A few weeks ago at MobyLives, the characteristically trenchant blog of the publishing house he helped found, Dennis Johnson wrote about the waning fortunes of Barnes and Noble. You might expect a touch of schadenfreude from a small publisher like Melville House, closely allied as it is to independent booksellers. Yet Johnson wrote that the closing of many of the chain’s stores “gave me no pleasure, nor does the fact that this scenario is playing out across the country with increasing frequency.” Whatever indiscretions they may have committed, B&N stores were, for many communities, the only remaining physical ambassador for reading. “Two thousand fewer places for people to be exposed to books,” Johnson wrote, “is pretty obviously not good for our culture.”
To that point in the post, it was just possible to hear the masses dividing off along predictable lines. Half, you could imagine, were nodding their heads, lamenting the demise of another neighborhood bookseller—even one as corporate and diluted as B&N. Meanwhile, that thunder you hear in the distance is actually the sound of a small army of e-book enthusiasts all grunting their dismissal at the same time.
Reading on, though, things get more interesting. Johnson points to “showrooming” as a frequent precursor to buying books online, as well as to surveys backing that claim. More evocative is the article written by the New York Times‘ David Streitfeld, who at one point suggests that the closing of the Borders chain last year was, in effect, tantamount to the closing of hundreds of showrooms for e-book sellers. Without a place for consumers to look over physical books first, sales of e-books dropped in Borders’ wake.
That’s counter-intuitive if you think of e-books as the leading direct competitor to the physical book format. After all, it’s the e-book that’s driving booksellers and publishers out of business, right? So there has to be some unforeseen, extenuating circumstance that explains why our expectation was upended. Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe the explanation is that we’ve simply gotten the relationship wrong.
We’ve been dwelling over the supposedly direct competition between the books and e-books for some time now. If there’s anything to be learned from that length of that debate, it’s that e-books and physical books are currently more similar than they are different. We can debate the relative convenience of one against the other, or trumpet the features on offer by either, but when it comes to their most basic use, most of us still think of e-books in explicitly bookish terms. We see them, in other words, as virtual books, and we understand them—their use and cultural value—in reference to the physical format.
Nor is there anything particularly special about the book example. Even 18 years after the MP3 format was patented, Amazon still felt it worth their effort to develop Auto-Rip, a service that automatically provides MP3s when you buy the corresponding CD. Even as we’ve replicated them on our digital devices, our conceptions of the core arts have remained tethered to the physical. If for no other reason, video games are culturally significant in how they’ve broken free of those constraints. While digital versions of physical games like Scrabble are de rigeur, the industry is anchored on the sort of games and conventions that would be prohibitively difficult or expensive to reverse-engineer into physical space.
Look, there have been any number of metaphors for understanding what exactly it is that we’ve built here. Some of those metaphors are built directly into the language we use to discuss it. We move it all around on a net or a web, for example, and those are neat, virtually indispensable ways for explaining digital interconnectedness. Often the language we use borders on the monumental—it isn’t just a web, but a World Wide Web. It doesn’t always pay to think in such grandiose terms, though. Sometimes it helps to think small.
I want to suggest another, more modest metaphor. The digital world is a pocket. It’s an open-ended little loop we’ve fashioned out of the fabric of daily life. We plunge our hands in and rummage around for a key, or a credit card, a little black address book or a lucky rabbit’s foot. A pocket carries, and that’s undeniably a useful function. You don’t always realize how useful until you find yourself without a dozen things to carry, and no pocket in which to put them. But it also conceals, and that’s arguably the more consequential function.
The pocket-nature of the digital accounts for much of the confusion and many of the upended expectations that accompany modernity. It’s convenient that there are millions of books tucked into the digital pocket that is Amazon, but until bankruptcy closed the hundreds of showrooms Borders provided, we didn’t really understand how that pocket also concealed what it carried. Now that we know, we can adjust our expectations accordingly. We’re also in a better position to understand why hardback sales are as resilient to the encroachment of the e-book as they were to the innovation of the pocket-sized paperback.
As we rely more and more on smart phones and tablets for our contact with the digital, the more literal that metaphor will become. For several decades, most of us have rummaged through the digital pocket using a bulky desktop terminal. Now we carry it with us—moreover, we conceal it—a pocket within a pocket.