Wednesday, January 28, 2009

If You Could Read My Mind

Reflecting on the Google deal with publishers of copyright works and digitization, it occurs to me that the change is not simply one of access but form. One wonders if it has the same effect as single outlet systems have had on other media.

There was a time when MTV ruled the music industry when it became the only radio that mattered. In the beginning, it was experimental, fast and very trendy. The fly in the ointment was that instead of being a sound medium, it was a visual medium and popular music was driven straight into the New York fashion houses. Thus the infamous Bo Diddley statement live on camera to Chrissie Hynde, “You ain’t no musician; you a model.”

Anytime a single media outlet dominates a media type, the form of that outlet begins to shape the evolution of the content. Digitization of books will follow the path of online communications: it will shred the language. The pressure to write shorter sentences and use punchier but less evocative words is strong. You see it in the Twits and Tweets. You see it in comments such as “OMG put a period in that sentence”. Pop music publishing first in sheet music, then in radio formats killed the long form composition for any practical commercial uses. TV did irreparable damage to movie structures and topics.

If Google is the only access, expect the quick death of the novel and possibly other forms of print. Once it is on the screen, patience turns into umbrage. Add a high energy drink or two, and it becomes vitriol.

The redeeming thought is that hypermedia systems are multimedia systems and have their own forms of expression such as being able to embed the videos for effect or accentuate a point. That is good for new forms, but older forms do suffer. The consolation is that MTV wasn't able to hang on to its monopoly and today has very little influence. Radios are increasingly irrelevant in the day of the download. Pop music has never recovered but some form of it will return in the pop mashups.

Few can carve in marble as well as some once could two thousand years ago. Themes may be eternal but forms evolve. Still, a couple of nuclear airbursts can wipe out that Google library, so perhaps we are not yet ready to burn books for kindling to make room for new monitors. We aren't becoming Bradbury's Montag having to memorize a book to save it from book burning, but any complex instrument left unattended surrenders to entropy. Evolution is not continual improvement, but it is continous forgetting.

Caveat emptor.

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