Transcript: The Technology of the Book

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Interview with Michael Greer

Recorded at PubWest 2016 Conference, Santa Fe, NM

For podcast release Monday, February 29, 2016

KENNEALLY: New technologies engage the human mind in many ways. Depending on one’s perspective, the latest gadget is either a miracle or a menace. Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book.

Michael Greer, who teaches the online course The Technology of the Book: Past, Present, and Future for the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, assigns his students to conduct ethnographic field work in order to understand how reading is changing all around us. They take to bookstores and book clubs to research firsthand the latest track of our literary culture. He joins me now in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from the annual PubWest conference. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Michael.

GREER: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

KENNEALLY: It’s good to see you again, to welcome you back to the show. Teacher, writer, and editor Michael Greer is owner/director at Development by Design, a Boulder-based consultancy working in content development, online assessment, and instructional design. We’ve talked about all those things in past podcasts, Michael.

What has struck me about your approach to all this is you’re very much, I would say, a digital optimist, and yet you’re someone who looks for the evidence. You really don’t want to rely on faith in technology. You want to understand the directions it’s taking us and kind of learn from that and go further. I wonder if you can tell us how your students took on this assignment. What were the kinds of things they did, and what were the kinds of things they learned?

GREER: Well, the first thing – I want to back up and say a little bit about ethnographic research and why we took that approach. It has to do with what you were saying in your opening about it’s either a menace or it’s the next best, great, wonderful thing since sliced bread. There’s a lot of temptation in the media and a lot of temptation to have these conversations like, is print dead?

That position was most represented by a writer named Nicholas Carr, who famously asked, is Google making us stupid? He wrote a book called The Shallows where he concluded pretty much, yeah, Google’s making us stupid. We’re losing our ability to focus. We’re losing our ability to concentrate. We’re losing our ability to read text. On the other side of that argument, we had a writer named Steven Johnson, who says, yeah, maybe we’re losing a little bit of that, but we’re gaining connectedness. We’re gaining interconnectedness with each other.

What we tried to do in the class was to take this sort of story – good, bad, either/or, menace or threat, what is it – and to put that back in historical context, because the students in the class weren’t really convinced that digital technology was the end of books. Most of them took the course because they loved books, and they wanted to explore the question, what is becoming of reading in the late age of print?

So the ethnography project was designed to look at what are people actually doing in their everyday lives and to look at specific readers and specific contexts and specific moments to see what they’re really doing, instead of just accepting these simple either/or arguments. So the students went out into the wild, whether that was online or in person, and they went to bookstores and they went to online book clubs, reading groups, Goodreads, all the spaces where people who care about books gather and looked at what was actually happening and posing the question of what is becoming of reading in the late age of print.

KENNEALLY: It strikes me that there’s an answer within what you just described. One of the things that has changed, and one of the things that’s important about the online experience, is that it is a social experience. It’s a community experience. Reading, perhaps in the early days of reading up until 15 years ago, was really a solitary experience. Today, it seems to be less so. Is that what they found?

GREER: It absolutely is what they found, and I think that’s one of the great things that new technology enables is that books become part of this ecosystem. They become part of a conversation. One of the areas that the students focused on in some of their projects was the area of fanfiction and fandom and fan culture. Fandom and fan culture and fanfiction is one of the places where book reading and literary culture meets pop culture. You have phenomena like Harry Potter, which was one of the largest and most active fanbases, and of course now we have amusement parks themed after Harry Potter. People not only have conversations about the Harry Potter books and their investment in them, they begin writing their own stories.

What happens to book publishing is it becomes a conversation and not just a one-way street. One of the optimistic themes that emerged from these projects was the idea of the readers get to speak back. The readers get their own voice. And of course fanfiction – Fifty Shades of Grey is the most famous, bestselling example now – that began as a piece of fanfiction. The reader versus author divide becomes more complex. Authors can become readers, and most importantly, readers can become authors.

What the students found to be optimistic about in that was there are more voices in the conversation. There’s not one gatekeeper publisher in New York City deciding whose voice matters. There’s much more opportunity for a plurality and a kind of populism in literary culture that I think is quite new and quite important.

KENNEALLY: In the course that you teach at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, you address the problem from the beginning. You look at book publishing as part of an ecosystem. And you do take the story back in time. A point that you make is that there are layers of reading. There is no single way to read. There have always been a variety of ways. Now we have an additional one, which is the digital experience. Have I got that just about right, that this is in some ways very new, but also it’s the same as it’s always been?

GREER: Yes, you have got that exactly right. One of the messages of the class going all the way back to 1450 and Gutenberg – one of the overarching themes is the power and the resilience of the book. It’s one of the most powerful cultural technologies that we have, and it’s one of the longest-lasting. If you went back in time to 1450, if you could read German and if you could read the handwriting, you’d be able to read that book. The books that we have today are still recognizable as books. So at the center, we still have bound pieces of paper with a spine, and people flip through them from front to back and back and forth. Name another technology that’s still around 550, almost 600 years later. So there’s all the resiliency of the print book.

Now, one of the themes that’s come up, and we’ve heard it at this conference today, in fact, is we have these smartphones in our pocket, and they’re like digital crack, and they’re a distraction. I would argue quite the opposite. I see the smartphone as the future of reading.

I don’t necessarily see it – and I think the students didn’t see it this way – that it’s not either/or. It’s not that you’re either playing Candy Crush on your iPhone or you’re reading a print book. What we found is that digital technologies and smartphones and social media actually drives engagement into books. People find out about books on Twitter from listening to their friends. Somebody Facebooks, oh, I read this great book last night. You really got to check it out. So there’s a migration of the community of reading into the space of social media.

In many ways, social media might be promoting a deeper engagement with texts, as opposed to just distracting us from them. When you see somebody in a restaurant texting, maybe they’re texting their friend about a book. Maybe they’re not just updating their Facebook status. The sort of digital versus print becomes much more complicated and interesting when you look at it from this ethnographic perspective.

KENNEALLY: Were your students able to ask the readers they spoke to just how important reading was to them? Did they talk about the value of reading in their lives?

GREER: Yes, they did a lot. In fact, they did some surveys on social media and Facebook, and they asked their friends, do you consider yourself a reader? Are books important to you? Are you reading more books or fewer books than you were 10 years ago? That bubbled up. Of course, it’s not really a representative sampling, because these are university students who may be more engaged in the culture of the book than the average American, whatever that is. But they definitely found a continuing passion for books, both print and digital, and that the digital culture and pop culture did not necessarily mean the eclipse of an engagement with print text.

KENNEALLY: This notion of anxiety that you and I have spoken about – the fear, the sense that e-reading, digital reading, could be a menace somehow – did the students recognize that themselves? Did they understand that? Or did they think, what are you talking about?

GREER: No, they absolutely understood that, and a lot of them kind of came into the class with that as a motivation. They said, I hope you’re not going to tell me that print is dead. I hope I’m not coming to this class to find out that books are over, that we’re at the end of books. And I reassured them that that’s not the case.

The late age of print is a term that comes from a book by Ted Striphas called The Late Age of Print. Late age doesn’t necessarily mean end times for print books. It means that we’re in this new stage where digital media and print media coexist, and there’s a kind of negotiation of that space, where people now have smartphones, and we have 18 different devices that we can read e-books on.

One of the questions that students often asked each other was when do you read print versus when do you read digital? It was really interesting to hear the answers that they got. Often people would say I like to read print because I find it’s more immersive. And then someone would say I like to read on my Kindle because I find it’s more immersive. So many of the same arguments were given on behalf of different technologies, and we took away the lesson that reading is a deeply personal thing, and people engage with text and media kind of in their own way as part of their daily lives. So there’s not a one-size-fits-all story that applies to reading in general.

KENNEALLY: I can identify with the scenario you describe. I’m a fan of reading the newspaper, holding the paper in my hand, and I find it’s almost kind of a showy way of doing it if I’m in a cafe or at a bar. But I’m doing the same thing when I’m on the phone. I’m reading The New York Times article as well. People should not make assumptions about the kind of reading you’re doing based upon the format. You can be reading Socrates and Plato on an iPad.

GREER: Yes, you can. And one of the interesting things that we began to discover was how people – in a way, we’re seeing a renaissance of the form of the printed book. A lot of respondents that the students surveyed talked about buying a lot of e-books and that print books somehow become more special, because a print book, you’re going to buy it, you’re going to put it on the shelf, it’s almost a keepsake. It’s different from the $4.99 Kindle download. So there were books as consumption, books as the experience in the moment, and then there was the book as an artifact, as something of a memory or an important reason that you would keep it on the shelf as a memento.

What I’ve seen in looking in publishing in the last few years is the resurgence of the art of the book and these beautifully printed and bound books with design flourishes and imagery. I think we’re seeing some of the best, most beautiful physical print book publishing that we’ve seen in a long time as a result of the digitization of e-books.

KENNEALLY: Michael, in your course, The Technology of the Book: Past, Present, and Future, the emphasis in our discussion right now is on the future. It’s an online course that you teach, so you don’t get to meet too many of the students directly. But you are, in a way, meeting with this next generation of readers, the next generation of writers. Talk about that experience. Is it a challenge to understand their perspectives? In fact, it sounds more like they share far more with you than I might have expected.

GREER: That’s been one of the revelations about teaching online, is in many ways, I feel like I know the students in the class, and the students know each other, much better than you do in a face-to-face class. Because you’re not together for 50 minutes or 75 minutes two or three times a week, you’re together kind of all the time. There’s an ongoing conversation.

One of the things that I tried to do with this ethnography of reading project was to really sort of hand the microphone to the students and say, you guys, here’s the questions that all these pundits and all these people are asking in our culture right now about, is print dead? Is publishing dead? What’s happening to reading? You go out and tell the story that you want to tell about what you think is happening with reading. They ran with it. They went into bookstores.

One of the interesting things that students found was that you can’t really separate physical space from cyberspace anymore. You go into a Barnes & Noble, and the first thing you see is a big display for the Nook, the Kindle competitor. There’s this interpenetration of the digital and the physical. A lot of times, you go into the physical bookstore to buy the electronic device that you’re going to take home to download. The reverse can happen. In cyberspace, you can have digital conversations about print books. So there’s no simple line where you have analog on one side and digital on the other. There’s a lot of interpenetration and intermixture in between there, where everybody is experiencing text in all kinds of different media and all kinds of different environments at the same time.

KENNEALLY: As you say, it’s a continuing conversation of formats and between people. It’s a fascinating one, and we’ll look forward to continuing the conversation with Michael Greer. We appreciated chatting with you today at the PubWest conference.

GREER: Thanks very much. I’ve enjoyed it.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights licensing technology and content workflow organization. At CCC, we serve more than 35,000 customers and 15,000 copyright-holders worldwide, managing over 950 million rights from the world’s most sought-after journals, books, blogs, movies, and more. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.

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