13 April 2008

Dying Media - New Media

Downsizing my office has meant clearing the library. What do you do with all the books you've read and accumulated over the years? Sell them to a second-hand bookshop? They hardly exist any more. Sell them on eBay? Do me a favour. Do you want to advertise, describe, bubble-wrap, package and schlep to the post office for a title that can only sell for two quid at the most. Taking out a paper round would be better business. It would seem that second hand books have virtually no value, unless they're rare or special. If you don't believe me, so a search for a classic novel on Amazon. Prices start at one penny.

So you end up taking your unwanted stock to the charity shop. Yes, the little old ladies (of both sexes) who run them are actually grateful for all those web design manuals, dictionaries of foreign terms, essays on literary theory, and old novels you need to ditch.

The experience led me to reflect on the nature of books and the collecting of them. Most of my life has been spent surrounded by shelf after shelf and room after room lined with books. It's part of the cultural world one inhabits. And it has to be said, it still remains a sort of a cultural status symbol. Yet for all the space they occupy, how often does one ever take a book down from the shelves and re-read it? Very seldom, if ever.

Yet I kept my serious works of reference - especially the big dictionaries. But even as I was lowering them tenderly into their temporary packing-cases, I was thinking - "What do you do today if you need to know anything?" The answer is - you type a search term into Google, or you go to Wikipedia.

Books are still a very convenient medium for conveying issues on which the reader might wish to dwell, or which take some time to absorb. But once that process is finished, they've done their job and are just taking up shelf space.

It's all a powerful argument in favour of what Nicholas Negroponte calls 'bit versus atoms'. What he means by that is anythig which is delivered to us as atoms takes up space - whereas bits are virtual. They occupy no space at all. Whole libraries are now available to us all, on line. So maybe we don't need our own any more?

This phenomenon was reinforced by the same thing happening with recorded music. I hesitated for some time, wondering if I could muster the energy to transfer huge numbers of vinyl LPs onto CD - but in the end they went to the charity shop too. The young man in charge was pleased to inform me that he'd checked out their value in record catalogues, and was pleased to put high-ish price stickers on them.

So - goodbye to the era of LPs. I knew I wouldn't be the first person to make this transition. But at the very same time, as I boxed up my CDs, it struck me that I now prefer listening to music on line. The sound quality is better; the selection infinitely varied; and I can switch from classical to jazz and back again whenever I wish. More than that, Last.fm creates my own personal radio station for me - so I can choose music like Prokofiev or Michel Petrucciani, and I can skip over artists I don't like whenever it suits me.

So maybe we're entering a new age of online media, which certainly takes up far less space - leaving me room for the three shiny new black monitors I've got on my desk, looking like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise.

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