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Craig Mod has a fascinating article for Aeon, talking about the unfortunate stagnation in digital books. He spent years reading books almost exclusively in ebook form, but has gradually moved back to physical books, and the article is a long and detailed exploration into the limits of ebooks today — nearly all of which are not due to actual limitations of the medium, but deliberate choices by the platform providers (mainly Amazon, obviously) to create closed, limited, DRM-laden platforms for ebooks.
When new platform innovations come along, the standard progression is that they take the old thing — whatever it is they’re “replacing” — and create a new version of it in the new media. Early TV was just radio plays where you could see the people, for example. The true innovation starts to show up when people realize that you can do something new with the new media that simply wasn’t possible before. But, with ebooks, it seems like we’ve never really reached that stage. It’s just replicated books… and that’s it. The innovations on top of that are fairly small. Yes, you can suddenly get any book you want, from just about anywhere and start reading it almost immediately. And, yes, you can take notes that are backed up. Those are nice. But it still just feels like a book moved from paper to digital. It takes almost no advantage of both the ability to expand and change the canvas, or the fact that you’re now a part of a world-connected network where information can be shared.
While I don’t think (as some have argued) that Amazon has some sort of dangerous “monopoly” on ebooks, Mod is correct that there’s been very little pressure on Amazon to continue to innovate and improve the platform. And, he argues (quite reasonably), if Amazon were to open up its platform and let others innovate on top of it, the whole thing could become much more valuable:
It seems as though Amazon has been disincentivised to stake out bold explorations by effectively winning a monopoly (deservedly, in many ways) on the market. And worse still, the digital book ‘stack’ – the collection of technology upon which our digital book ecosystems are built – is mostly closed, keeping external innovators away.
To understand how the closed nature of digital book ecosystems hurts designers and readers, it’s useful to look at how the open nature of print ecosystems stimulates us. ‘Open’ means that publishers and designers are bound to no single option at most steps of the production process. Nobody owns any single piece of a ‘book’. For example, a basic physical book stack might include TextEdit for writing; InDesign for layout; OpenType for fonts; the printers; the paper‑makers; the distribution centres; and, finally, the bookstores that stock and sell the hardcopy books.
And, on top of this, people creating “ebooks” are limited to the options given to them by Amazon and Apple and Google. And then it all gets locked down:
Designers working within this closed ecosystem are, most critically, limited in typographic and layout options. Amazon and Apple are the paper‑makers, the typographers, the printers, the binders and the distributors: if they don’t make a style of paper you like, too bad. The boundaries of digital book design are beholden to their whim.
The fact that all of these platforms rely on DRM — often at the demands of short-sighted publishers — only makes the problem worse:
The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable. Physical things are difficult to copy at scale, while digital things in open environments can replicate effortlessly. Physical is largely immutable, digital can be malleable. Physical is isolated, digital is networked. This is where digital rights management (DRM) – a closed, proprietary layer of many digital reading stacks – hurts books most and undermines almost all that latent value proposition in digital. It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects. DRM constraints over our rights as readers make it feel like we’re renting our digital books, not owning them.
If ebook platforms and technology were more open, it’s quite conceivable that we’d be experiencing a different kind of ebook revolution right now. People could be much more creative in taking the best of what books provide and leveraging the best of what a giant, connected digital network provides — creating wonderful new works of powerful art that go beyond the standard paper book. But we don’t have that. We have a few different walled gardens, locked tight, and a weak recreation of the paper book in digital form.
It’s difficult to mourn for lost culture that we never actually had, but it’s not difficult to recognize that we’ve probably lost a tremendous amount of culture and creativity by not allowing such things to thrive.
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