Last week the Office for National Statistics announced it was adding ebooks to the “typical basket of goods” used for calculating inflation – along with white rum and blueberries. The move is representative of the fact that ebooks are today both a significant and growing market in the United Kingdom.
The question is why did it take so long?
The reason has more to do with social attitudes to digital reading than it does the inflation calculation itself. Last century, technological change was relatively slower, and was accurately reflected in the index. Black and white televisions, for example, were first included in 1958, and were still on the list as recently as 1985 — this corresponds fairly closely with the realities of TV ownership during the period.
But since the early 2000s the life expectancy of technology in the basket has fallen drastically, as the age of technology in our homes and workplaces gets progressively newer. By 2007 — the year DVD players displaced VHS recorders — the average age of audio-visual technologies in the index was half what it was a decade before. Strangely, the DVD player is today one of the oldest technologies in the basket, even though it wasn’t commercially available until 2001. Many items on the list are even younger, such as apps (introduced in 2008), blu-ray players (2009), or tablet computers like the iPad (2010), all of which arrived in the basket within two years of their invention.
All this speaks of the phenomenal speed of technological change impacting on the British lifestyle (especially in material terms). The digital revolution has by no means stabilised. If anything, it’s getting faster.
It also tells us something very particular about the status of reading in contemporary society — namely that decades of technological relegation to other forms of media might be on the turn. I am referring to the fact that rapid advances in personal computing, in digital music, radio, television and photography, were all reflected in the fast-paced replacement of devices in the inflation basket. Not so with books, whose digital format predates almost all of these categories.
There is no single inventor of the ebook, and therefore no precise moment to date their introduction to the marketplace. Spurious evidence suggests electronic books existed as far back as the 1940s, although it would be more sensible to point at initiatives like Project Gutenberg, which began in 1971. Certainly by the time Digital Books Inc. started selling floppy disks of etexts in 1993 the concept, if not today’s file formats, were well established.
We’re therefore talking about a technology that has been commercially available for at least 20 years. So why did it take so long for the ebook to become commonplace enough that it could be used as an official measure of popular purchasing power?
One answer might be that we couldn’t let go of books’ tactile properties; our obsession with the personal library as literary manifestation of our personalities; the social status of certain books as objects, and so on.
Another, perhaps more convincing answer, is to highlight the lag between the arrival of the ebook and the arrival of the ebook reader. It is finally just as enjoyable to read a book on-screen as in its printed form, which has only been the case for a few years. Size, portability, legibility, durability, and user-interface design have all converged to produce a vast and diverse ecosystem of ereaders.
Ironically the quality of the delivery device was precisely what was needed in order to forget the format of delivery. What’s nice about this is that it’s no longer a big deal to be a digital publisher. There’s nothing gimmicky or even especially remarkable about it, which means that digital books are appraised on equal terms with their print counterparts. Conversation revolves less around a text’s format than it does around the quality of its ideas.