Visions of the Future (On a Slow Train to Nowhere)

So, I had the pleasure of spending something in excess of ten hours as a guest of our splendid rail service over the weekend. Close to two hours more than I was supposed to spend, but that’s what happens when points and signals fail on a weekend.  I like travelling by train, as it happens, but only when they’re moving.  As soon as a train stops for longer than it’s supposed to, well then the anxiety starts.  If it’s stationary for long enough, the whole experience becomes a sort of slow existential torture as you powerlessly watch the minutes of your life tick by.

Anyway, both while the trains (two journeys involved) were moving and not, I occupied myself with some entirely unscientific surveying of the state of the written word in modern times.  Which is to say, I walked up and down the carriages being nosy about what people were reading.  Or more to the point, how they were reading what they were reading.  Now the sample size wasn’t very big, because I was only moving on a relatively short route from seat – buffet car – seat – toilet – seat etc.  You get the idea.  But I found it all mildly interesting nevertheless, even though my findings were … unremarkable.

I saw something like ten people reading actual books, of the ink on paper sort.  (None of them speculative fiction, as far as I could tell, but that’s neither here nor there).

I saw three people reading from Kindles.

I saw no one reading prose from any other electronic device (i.e. no tablets, Sony e-readers, whatever).

I saw more people than I could reasonably count doing one or more of the following: listening to mp3 players, fiddling about with laptops/netbooks, peering inscrutably at their mobile phones, and reading newspapers or maagzines.

I saw more people sleeping than reading books, whether of the paper or e- kind.  But I don’t blame them for that.  I did the same thing, when not marching purposefully up and down.

The sample size, for those who care about such things, was … oh, I have no idea.  I did say this was entirely unscientific, didn’t I?  Probably two or three hundred all together.

Not being bonkers, I don’t read anything much into these observations, beyond the degree to which they conform to my subjective impressions of where things are, and where they are going.

This is certainly the first time I’ve really noticed the e-reading contingent as a significant chunk of what was going on.  It’s also, I’m fairly sure, a much smaller number of people reading paper and ink books than would have been the case until really very recently.  That’s not down to the arrival of e-books so much as the ubiquity of mp3 players, wifi connections, cheap laptops/netbooks and phones that can and will do everything up to and including sing you a lullaby to send you off into a snooze.

In fact, on reflection I find it mildly surprising that  reading long form prose hasn’t already collapsed as a leisure habit under the onslaught of all these recently appeared alternative uses for what is allegedly our ever more pressurised free time.  I can only think that novels offer a distinct kind of pleasure that makes their appeal at least a little resistant to erosion.  There are (just) enough people who find something uniquely enjoyable about reading a book (and I’m talking both paper and e-books here) that they continue to prioritise it over all the other multitude of entertainment choices available to those stuck on a train.

Another completely non-revelatory truth on show in those carriages: Amazon owns the digital book space.  The Kindle outscored every other means of reading a book digitally 3-0.  Whatever the extent of the digital future for books (pretty enormous, I think everyone now agrees) it belongs, for the time being, to Amazon.

This is, to my way of thinking, Not a Good Thing, but I also think littering, global warming and sloppily privatized railway systems are Not Good Things and my disapproval doesn’t seem to have done much to stop them happening so … I’ve got nothing in particular against Amazon, I’m just not a big fan of quasi-monopolistic dominance of any industry.  This, for example, wouldn’t alarm me nearly so much as it does if it was being proposed by a pushy new upstart company rather than the Amazon-squid leviathan that already has a suckered arm scrabbling for a strangehold on every single element of the book publishing-distribution-retailing system.

What will I see when I’m stuck on an unmoving train four or five years hence? (And I surely will be, since there are few harder things to sort out than a sloppily privatized and horribly under-invested railway system).  Safe in the knowledge that no one will remember them when the time comes to call me to account, I am prepared to make bold and decisive predictions.  Here we go …

There will be at most one or two people reading paper books.  Possibly none, though I’d be mildly surprised if it happens quite that quickly.

There will be at least five or six people reading e-books, and at least half of them will be doing so on some iteration of the Kindle.

Even more people than the ‘more I could reasonably count’ I saw this time will be messing about in some non-book-related way with electronic devices.  Most of them will be smart phones.  Some will be tablets.  Some will be laptops.  None, or a close approximation thereof, will be netbooks.

At least 5% of those people will be doing something I – and indeed most of us – haven’t yet thought of with their electronic devices.  Knitting or something.  I don’t know; that’s the whole point.

There will be a dozen or so people reading hard-copy newspapers or magazines.  Less than today, but not extinct.

There will still be more people asleep than reading a book.  Because that, my friends, is just the way things always have been and always will be.  Probably.

Alert readers will notice that I’m predicting a potentially non-trivial decline in the total number of people reading books, irrespective of delivery system.  That’s one bit of my predictions I don’t feel entirely bold and decisive about, but I can certainly construct a vaguely plausible argument for ending up in that state.  Here’s hoping I’m wrong, eh?

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  1. Mihai (Dark Wolf)’s avatar

    I spent two hours in an unmoving train in Italy this summer. It was the beginning of my holiday :( Luckily, from there the things moved only up :D
    I took my Kindle on holiday, but I am new to this device. Still, despite my reluctance toward the electronic books it is an enjoyable and very comfortable experience. Still, I don’t believe that I will give up of the paper books entirely. I am thinking of buying the books I really love in physical editions. But that remains to be seen :)

  2. Brian’s avatar

    Well, there’s a very likely outline for the future of reading right there: I am thinking of buying the books I really love in physical editions. But that remains to be seen. You are the future, Mihai! Digital editions will be the mass market, high volume sales stream; physical editions the niche product for ‘serious’ readers who want an actual copy of books they love. I can even see myself ending up there, and I’m seriously reluctant to convert to reading e-books (for a whole variety of reasons, including but not limited to issues around DRM, ‘ownership’, etc). I can see plenty of advantages to the switch to digital books, but I’m just not quite psychologically ready to make the jump myself just yet …