I recognize the symptoms. My annual bout of late spring future shock is an aftereffect of BookExpo America, attacking an immune system thoroughly weakened by conversations regarding the "foreseeable future" of the book world; ritual harvesting of ARCs (books from the future); and enhanced anxiety about a potential Cyborgian literary dystopia (see McSweeney's "The Future of Books," year 2070).
|Scalzi and Preston|
This year my future shock began even earlier than usual, during a BEA presentation called "Where Near-future Techno-thrillers and Sci-fi Meet." When the conversation turned to "envisioning" things to come, Douglas Preston said it is "impossible to predict the future," and John Scalzi added: "We expected rocket cars and got the Internet and cell phones."
The symptoms returned this week when Amazon unveiled the Fire Phone. After noting its features in her New York Times piece, Claire Cain Miller deftly played the unforeseeable future card: "Amazon must be thinking: What if, say, a contact lens could do all that? The Fire is Amazon's stepping stone to the future, and for now that just happens to be in the form of a phone."
Scary though it may be, we love to think about the future, even though rocket cars so often turn out to be cell phones. During BEA, Jacob Weisberg of the Slate Group interviewed Walter Isaacson about his upcoming book The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Oct.), which explores the past to explain where the present came from to those of us living now... in a future. My prediction: I will read this book.
"When you and I were first going on the Internet, we probably did it with training wheels," Isaacson said, citing those ubiquitous AOL startup CDs from a couple of decades ago. Cue the nostalgic, infuriating sound of dial-up, a neo-ancient siren song luring us to the Information Superhighway.
|Isaacson and Weisberg|
Isaacson said the future has traditionally been made by innovators and "the secret of innovation is putting together the right team." Calling his book "a series of lessons in collaboration," he added that the best innovation requires "a diverse set of people working in proximity," where they can bump into each other, work as teams, even "finish each other's sentences.... You need to have that primordial stew that brings people together."
Who leads this team? "If there were one simple answer, we wouldn't have a 500-page book," Isaacson quipped. "Almost every great innovator in this book was somebody who knew how to collaborate." He also emphasized the importance of merging creative with technological: "Joining the liberal arts with technology; that is the great theme of this book."
How does this affect the future of the book business? Isaacson observed that unlike the music and magazine trades, "the publishing industry is quite healthy," and stressed the continuing importance of the organized "team effort" that traditional publishing still represents in nurturing a writer, bringing out the best book possible and getting it to readers.
He utilized an additional team effort while writing The Innovators: "I realized that the Internet was invented for collaborative creativity," so he posted chapters from early drafts on Medium, where the public commented and added margin notes. "I got 18,000 comments," he said. "The good news is a lot of it you can ignore," but many of the contributions, including substantial input from Stewart Brand, improved the final book.
Even that term "final book" may be considered illusory now. Isaacson said he could imagine a "next phase of the publishing industry" in which "we could take this book and say, 'How do we make an enhanced book from that?'... I would like it to be a wikified book in which I get to play curator." He quickly added he saw no conflict between print and electronic books. "I think we've reached the equilibrium," Isaacson observed, adding that when we consider all the things a print book can still do better than a digital one, "it's amazing what a wonderful technology paper is."
Regarding the Amazon vs. Hachette controversy, he said Amazon "has done a lot of innovation and that's good," but expressed concern that profit appears to be increasingly the motivation for Bezos's moves: "I think he is in danger of losing that sense of putting the customer first.... It's also about the perception that publishing and selling a book is not the same as selling a button-down oxford shirt."
BEA future shock. Weeks later, I'm still slightly dazed, stumbling along in the muddled present, and still no rocket car in sight. Perhaps I'll cede the final words on the subject to an author both Isaacson and I rank among our favorites. From Walker Percy's Lancelot: "To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle."
--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2279.