LONDON – A few weeks ago, I bought a copy of “The Second Machine Age” by two MIT researchers, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who are among the most insightful commentators currently writing about the likely impact on employment of advanced robotics, machine learning and big-data analytics. Since I already own more physical books than my house and office can hold, I tend now to buy the Kindle version of texts that are relevant to my work, and so it was with the Brynjolfsson and McAfee volume.
Yesterday, I received a cheery email from Amazon. “Hello John Naughton,” it read. “An updated version of your past Kindle purchase of ‘The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies’ by Erik Brynjolfsson is now available. The updated version contains the following changes: Improved formatting for readability. Significant editorial changes have been made. You can receive the improved versions of all your books by opting in to receive book updates automatically.”
Note the phrase, “significant editorial changes have been made.” In their book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee use Ernest Hemingway’s observation about how a man goes broke — “gradually and then suddenly” — as a metaphor for what’s been happening in the part of the technological world that concerns them. “Progress on some of the oldest and toughest challenges associated with computers, robots and other digital gear,” they write, “was gradual for a long time. Then in the past few years it became sudden; digital gear started racing ahead, accomplishing tasks it had always been lousy at and displaying skills it was not supposed to acquire any time soon.”
This process of slow and relatively unobtrusive change followed by a tipping point and then very rapid change seems to apply to many areas of information technology. We saw it, for example, in the way in which SMS bumped along for years until pre-pay tariffs arrived and suddenly teenagers could have mobile phones. Often the factor that marks the tipping point is when a particular device, service or technology becomes networked. In the case of the book, for example, early developments such as CD-ROM had relatively small impacts on the book trade (except in the case of reference works). Likewise, at the beginning, e-books — texts in electronic form — were very much a minority sport. I had a Sony e-reader in the early days, but getting texts on to it was a bit of a pain and so, in the end, it came to seem like an expensive paperweight.
What changed the e-book scene was not the actual device but the emergence of a networked ecosystem of which the device was just one component. The significant thing about Amazon’s Kindle was not that it was an e-reader but that it was a networked device to which texts could be quickly and effortlessly downloaded from Amazon’s online store. Once that tipping point had been passed, a whole raft of interesting — and disruptive — possibilities begin to emerge.
For example, reading a Kindle book can be — depending on one’s preferences settings — a solitary or a communal experience. You can, for example, see the passages that other readers of the same book have highlighted. And they, in turn, can see yours. If you have bought a book in the Kindle store, you can then read it on any smartphone, tablet or computer on which you have installed the Kindle app. And when you switch to a different device you can pick up from where you were reading the text on another device. And so on.
There are, of course, downsides to all this. There always are: Networking is a double-edged sword. Amazon, for example, could remotely delete “your” book — as it did in at least one celebrated case. But the other side of that coin is the fact that a Kindle book, in contrast to a printed work, can be fluid, malleable — fungible almost. In the print world, we are accustomed to the idea of discrete editions of a text. But an e-book could have a new edition every month, or indeed every week.
For fast-changing subjects (such as information technology), that might be very helpful — in which case the argument for physically printing such texts looks increasingly shaky. It will be amazing if, in 10 years’ time, undergraduates will still be lugging around the astonishingly heavy textbooks that weigh down the rucksacks of today’s students. For authors, the fact that it will technically be possible continually to update their books may be a mixed blessing. After all, one of the consolations of traditional authorship is that when a book is published, it’s finished. There’s that moment when the first hardbound copies come back from the publisher and one thinks: “Well, that’s that: Now on to the next thing.” And for the reader there are new dilemmas — such as what exactly are these “significant editorial changes” that Brynjolfsson and McAfee made?