Is it time to burn all the books?

In October 2018 attended the Digital Book World conference in Nashville. The general theme of the conference was how to produce and distribute books in digital forms in better ways. An implied sub-theme of the conference is how anyone can make any money in book authoring and publishing in a world where anyone can write books and distribute them over the internet for next to nothing. (The cost to distribute is next to nothing, but the price to customers may also be next to nothing.) There are many entrepreneurial innovations coming out to make the reading process richer. Audio books are old technology. Some very interesting new technologies are coming out. One company provides augmented reality goggles that can be used to read books and see the images in the book come alive. Another company has an app that listens to a person reading a book and plays sound effects pertaining to the book content. Other companies help form reader communities around books and book authors.

An even more intriguing sub-theme of the conference is questioning what a book is, and why we even have books. Retired journalist Walt Mossberg kicked off the conference with a keynote talk about current and future technologies that will impact book publishing. He spent his career writing about technological breakthroughs over the past 30-40 years. He suggests that we have had a lull in technology breakthroughs over the past five years, but that we are on the verge of a technological revolution that will subsume what we have seen in the past. He specifically referred to rapid development and adoptions of voice-interactive technologies. He sees society going to what he calls “ambient computing” which is ubiquitous presence of voice-responsive computers, similar to “Computer” from the original Star Trek TV series.

This makes me wonder why we even have books, when what we really need is information. The book is a convenient medium for distributing information, but a book is not very responsive. Readers can dig through books to find what they are looking for, but that is not a very efficient way of finding what we need.

A prototype for this new perspective on “books” is a traditional phone book. Phone books were compiled, published, and distributed because people needed phone numbers. A typical phone book might contain thousands to hundreds of thousands of phone numbers , 99.99% of which are of no value to a given phone book user. If a person only needs a few phone numbers, why give them tens of thousands of phone numbers? Why not just give them what they need? Along comes the Internet and online phone number search.

Still, why do we even need to access phone numbers when all we really want to do is communicate with some other named individual. This is where voice-responsive computing comes in. In Star Trek the captain would declare “Computer, contact Spock.” That is what voice-responsive technology does and will do for us. When we declare the name of someone we want to speak with the underlying AI will figure out who it is and how to reach them.

So, why do we have any book? Admittedly, there may be some books that we would like to purchase and read in a linear manner – start to finish. However, for most books we may only be interested in a portion of the information contained within the pages. It is inefficient to purchase an entire book then have to dig through the book to find the desired information. “Computer” would not make us do that. Computer would allow us to ask for what information we want, and the computer would ask questions to help narrow down the selection. If something needs to actually be purchased to solve the problem, Computer would handle that transaction. In the future, it is more likely that Computer will know what content you have already subscribed to.

At the Digital Book World conference a gentleman from Google demonstrated a Google voice assist (Google Assistant) feature where he asked about books from Ingram, the Assistant asked what he wanted to read, he said what he was interested in, the Assistant read an excerpt, he said he wanted to get a copy of the book, and the Assistant placed the order and said it would arrive the next day. This seems to be a first step towards what we will see in the future, although we probably will not actually order a book.

This perspective has direct application to my profession in higher education. In the past we have had students read textbook chapters before coming to class. As an incentive we might assign students to take a quiz on the reading before class. The expectation is that students will be motivated to do all of the reading because they do not know what questions they will be asked – and they do not get the questions until after they do the reading. The downside of this approach is that the students do the reading without a compelling motivation other than a concern about the grade they will get on the quiz.

That type of reading quiz is an assessment mechanism. An alternative would be to configure the quiz as a learning mechanism. Instead of having students read the textbook material before taking the quiz we might suggest they take the quiz then consult the textbook – or rather the resources contained in the textbook. The students would have to learn what types of information they will need to answer the quiz and engage in interaction with the material. They would need to figure out what questions to ask the material and how to comprehend the results. (We use something called Dynamic Study Modules that serve this purpose – quite popular with the students.)

This compelling potential to replace books with voice-interactive technologies is not limited to books. Just yesterday I needed to change my seat for an upcoming flight. I went to the airline website and could not get the seat change to work. I called the airline and was told to use the airline’s phone app. I tried the app but still could not get in to work. So, I told the airline call center employee that I wanted to upgrade my seat. She said the upgrade would cost something but she did not know how much. She put me on hold while she checked on the prices. She came back with the price which was acceptable. She asked if I would like a window or aisle seat. It is a long flight, so I said window (so that I can more comfortably rest if I want to). She told me my new seat – 10A. I gave her my credit card information, and asked how I would get my receipt. She said it would be emailed to my email address on file.

The airline employee said her name was “Holly” but in the future I expect to call her “Computer.”