufficient context to understand how they fit into the presentation and that few people ever bother to review anyway).

        The only people I expect to read my reports are those who truly need to understand all the gory details. Like people who are responsible for reviewing my designs and making sure that they will do what I say they will and that there are no “gotchas” that I missed. I’d like to go deeper into this, but I’ll start ranting about things I shouldn’t, so I’ll stop and say that there are a lot more people who should read the reports and understand the details than people who actually do read the reports and understand the details.

        You’re right that I’m assuming that someone reading a report is more likely to absorb critical information than someone who is listening. Partly that’s because I’m personally a better writer than I am a presentation creator or a public speaker, so it’s a question of playing to my own strengths. But I also think that my explanation above about the difficulty of explaining details in a presentation is the other part.

        JS pointed out differences in learning styles, and I know that I learn better by reading than by listening. I also understand that not everyone is like that. But the domination of presentations over reports puts anyone who learns best by reading at as much a disadvantage as a report-centric paradigm would put aural learners at a disadvantage. I’d personally prefer that businesses be more structured like schools in this regard, where the same information is provided in multiple formats so that the different learning styles can each process the information in whatever way is best for them.

        I also agree that my own personal preferences are a factor here and are not universal, as you yourself describe. I have friends who read so slowly that they simply don’t try to learn manuals that way if there are any other options. But I think that my point about serendipity and detail are independent of my own preferences.

        Finally, I think you are neglecting other possible reasons for why PPTs might have taken over business communications. People preferring visual communications mediums is one possibility, but by now means the only possibility. Efficiency of communication is another (although too much efficiency can as much of a bad thing as too little efficiency). Professionals not having good writing skills is another – it’s easier to become proficient in PowerPoint than it is to become a proficient writer. But business has lost something in the process – PPT presentations are, with very, very few exceptions, “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

        And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

        • Let me clarify about learning styles.

          Think of learning styles as being transportation. Some people will prefer to drive. Others will prefer to walk. Some will prefer to ride a bicycle. Having said this, walking will not get you 140 miles away in two hours. Driving will not get improve your cardio-vascular function.

          Similarly, those who prefer to learn by reading won’t become good tennis players by doing so, and those who prefer to learn by doing won’t become good diagnostician by doing so.

          We humans are hard-wired in certain ways. Learning styles are simply a thin overlay on that.

      • Not sure how to respond to this. Hell, I’m not even sure that “you” refers to me when you say “you and Sammy.” (Sometimes, you seem to be referring to what Brian said, and sometimes not.) Perhaps it doesn’t, but since I’ve been active on this thread, I’ll try to respond, anyway.

        “1. You’re assuming your PPT presentations are as well done as your reports. They probably aren’t based on your comment about density and inability to stress the most important points. Bad PPT’s are no better than bad written reports, and no worse.”

        Yes. They are worse. They are worse because PowerPoint was designed for audio visual communication in a presentation environment. The vast majority of PP hard copies are just printed out from presentation slides. The two forms of communication are fundamentally different both in the way they affect the human brain (based on both cognitive studies and brain imaging) and in the way they affect learning. If a PP is optimized to be an outline and primarily used as a print medium, it fails as a presentation medium – and vice versa.

        In essence, a printed PP presentation is nothing more, or less, than an executive summary, which every written report I’ve ever read has appended to the front. And the exec summary is usually the only part anyone ever read.

        “2. You’re assuming that if you’d delivered the information in a report, that people would have read it. Not likely. That’s part of why we’ve gone to presentations, so we can be sure of what info people have seen and not seen.”

        Now, this one is laughable. Oh, I agree that you never know if people have read a report. The part I find exceedingly funny is the idea that something presented in a “preso” or “deck” (depending on the organization), gets read. Or even listened to if you insist that people who up for a meeting to see it. How many text messages have I received from people sitting in meetings at presentations? How many times has someone asked a question of someone else who was supposed to be paying attention during an online meeting and presentation, only to hear, “Uh … I was on mute. Sorry, can you repeat the question?” (as if mute changes listening behavior). This is a common management delusion. How often have a I heard some senior vice president or other say, “Well, they should know. We communicated that.” Let me tell you, if you weren’t heard, no communication happened. Broadcast and listening aren’t the same things. But it’s easy to measure broadcasting, and not so easy to measure listening.

        “3. You’re assuming that if people had read your report, that they would have absorbed more than they did in your presentation. Why, pray tell, would you think their reading skills are that much better than their listening skills?”

        Umm, because that’s the way print works. That’s the way it works, cognitively. Don’t take my word for it. Review the research. Print is still by far the best medium for understanding abstract concepts. Now, if you want to give a presentation on, say, being sure to use toilet paper after you poop, a presentation will work just as well. Better, actually, if done right.

        “4. You’re assuming that your personal preferences can be extrapolated to the world, which is a stretch. Obviously, not everyone can digest a manual faster or there wouldn’t be how to videos. I have strong reading skills, am an engineer by training, and go to YouTube every chance I get when I need to follow a how to procedure, so there’s at least one counter point.”

        Well, I can’t speak for Sam or anyone else, but I assume nothing of the sort, and said so very clearly, I believe. I DO assume, barring contradictory evidence, that certain media work best to perform certain learning/behavioral objectives. I assume this based on copious research done over many decades for my work. Like you, I prefer video for a simple, how-to procedure in most cases. Having said that, a manual would be much better at imparting the underlying logic in a piece of software that would allow me to figure out my own how-tos in the future. It has to do with level of abstraction, a point I keep trying to make to little avail it would seem.

        “but I think the fact that business has almost completely switched to PPT is proof that most people find more valuable (or at least prefer) information delivered through presentation or visual means.”

        Really? This is just so much economic-theory bullshit that permeates corporate conversation these days. If people in Nowhere, Arkansas are buying GM cars, it must be because they prefer GM products; not because GM has the only dealership in the county. So, we don’t have to worry about the Japanese. If people eat nothing but Big Macs and French fries, it must be because Big Macs and French fries have more nutritional value. If people are buying VHS instead of BetaMax video tapes, it must be because VHS is higher quality, not because the companies offering VHS were better marketers.

        I was around when hard copies of PP slides became the default approach to corporate communication. At first, it happened because of the gee whiz factor. “Oh my God, how did you do that with your graphics!” Then, it became the default position of the lazy. “I haven’t got time to elaborate, but I’ll send you the preso I did for the sub-sub-sub team on the reengineering project.” At least those presos used to come with speaking notes to explain the garbage on the slides. Today, not so much.

        In essence, organizations have (more and more) come to define “efficiency” or “productivity” not as outcomes over inputs, but as time over tasks. The more tasks completed, the more efficient and productive, even if the results of those tasks was nil.

        But, of course, results are rarely measured, whereas task completion is easily measured. Management tends to look for the lost key under the street lamp because there’s light there, even though they know the key is somewhere else. PP makes it easy to check things off the task list.

        Do I hate PP? Not at all. In fact, I was one of the pioneers of using PP, and I even used a predecessor technology (VideoShow) when the hardware cost upwards of $20k in today’s dollars. PP is a tool, like any other tool. I like wrenches, too, but I’m not fond of using them to drive screws.

        • At this point I’d like to invoke McLuhan, if I might, who offered us the edict that “the medium is the message.” What he was on about, ultimately, was the idea that each medium has its unique character, and as a result they’re better at different things.

          TV, for instance, is the ultimate emotional medium. As Postman explained, it completely circumvents the critical faculties that we have evolved as a verbal/textual species. It isn’t so good at communicating lots of minute details (which is why price-point ads from local car dealers are so ineffective).

          Radio, on the other hand, is really good at communicating those kinds of details. It’s all words and no pictures, and hence more susceptible to the workings of the rational mind (the Rush Limbaugh Show notwithstanding).

          When it comes to making business reports, a good Word doc that integrates appropriate imagery and graphics is, on average, the best way to proceed. When standing in front a room presenting, though, trying to work off a Word doc is going to be a very bad idea – it’s cumbersome and you have to keep people riffling around trying to find the right page, and the whole time they’re looking at the doc and not the presenter, who in theory knows what needs to be communicated.

          By the same token, using PPT as the organization’s default written communication tool is positively insane. I’d be willing to bet that as a company’s overreliance on PPT increases, so do a whole raft of operational dysfunctions.

        • I think we’ve lost the thread here, anyway. The point is not whether or not people should use written reports (and thus read) but whether they do, and whether they will in the future. The point is not whether people (and businesses) should continue to read. My original point was they aren’t going to, and I stand by it. Reading is just too hard for most folks. By way of example, scroll up a few and see the comment where the guy completely missed my point about graphic novels. If he’s reading S&R, he’s probably a dedicated reader, but even dedicated readers can’t read all that well. It’s too hard to learn, too hard to do, and we are developing tools where won’t have to, so they won’t.

        • I can’t really argue with you, Otherwise. Businesses are by god not going to read the report and they’re increasingly reliant on things like PPT. As I note, I think this is a massive mistake, but I don’t think they care what I think.

          As for society in general, there is plenty of reason to think we’re moving toward the, ahem, post-literate.” I hope that all this YA fiction mentioned upthread has spurred a lasting comeback re: reading, but the jury is still out. In any case, I can’t imagine that we’re going to see a massive upsurge in reading among the wider popular culture. Some, yes, but visual entertainment is going to continue thriving. It would be interesting to check back in a few decades on the status of these predictions….

        • Sort of, I guess. McLuhan was a media and communications theorist. Once upon a time you’d probably have classified that under Philosophy, but these days it’s its own fairly robust field.

  4. “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.”

    And yet, take a look at those very “[m]ovies and TV shows” of which you write. How many ADAPTATIONS of novels have made it to either the big or small screen over just the last couple of years, and how many more are coming out? Excluding the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series, we’ve got “Beautiful Creatures” (based off a YA series) and “Safe Haven” (based on a Nicholas Sparks novel) coming out just this week. Later this year will be “The Host” (another of Stephenie Meyer’s works–a #1 NY Times Bestseller, by the way), the big adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” an adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” (directed by Joss Whedon), “World War Z,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” and that’s just through August (not to mention comic-book-based properties like “Man of Steel,” “Kick-Ass 2,” “Iron Man 3” and “The Wolverine”). As for TV, I’ll point you to “The Walking Dead” as a current property that originated in comics (okay–not “novels” but reading is most certainly involved; besides, the suggestion that “novels” are the only type of printed reading matter out there is just a bit pretentious).

  5. I have far too many comments, and I want to organize them better than I have so far, so I’ll just leave it at this:
    “Committee creative is inherently inferior to work produced by a single great mind.”
    Response–The King James Bible

  6. 1) Thousands and thousands and thousands of words – including some hundreds about “post-reading/post-literate” societies – which are the subjects of NOVELS and WRITTEN by WRITERS. Unintentional irony…? Why yes, I think perhaps… 🙂

    2) Invoking the KJV of the Bible as a committee work might be a red herring….that was a TRANSLATION job, not a creative composition…might seem a fine point, but nonetheless, I think it makes a difference….

    • Also, the KJV wasn’t a unitary work, nor was it a work where there was anything like collaboration. You had all kinds of disparate editors collecting the remnants of thousands of years of oral tradition and slamming between a couple of covers. It’s no more an example of collaboration than my Norton Anthology.

      I think Wuf is messing with us.

  7. Last April there was a study done about the effects of e-books/e-readers on reading and whether people read more or less because of them. It actually showed that people who have e-readers read more than they would without them because of the ease of access.

    The Study: http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/04/04/the-rise-of-e-reading/

    People are still reading, just in different format.

    Also, the idea that TV shows and Movies would replace books is not exactly right either. In fact, TV shows and movies that are popular are making money on the public’s willingness to read by making book versions of the episodes or expanding the series into a secondary series of books as well.

    It’s been shown that books made into TV shows/movies (or the other way around) increase book sales and that when a movie comes out the publisher can expect a jump in sales around the release dates as new fans go to the books to get more of the story and old fans buy the book again to re-experience it.
    http://publishing.about.com/od/BookMarketingAndPublicity/a/Movie-Tie-Ins-Boost-Sales.htm

    If books were truly dying, then why would big movie and television production companies, who are all about the money, waste time making book tie-ins to boost their sales?

    • Interesting, but not sure it changes much. Yes, e-books may increase reading by readers, but the problem is we will have fewer readers in the future. Interesting idea that e-books could slow the demise of reading though.

      As for the TV increasing books, etc, that is surely true for non-readers. No doubt Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight brought encouraged some people to read, as noted in O’Brien’s original post about YA. One thing I learned analyzing trends is there’s always a counter-trend. As Neils Bohr said, the opposite of every great truth is another great truth. The question is whether quantitatively that will be enough to save reading, and I doubt it.

      Great contribution.

  8. Death to PowerPoint!

    The horror that program has subjected literate people to must be avenged. The shitty clip art. The Comic Sans.

    I’d say that at least 40% of my job is writing, more if i take into consideration that most of the rest of my work has to be turned into words for people who don’t know the science and/or need plain language explanation for a raft of legislative parameters such as the ever popular 29 CFR 1926.1101. This includes designing and implementing documentation programs that will stand up in a court of law decades in the future and allow someone who was never there to recreate full work days.

    The horrors of the post-literate society Otherwise is pointing towards are well known to me. It’s like pulling finger nails to get coworkers with advanced degrees to write. I blame science. We put such a heavy emphasis on technical education, which is not necessarily bad. However, my liberal arts background is the reason why clients compliment me: the ability to reason, investigate, speak, and write. It’s also the reason that i pass the time in meetings imagining gouging my own eyes out with a rusty spoon to end the pain of having to listen to people torture the English language and the knowledge that more meetings will come because so many people cannot explain their thought, position, or argument. The only ray of light being the mental list i keep of words misused by people trying to sound smart.

    Oddly, i know the science that i need for my work but my career path is somewhat limited because i don’t have a science degree. Instead, i’m left enjoy having my deep and broad liberal arts education snarked by people who regularly utter the word “irregardless.”

  9. This is a world-class thread. Just want to make one humble observation regarding Kindle and e-readers. At this point, they’re devices to get you to buy books, which I can rarely afford. Once, they’re fully hooked up to libraries, then I’ll buy one. For now, I mostly read “brick and mortar” books. One visual note: varying your mediums from computer to e-reader to smart phone to real books spares your eyes a lot of grief.

  10. KJV–I’m not sure either Jim or Sam are correct. My understanding of it as a committe project, which may be incorrect, derives from Alistair McGrath’s IN the Beginning: The Story of he King James Bible. It’s been a while since I read it, but my memory is that tehre was a whole lot of committee work here, above and beyond the translations–in fact, I think the translations alll had to be approved by a committee. But whatever.

    • I think you’re probably describing the canonization process – compiling, editing, deciding what’s in and what’s out, etc. For the OT, especially, you’re talking about stuff that wasn’t written so much as it was written down – that is, stories had been floating around for thousands of years and then this writing thing comes along and somebody records the stories. Company Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. We know that those stories emerged centuries apart from different geographical regions (one northern, one southern).

      Some of the NT stuff might not have been as scattered, but I’d be stunned to learn that it was the sort of committee work we’re talking about. (Also, we’re talking about a creative process, whereas one assume that the Bible was an attempt at history.)

  11. Thanks, Sam. I commented further on that on your new post on the subject. Regarding young people reading, just an observation: My wife works as an assistant to the librarian at the local high school-middle school. She says middle-schoolers read a lot, YA and other stuff. Big drop-off in high school, though. Just one librarian’s observation.

  12. I want to thank Sam Hill for writing and Sam Smith for publishing this excellent prompt for a vigorous conversation. Initial disclaimer: I confess my own response is perhaps driven by what Michael Shermer calls a “belief-dependent [interpretation of] reality.”

    I think Sam H. proposes valid questions about the future of reading and posits provocative answers designed to stimulate (and provoke) discussion. My own experience as both a published author and a college English teacher leads me to question the slippery slope Sam announces about the future of both writing and reading.

    I’ve never thought of myself as a writer but rather a storyteller. As such, I believe medium is secondary. Do audiences crave fewer stories? Doubtful. Do storytellers need to tell their tales in formats that are relevant and accessible to audiences in a world of emergent lifestyles? Absolutely.

    I found myself plunged into the new proliferation of media for storytelling this past fall, when I had two new novels come out. (My previous novel came out four years ago, in the relative twilight of electronic consumption.) Both were released about the same time in hard copy and in e-reader formats. I’ve always published with small presses, but have a supportive network of friends in larger houses, and they report the same simultaneous approach. Ironically, my fan-base platform-building is almost entirely electronic, but the reach has produced almost equal sales for both print and e-reads. A transition? Probably. The signal for an end to print? Too early to predict, but I doubt it. My “belief-dependent reality” kicking in? Maybe.

    But audiences still crave stories, and lifestyles have shifted consumption to include e-formats, hard copies, and MP3 readings, not to mention stage, screen, or the revival of radio drama! My college students — even the gamers — still read traditional story media formats. And Mass Effect, one popular role-playing game, offers bridge stories in mass paperback form to feed their audiences. These sales are strong.

    I recently read (in an e-reader subscription about legacy publishing trends — how’s that for irony?) that only 25% of the American population has read a book in the last year. That’s of more concern to me than medium delivery.

    But I still think people crave stories, and I support whatever medium delivers that message.

    • Great way to frame it, Mark. If I had to write this again, that might well have been the handle with which I picked up the problem (as a colleague used to say.) So let’s reframe my argument.

      Will people continue to want storytelling? Yes.

      So then the two relevant questions become: how will those stories be created and how will they be consumed?

      1. In terms of “how created,” I do think collaboratively created media are on the rise and individually created media on the wane. I’m not sure why. Perhaps its the inherent complexity of modern entertainment, e.g., multi-media. Perhaps it’s bigger stakes and thus more desire for more eyes in the process. Perhaps it’s just the emphasis placed on collaboration these days in eduction rather than on individual attainment has created a generation more inclined to collaborate and less wedded to the Hemingway model. I do acknowledge though that collaborative creativity has always been with us. It’s not new, just increasing.

      2. In terms of “how consumed,” I still think the answer is more watchable material, less readable material, and more electronic rather than paper. Now, is my argument for why that might happen correct, e.g., the fundamental inefficiency inherent in reading? That’s a bit more of a reach, but I would argue it’s plausible causality.

      This is a fabulous comment thread by the way.

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