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Are Digital Distractions Monopolizing Reading Time?

Steve Bohme

Steve Bohme: “When everyone has a Kindle, why would you buy them a book?”

Books do furnish a room, but according to many in the publishing industry, the fear is that emails, online video texts and tweets will prevent them being read.

By Roger Tagholm

At the Writing in a Digital Age conference, Cory Doctorow didn’t just launch a broadside against Amazon – or, more specifically, DRM (digital rights management) – he included Apple too, pointing out that the company initially offered developers the chance to keep 100% of in-app revenue, until the day it became the leading smartphone platform. “Then it clawed back 30% of in-app sales, knowing that the platform it had built – on the investment of the app developers whose 30% they were about to consume – would give it the market power to put the screws on those creators.”

It was all reminiscent of Foyles Chairman Christopher Foyles’ speech at the new store in London last week in which he noted the behavior of dominant companies. “It’s part of the human condition: when a company has a monopolistic position, it will abuse it.”

It was ever thus through the ages. What to call this? Greed? Love of power? The Darwinism of the market? The business version of what Roth calls ‘the human stain’? It’s why, of course, countries have rules and regulations, checks and balances, to prevent such situations. But at last week’s conference, some speakers hinted at a much greater threat, one that wasn’t necessarily anything to do with monopolies, but one which has arisen almost without anyone noticing and which threatens the entire industry. It is, quite simply, the numerous enticements away from reading that the digital world brings.

Stephen Page

Faber’s Stephen Page is “worried about the loss of reading.”

Panelists Stephen Page, CEO of Faber; agent James Gill of United Artist; Diego Marano of Kobo Writing Life; and Steve Bohme of Nielsen, were each asked for what most excited or worried them looking ahead. Page said: “I’m worried about the loss of reading, its substitution by other things. In ancient times Latin was spoken by the elite and English was the vernacular, the language of the masses. Someone said the other day that video is becoming the new vernacular. I’m worried that reading will be for the elite, that video [and] YouTube will be the vernacular.”

It is an irony of the digital age that the very tools and devices developed to expand reading – and in many ways that has happened – are the same tools that can reduce it. It’s the tablet as digital Trojan horse, invading our houses and kidnapping our book reading time.

Bohme said he was concerned about children’s access to smartphones and tablets for the same reason, and also noted the threat to the gift market posed by digital. “When everyone you know has a Kindle, why would you buy them a book?”

Gill was worried about the decline of the high street, the lack of visibility for books. It was left to Marano to add a positive note (well, Kobo was a conference sponsor). “I’m excited about what technology can do for the reader. The key word is flexibility. The publishing industry has not been good at embracing that, but technology helps foster it.

The fears about You Tube and the many distractions of the online world may be overstated – and there are echoes of all the talk of TV killing radio, and video killing cinema, both of which proved understandable but misguided. Nonetheless, anyone with teenage – and younger – children cannot help notice the glittering allure of devices and their constant distractions and temptations.  

Indeed, arguably everyone recognizes the compulsion to check a message, send a response, to fill up all that dead time which might once have been spent reading. Books do furnish a room, but it seems texts and tweets can prevent them being read.

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  1. Chentong Hao
    Posted June 21, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Hi, there, I am a publishing student of Edinburgh Napier University, I am currently contributing for a Chinese publishing newspaper called China Publishing Today, an article called”Are Digital Distractions Monopolizing Reading Time?”interested me a lot to put it in the Chinese newspaper, what do I have to do to get permission to translate? Could you help me to contact this author if this convenient ? Thank you.

    Best regards
    Chentong Hao

  2. Julianne Caesar
    Posted June 29, 2014 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Regarding Bohme’s concern about accessibility of smartphones and tablets, potential threats in the digital age, to quote (again), “It was ever thus.” As has happened throughout time, the wealthiest families, the industrialists/corporatists in a sense create a world and let “us” (the masses) live in it. Just don’t expect it to be a particularly comfortable life. Or be particularly well-paid for a day’s work (unless you’re a top-level executive or owner/founder). You only need to look at society during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain to see some things really do never change. When they do, it’s only arguably for the better. The computer age wrought profound and lasting changes in American society (and then the rest of the world) just as the Industrial Revolution did in its day, in often similar ways. Then as now, ordinary workers fought to be paid a *living* wage, work in and under safe conditions, end the appalling practice of child labor, have the chance for upward growth/opportunities. (Arguably, there would never have been a need to unionize IF workers had simply been treated and paid fairly by their employers.) The Luddite movement wasn’t about an ignorant/obstinant worker population so much as it was about being rendered obsolete by machines that could now do the job they once did, and those same companies not re-training their employees in other areas or industries. The computer age in the U.S. had the same impact–workers worried that computers would, and indeed did, replace their jobs. And in the past decade, shipped those jobs, even entire operations, overseas to countries that don’t have strict, if any, worker protections, no minimum wage requirements, n0 healthcare or retirements to pay a portion of.

    Then as now, employees, employers, and their respective governments responded differently to the negative effects of the Computer Age and outsourcing as they in the Industrial Age. In the “infancy” years of the Industrial Revolution, both the government and business owners/merchants expected the marketplace itself would somehow self-correct, even if historically that’s rarely been the case and, in modern times in the U.S., is also not the case. And then as now, government and business (in a relationship both symbiotic and adversarial), abroad or in the U.S., leave those who actually DO the work holding the short end of the stick–and then have the nerve to complain about the taxes they pay to help support various social programs, programs that might not need to exist IF businesses simply acted ethically, fairly, and paid their workers a wage they can actually live and raise a family on. Yet every single time, without fail, talk of raising the minimum wage has CEOs yowling as if someone stepped on their high-paid tails. But theirs is a willfully blind, greedy spot. Nary an eyelash is batted at paying a CEO $10 million a year plus benefits/stock options (compensation NOT even necessarily tied to company performance), but employees who have the audacity to want to be paid enough to provide for their families, keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, clothes on their backs, afford a doctor when sick and not live in fear of being bankrupted or made jobless and homeless if they suffer a serious medical illness or disease? Somehow THAT is beyond the pale. The only thing more reprehensible than the (cavalier) attitude and arrogance of our ‘titans’ of industry is, frankly, the worker himself. They need to grow or re-discover the backbone of their ancestors who settled and developed this country. Walking around holding protest signs does very little; it certainly doesn’t affect change.

    Industry giveth and also taketh away. Does anyone dispute that, once the Internet went ‘mainstream,’ it also went retail, so to speak? Dig out an old Comcast (or whoever your ISP is) statement. Compare the cost of Internet access 5, 10 years ago to today. The cost of cable itself. (Better still, compare it AND a paystub from 5, 10 years ago to one from today.) The cost of that access never moves in a downward direction. It moves ever upward, even as service gets sloppier and jobs, if not entire operations, moved overseas. How long before tiered-Internet access becomes a reality?

    And how will THAT benefit children’s access to smartphones and tablets, make tomorrow’s workforce globally competitive? Though I’d love to see a rational explanation, backed by facts, showing that second, fourth, sixth graders simply MUST have a smartphone AND, or, a tablet. Where’s the proof that they learn better or faster, or on par, with children who don’t have smartphones and/or tablets? Most(?) homes have a computer, no? If that be the case, what compelling reasons show elementary-grade students *need* smartphones and tablets in order to learn, can’t use the home computer if they have one? I’ve yet to see a series of studies showing irrefutable proof of their necessity in our public grade schools.

    Undoubtedly, “interactive” textbooks are more interesting; we’re talking about the XBox generation(s) after all. And if an E-text keeps a student enthused about learning, more power to it. But there’s one large, glaring problem. What about the millions of children living in poverty, whose parents often cannot afford groceries for a week, let alone a smartphone or tablet? Can you teach a child if the child isn’t interested in learning? Not curious about the world? More preoccupied with whether or not they’ll get dinner tonight? Getting off the bus and walking into their homes without incident–no stray bullet to dodge or gang member lurking about? Parents actually HOME in the evening to help go over the day’s homework? Actually HAVING parents at home, not just a mom barely past high-school age herself, the father absent, as is too often the case? A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And while many will argue what does poverty have to do with access to smartphones and tablets for learning, I’d respond, “Everything.” To be competitive globally we need a nation of children eager to learn in the first place, even before talk of smartphones or tablets. We need to turn that weak link into a strong one. But a three-pronged approach is needed, IMO. We need to tackle the thorny issue of persistent poverty; a workforce with outdated or low skills and thus no real opportunity for upward growth; parents who lack parenting skills because of generational teen pregnancies (common among the poor in any developed nation). THEN maybe we can have a national discussion about the “need” for smartphones and tablets. But shouldn’t we first shore up that weak link on the chain?

    No matter how politicians and corporatists spin it: We need to pay the nation’s workforce an actual wage they can live on. If the company CEO can command a 7-figure salary, at the LEAST that company can afford to pay its employees a living wage. If it can’t, then maybe it needs to re-examine its executive compensation package. Millions of Americans scrape by on salaries far, far less than 7 figures. I hardly think the CEO of any of our nation’s corporations are going to end up living out of a cardboard box if they don’t get that 7-figure salary. Were that the case, the Coca-Colas and General Electrics of the world would have gone toes up decades ago, back before the Gordon Gekko era of “greed is good,” in a time when executives didn’t command such astronomical paychecks.

    Because sometimes greed is just that–greed. And you don’t need a smartphone or tablet to learn that basic fact.

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