Lately I keep getting asked about the Kindle. These conversations generally start with people wanting to know how the Kindle works, how popular they are and, ultimately, do I prefer them to ‘real’ books. It’s this last question that I find interesting.
I like both. I’d love a Kindle. I also love real books. I think they serve slightly different purposes and to that extent they don’t really replace each other. But this answer doesn’t often satisfy people. They want a definitive decision, one over the other, a victor.
Which is something I’m starting to notice a lot, this feeling that you’re either a digital person or an analog person, either all for the bright, new, ephemeral digital world, or the solid, traditional, substantial analog one. In a quite wonderfully appropriate way, it’s a binary decision – you’re a zero or a one, digital or analog.
Which I do find slightly odd because the reality is that there are some things that just work better in a specific form. It’s not a universal. Digital’s not better. Nor is analog. It’s a case-by-case (or, if you’ll forgive me, cache-by-cache) decision.
I think one of the interesting issues is how quality is signaled in the different forms. Because you pretty quickly get to quality of experience, rather than quality of content. If you look at the example of a book in analog, printed form versus in electronic, digital form the content’s the same. But the experience is different. And there are clearly instances when a chunky hardcover with beautifully reproduced imagery is a wonderful thing, just as there are times when a portable collection, at your fingertips, of every book you own by favourite author is delightful to have.
And how we gauge the quality of the experience is actually quite different. Much of how we are used to determining quality is tactile – signaled by weight of paper, feeling of fabric, accuracy of finish – and that’s really hard to translate into a digital environment. On the one hand that’s great because it democratises – all books start life equal when they can’t be judged by their cover. But it’s also a challenge for a lot of digital enterprises because delivering the usual indicators of quality often actually make a digital experience less satisfying. It’s simplistic, but as an example, the extensive use of flash, video and sound design, which in theory approximate the analog indicators of quality, in practice often end up delivering exactly the opposite. They make something look great, but in reality just get in the way and confuse the experience. (This site for Campari is a perfect example of how it goes wrong.) So the language of quality in the digital realm is more about utility and usability.
Which is an entirely different concept, and partly explains the obvious reticence of people schooled in the analog when they first start to build digital experience. Part of what’s so attractive in the analog is the comfort of knowing what something is and how it works. And, to state the obvious, for many people, in most instances, comfort and familiarity are desirable.
And in contrast there’s a novelty value to so much that’s digital. Things exist that are entirely new, possible only because they’re digital, along with things that are familiar but take on an entirely new form. That newness is intriguing and a little intoxicating, and one that people like me get quite caught up in. And it doesn’t take long before everything new is good and everything old is bad, and utility stops being about things that are actually useful and becomes about things that are deemed useful simply because they are different.
Which I guess means it’s just a market maturity issue. You’ve got battle lines drawn between the comfort of the familiar and the novelty of the new. And hopefully, quite quickly, the need to defend a position recedes, and we are left with lots of different ways to enjoy things, not because they’re comfortable, or because they’re novel, but simply because they’re good.
(Within a couple of hours of posting this I visited Russell Davies’ blog and saw something he’d written on a very similar subject. He talked about us reaching the point where people are finally ready to ‘move past digital infatuation and analog nostalgia’, which in seven words summed up what I stumbled through in 600. Damn you, Russell Davies, and your clarity of thought.)