Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Digital Books and the Next Era of Innovation

Popular science author Steven Johnson wrote an interesting piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about digital books, how they will change what and how much people will read in the future and the impact those changes will have on innovation.


As Johnson points out, we currently have unlimited access to terabytes of data and information courtesy of Google and other search engines. However, the nearly infinite repository of knowledge stored in the millions of books printed since the invention of the printing press are, for the most, outside the searchable Internet.

Game Changers - E-Books and Google’s Book Search Service
That’s about to change. The recent success of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader, and the progress Google is making with their Book Search Service, are providing the tools and content needed to begin the next phase of the great migration of the written word to the digital format. This next phase, however, will be substantially more profound than earlier phases both in terms of the volume and, in many ways, the quality of the content being digitized.

Based on these developments, Johnson makes some excellent points (all of which I agree with) about the future of book reading:

  • Book content (like all searchable content) will be indexed, ranked and commented on by readers
  • Authors will likely write chapters (and even passages) in a way that are optimized for search engines
  • Books will be un-bundled and many will be sold by the chapter (much the same way people consume songs rather than full albums as a result of iTunes and file sharing)
  • Book reading will become social – book content will be tagged and annotated. As a result, people will share comments and insights on book passages (a chapter, a page or even a quote) much like they comment and dialogue on a blog post or newspaper article

Digital Books and the Innovation Revolution
But, to me, by far the most powerful outcome of these developments will be the influence over how people will learn and innovate in the future.

If you believe, like I do, that our economy and culture are becoming more idea and innovation driven, then a world where such an enormous amount of knowledge (book based and otherwise) is indexed, annotated and searchable is truly an exciting development.

So much was argued in Daniel Pink’s 2005 book “A Whole New Mind.” His premise: we are moving away from the information age into a conceptual age where ideas and innovation will be among the most valued currencies. This is a result of the abundance and commoditization of many products and services, the ability to outsource work to the lowest common denominator and the growth of automation. In this new conceptual age, according to Pink, creative right brain thinkers, as opposed to linear left brain thinkers, will be the heroes.

I have no doubt that creativity and innovation are going to be more highly valued as the U.S. and global economies evolve and become more competitive. The wide adoption of e-book readers and initiatives like Google’s Book Search Service, I think, will be very important enablers of that trend. Think of them as force multipliers.

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