Friday, July 9, 2010

A Response to David Brooks Column on Books-vs.-Internet

by Jeff Stanger

I read David Brooks's July 8 New York Times column The Medium is the Medium with great interest. It was his final two paragraphs that jumped out at me:

"[Books/the literary world is] better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious."

"Perhaps that will change. Already, more 'old-fashioned' outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning."

I completely agree that books-vs.-internet will soon be a non-debate, as what we think of as "books" (or "reports" or "articles") — printed matter — become digitized. The real question is what we mean by "digitized." Will digitized books remain the same static product, just available in a Web browser or mobile device? Most research organizations, and most digital book publishers, iPad magazines, etc., do exactly this — create a digital clone of their static products. The PDF is still the weapon of choice for what David Brooks might call "important" information. But the PDF is a crutch and a failure of imagination; a shortcut to avoid rethinking the fundamental way that important information is communicated.

Well, PDFs aren't going to cut it anymore. If "important" is to remain prestigious in a digital society, then it needs to adopt a new interactive language, acknowledging that information consumption patterns and platforms have changed irreversibly. Interactive, visual, data-driven, dynamic, customizable, mobile and touchable are the characteristics of this new language. Interactive information graphics, smartphone and tablet applications, data visualizations, interactive databases, and yes interactive "books," are among its large and rapidly expanding set of new modes. (I've also written about this here and here and here.)

Brooks identifies a problem that I attribute to the fact that "important information" is speaking an old language in a new medium. In today's digital realm, so much important information is buried in PDFs, easily overshadowed by "unimportant" information that is dazzling in its powerful interactivity. There is no shortage of flashy applications to play (which I love, by the way, don't get me wrong). But those same modes haven't been adopted at a high rate to inform on matters of importance. We can direct animated airliners on an iPad, but we still need to seek out a massive PDF on a think tank's web site (or worse, gasp, a printed book) for an authoritative study on issues of public health, global poverty, climate change, or public opinion. That needs to change.

Important information must re-assert itself by announcing "I'm important; I'm authoritative" in a native, interactive digital language, not in PDF clones of print documents. It's not currently doing that. Its approach is to transplant the same gobs of static text in the form of reports, white papers, articles, books, etc. and hope that audiences bring the same evaluation of prestige, authority or credibility. They don't, and continuing on that path is extremely risky for the world of important information.

I agree with Brooks that there is another important debate — how can important information adapt to a digital environment in order to attract people to serious learning? It won't be by loading more PDFs or creating an information "counterculture." Rather, it demands coexistence, beginning with learning the native interactive language and speaking it fluently. I still want to be able to drive sports cars by tilting my iPad, but I also want to learn about education, health, the environment and the economy by swiping, pinching and tapping.

Comments welcome...