Best-selling author Jonathan Franzen, speaking at a conference in Columbia, was quoted this week by The Telegraph as saying that electronic books are damaging society, by removing the permanence of the printed word.
"The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology. And what's more, it will work great 10 years from now...." said Franzen.
"But I do fear that it's going to be very hard to make the world work if there's no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government."
The general reaction to Franzen's comments is that they're a little overblown. Jonathan Segura of NPR wrote at their pop culture blog, Monkey See: "Here's the thing: you don't have to be a print book person or an e-book person. It's not an either/or proposition.... Neither is better or worse -- for you, for the economy, for the sake of 'responsible self-government.' We should worry less about how people get their books and -- say it with me now! -- just be glad that people are reading."
As someone who's about to buy his first e-reader -- and who read an entire novel on my smartphone last week, because I couldn't put it down -- I agree. Franzen's hysteria aside, e-books are not going to be the end of civilization. If they encourage more people to read, they could be a good thing.
But Franzen is right that technological change does affect the way we consume things -- form and content shape each other.
When I was growing up, you could buy a 45 rpm single, with one song on the front and a different song on the back, or a 33 1/3 rpm album. Those were the days of "Top 40" radio, and "Top 40" referred to individual songs: singles. Record companies hoped, of course, that if you bought and liked the single you might come back and buy the LP as well.
As vinyl yielded market share to 8-tracks and cassettes, and then CDs, all of them easier than records for listening on the go, singles declined in popularity. From "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to "Dark Side of the Moon" to "Thriller" and beyond, albums were a defining force in music.
But then CDs gave way to digital music, in the form of individual MP3 tracks, originally pirated and swapped, but now hopefully purchased from a legal download site. Once again, the single is prominent. You can buy MP3 "albums," at a discounted price compared to buying each song separately, but I suspect that as old fogeys like myself age out of the market and the CD inevitably goes away, the days of the album will continue to wane.
All of this is a matter of degree, of course; there's always been room for both singles and albums, and I suspect there will be for a long time to come. But as the technology changed, the balance has shifted back and forth between one and the other.
In the early 1980s, it looked as if the animated feature film was on the way out. But the advent of VCRs and DVD players led to parents stocking the cupboard with safe, kid-friendly entertainment for young children, and that suddenly made animation a lot more profitable. CGI came along a few years later and created an entire new category.
Technology does impact content. The TV show "Bonanza" was created by NBC to sell color television sets for its parent company, RCA. A big, scenic western seemed like a great way to showcase the new medium.
I don't subscribe to Franzen's glum view of e-books as corrosive to society. But I do wonder how new technology will shape content in the future.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.