Asking the wrong question about Kindle

The Salt Lake Tribune, with a Denver Post article by John Wenzel, asks the wrong question about Amazon’s Kindle (or any e-book reader device, including software readers): “Is Kindle the right device to put books behind us?” It’s the kind of provocative headline that gets readers, but it gets readers thinking the wrong way about the subject, which is a deeper problem than the question of replacing books with e-books. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, relies on this kind of bellicose statement to make headlines, too, but I expect better of newspaper editors.

Media succeed one another in importance, but a new medium does not wipe out previous generations of media in a zero-sum game. New media and old find roles that redefine the media environment. Books are so pervasive and serve a unique role with regard to authority in our society that e-books will never replace them entirely. Humans will always memorialize some things in books, just as we still occasionally produce scrolls, calligraphic invitations and diplomas on vellum, or produce music on vinyl records.

Surprisingly, I agree with Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, was speaking to the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival yesterday, when he said:

“There won’t be newspapers, magazines and TV programs. There won’t be personal, social communications offline and separate. In 10 years it will all be online. Static content won’t cut it in the future.”

That’s true, but what is missing from this analysis, albeit it is pruned to a sound bite of a thought, is that interaction will augment those “traditional” media rather than replace them. A book will be a discussion, but it will also be typical for a book to be sold in paper form, with new ways to enter the conversation promoted therein. E-books will be discussions and static texts, blending the authorial statement with the discourse about those ideas.

Media evolution isn’t a zero-sum game. Media flows together, with some channels rising to prominence while others take on new roles.