Tools of Change: Nick Bilton

The New York Times may very well be the only newspaper that has an R&D Lab. And as Nick Bilton boasted on Wednesday morning at a keynote address, there don’t appear to be any publishers with an R&D lab either. Bilton had called about ten publishers “just for fun” to see if any of them had an R&D department. The receptionists were baffled. But what Mr. Bilton may not understand — particularly in this publishing environment in which ebooks again represent less than 1% of the market — is that the average Joe is probably not familiar with the term.

None of this prevented Mr. Billton from some wild generation generalizations — channeled by way of his three-and-a-half-year-old nephew Luca, captured with digital tools on slides — that the generation now in prepubescent form will require everything instantly. In Bilton’s view, Generation Next will be growing up in a world in which they will expect all content in seconds. But not after they’ve been scolded by a diligent parent while grabbing for seconds before all the firsts have made room on their plates for dessert.

I was uneasy about the technological razzle-dazzle applied to toddlers. Yes, it’s a truism. But to bask in it without considering the deeper social ramifications was unseemly. Bilton’s enthusiasm reminded me of unscrupulous advertisers who have boasted about two-year-olds who can identify the Golden Arches. Or the kids who now enter a demographic before even saying their first words. But little thought has been paid to the ethics behind hitting kids up in their formative years. Instant gratification certainly gratifies, but how precisely do all the doodads aid rumination? Maybe there are some circumstances in which it’s probably best not to have it immediately. Maybe the limitations of a device produce creative and journalistic constraints that improve content. (Case in point: Because the laptop I am currently borrowing is having some issues and may shut down, and because I have approximately ten minutes to finish writing this post before heading of to another panel, I must express great care for these sentences, essentially writing this in one very careful and fast first draft, and strive to get as much here as my copious notes will allow. The technological limitations prevent me from liveblogging, as others are doing, and so I have additional time to think about what I have witnessed before writing about it. The reader may not be instantly gratified through the liveblogging. But I’d like to think, in light of the good observations made by Carolyn Kellogg, that this permits some things from not being lost between the tweets.)

Is long form content dying? As Bilton demonstrated by dragging up New York Times articles from the late 19th century, there were similar reports made when the telephone and the phonograph appeared. The “X is dead” statement has remained a constant through every iteration of technology. But I couldn’t help but consider the slide Bilton showed which read “Our Brain’s Are Changing” [sic]. Clearly, technology does have a downside. And it is, given the ebullience Bilton evinced at the possibility of going into a tangent comparing ants and those who work online, leveled squarely against individual expression. I do not view anybody who may be reading this post as an ant. I welcome outside perspectives, particularly from those who can sufficiently prove that I am wrong. I only ask that they take the time to actually understand the difference between plural non-possessive and singular possessive.

What do we lose in this greater scope when we settle for a custom version of the New York Times that conveniently elides those stories we might stumble across? And how does this facilitate — to use one of the dreaded corporate verbs I’ve heard too much around here — another’s curiosity? It is not enough to employ sensors as editors. It is vital that we use technology in a way that matches the human impulse: masticating instead of thoughtlessly devouring, listening instead of pontificating, and ensuring that the tools actually match the way our brains cogitate.

And if that means taking the cute young Luca aside and telling him that he can’t have his toys all the time, and extending these general limitations to a manboy or two here at TOC, then I think this might get us to a more constructive conversation about our relationship with technology. If we can’t factor in the concept of waiting into our daily lives, as Bilton clearly does not, then does he really have his finger on the pulse? Or is he just some guy more impressed by the flash and flicker of a new atavistic fire?

Tools of Change: Smart Women Read Ebooks

Panelists: Kassia Kroszer (moderator), Angela James, Malle Valik, Sarah Wendell

(For related coverage, you can check out my video interview with Wendell shortly after the panel.)

So if you’ve been following these lengthy reports, you’ve probably developed a sense that there is a profound disconnect between the geeks who develop the technology and the readers who imbibe it. Jon Orwant may have talked with readers during his magazine editing days, but is he really doing this to the greatest possible extent now? Do web stats and trends of the moment alone really account for what the consumers want? Thankfully, Kassia Kroszer, in a nonscientific manner, conducted a survey with 750 female readers, hoping to determine their relationship to books. Yes, they read a lot. And the development geeks may want to consider that they read two to five books per month and that 60% of the readers surveyed between ages 30 and 50.

Malle Valik pointed out that there were three development efforts she made at Harlequin: (1) downloadable audio, (2) manga, and (3) ebooks. And guess which of this digital trio was the proud winner? Harlequin readers liked ebooks. Quite a lot in fact. Valik joked that she should probably earn a commission for talking ebooks up. And when you are considering the many series inhabiting the romance genre, well, wouldn’t you be foolish to avoid making some titles online for readers? But Amazon has often done just that. Further, as Wendell pointed out later, Amazon does not tend to acknowledge the button you press when you express interest in a title. Talk about wasting an opportunity to connect with your customers. (And while I have expressed skepticism about the buzz term “social community,” I think it can generally be agreed that Amazon’s failure to respond to requests certainly represents just about the biggest asocial step you can take if you want to continue to attract repeat customers or sell them on your shiny new toy.)

In fact, as Wendell pointed out, women are the customers. Her website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, had received 16 million hits in January 2009. These are the ebook readers you’re looking for. Women, in Wendell’s view, like pretty objects and usable design. “We will reward you,” continued Wendell. “We will tell you how good you are in bed with multiple swipes of the credit card.” Wendell rattled off recent studies in which 55 out of 96 million spent on electronics were from women, and that 80% of fiction was purchased by women. Is this an audience that any self-respecting businessman wishes to ignore or treat as dumb?

Some more interesting stats from Kassia’s study: 60% of women read ebooks on their laptop. And why is that? Probably because these e-readers are too damn expensive. So why not a $100 price point? Or perhaps, as Angela James suggested, throwing in a few complimentary ebook titles in with an e-reader purchase? And why, given this revealing data, would any self-respecting hardware publisher continue to offer closed ebook formats?

These hardware distinctions are perhaps more important than the developing geeks might think. After all, Ms. James revealed that she had broken up with he Kindle. The Sony Reader had better folder management. And the back of the Kindle kept falling off. The panelists were dismayed that they had to be pegged as criminals because of Amazon’s restrictions. Furthermore, as Ms.James noted, consider that Sony has expanded into non-American markets, while Amazon has kept its focus in America. You can’t use the Kindle’s wireless network outside of America. So what good is it when you factor in the salient realities of human migration?

Wendell noted that $10 seemed to be the “hard stop” on ebook price. If a reader is regularly purchasing paperbacks for $5.99 or $6.99, where then is the incentive to purchase a $25 ebook? There is the notion that an ebook should cost less because it’s not a tangible object that occupies space. But Wendell didn’t have a specific answer about where ebooks should be priced.

And here’s another problem with ebooks. You can’t resell them or loan them. And that’s simply not acceptable to the average reader. Sharing is a vital part of reading, and that’s now become illegal. There was a hypothetical question posed about someone emailing 100 people with the latest Nora Roberts book, with the publisher losing the sales. Valik pointed out that Harlequin was in the interest of obtaining nearly all rights and that she was certainly trying to figure out a reasonable way to ensure that sharing becomes a viable option.

Which returns us, in a more reader-inclusive manner, to the TOC buzz term “social experience.” I think, based on my Tuesday peregrinations, that I’ve observed how people think about technological developments. But I’m not so sure if they’re accounting for the reader. Certainly this panel provided a few more pertinent answers than “The Rise of Ebooks.” But I think it’s important to consider that social experience is something that emerges from the form, often with helpful and ancillary results. But it is not necessarily the form. In order for ebooks to penetrate beyond 1% of the market (and, again, the assumption here rests that ebooks will take off with Wilcoxian dreams of riches and avarice), it seems to me that they are going to have to not only listen to readers (particularly regular readers and women), but consider every aspect that makes the printed book work. These aren’t going to be easy questions to answer. And they’re certainly not going to be cleared up in three days by a bunch of excitable plutocrats at an O’Reilly conference. While the music industry has seen the phonograph switch to the cassette, and then switch to the CD, and then switch to the MP3, we really haven’t seen anything like this with books and paper. Joe Wikert suggested that emerging forms of technology look ridiculous until they’re established. But there’s possibly a greater risk in looking and acting ridiculous when you accept the emerging possibilities without healthy skepticism or learning a few lessons from the past.

(More reports on Wednesday’s events, which I am presently in the middle of, to come.)

Tools of Change: The Rise of Ebooks

Panelists: Mark Coker (moderator), Joe Wikert, April Hamilton, David Rothman, Russell Wilcox

If I had to compare Tuesday’s panel with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, I would say this. Claire Danes was superior to April Hamilton. Russ Wilcox, a rather cocky gentleman who spoke like some snobby Yale know-it-all with his head held high and dashed off a number of wild and extravagant and unprovable claims, would be comparable to Nick Stahl. The difference is that Wilcox isn’t living off the grid. Indeed, despite the technological benefits of his E Ink invention, he’s all too happy to smudge his fingers and sell the human race to Skynet. David Rothman was Ah-nuld, and he did okay. Regrettably, there wasn’t a nude T-X character who liked to seduce and kill, but I suppose Mark Coker, who started off stiff but began to prove his sardonic worth upon poking holes in Wilcox’s extravagant vale, will fit the bill. But Joe Wikert was the smartest guy on the panel: open to present technological realities and a man who, unlike all the other panelists, was not entirely willing to buy into all the hype.

While I will confess that the Brad Fiedel theme played in my head at numerous points, I can say this. With Coker and company relying on Amazon’s dodgy 10% figure, along with Sony’s extravagant claim that 300,000 Readers had been sold, I was skeptical. Ebooks, after all, represent only one half of 1% of the total market. And to my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been a figure from an independent third party to determine if ebooks are indeed the great white hope that will decimate print and get all of us fighting robots in an apocalyptic future.

Rothman said that Amazon’s DRM was what was really killing this natural evolution. In order for the ebook market to expand, it’s going to be necessary to consider open source. Wikert likewise agreed that DRM had to go away, but added that any e-reader should consider adding value to the print products. If future e-readers didn’t do this, then they would eventually hit an artificial ceiling. “When you’ve got a hammer in your hand,” said Wikert, “everything looks like a nail.” He hoped to see more exemplars of rich content. Video and dynamic possibilities. Fancy little bells. But nobody on the panel chose to consider the issue of whether it would be the author or the publisher that would provide this additional content. Still, Coker did joke that the iPhone might be programmed to vibrate at a certain tone upon a new e-volume of erotica cascading against the technological shoals.

Wikert elaborated further. One product, he said, could be calibrated based on what that person wanted to do with it. He urged the audience (and those who work in this industry) to not only study the latest technologies, but to be actively involved in using these technologies.

This sense of play and flexibility did not apply to Russ Wilcox, who should have worn a T-shirt reading I’M HERE TO PIMP MY GOODS in large lettering readable from half a mile away. Wilcox suggested that Moore’s Law now applied to e-readers. The speed of E InkTM innovations now doubles every eighteen months, all contingent upon brightness, contrast, and speed. He foresees this future: In 2010, the flexible displays expand, with a larger size permitting an advertising-driven model in which the profit machine becomes self-aware. By the end of 2010, a full color e-paper device hits the market — initially limited to pastels. Over the next eight to ten years, various color e-readers duke it out with each other and geeks presumably choose sides in the forthcoming jihad. He also cavalierly predicted — with no hard sales or trend data; because we all know that he’s sworn to corporate secrecy on the subject — that in eighteen months, 2-3% of American households would have e-readers in their homes. Coker quibbled with this, pointing out that he would need an enormous growth rate for this massive jump to happen. There was no mention of the limping economy, much less the incentive for Joe Sixpack to buy the latest Kindle at a gargantuan cost, only to see another version released less than a year later.

I am not really certain why April Hamilton was on this panel. But she brought up a notion even more preposterous than the failure to consider the time and money it would take for authors and publishers to generate dynamic content. She believed that smartphone applications would be the future. Never mind that the book is a rather specific medium and that, indeed, some books may not necessarily work this way. As Rothman observed, because of an iPhone’s limited storage space, apps have the tendency to be deleted. This prompted a rather defensive answer from Hamilton, delivered in the timbre of a beauty pageant contestant, “I would say there’s no single answer.” Well, can you perhaps agree that you might be wrong? Can anyone at this damn conference confess that they really don’t know where things are heading?

Actually, yes. Wikert was wise enough to point out that the early version of the iPhone in 2001 looked rather silly and that the current version of the Kindle will look silly in five years. It helped to talk shop with rapid technological evolution in mind. Wikert expanded on the panel’s general anti-DRM sentiment by suggesting that a Kindle App Store might open up Amazon’s possibilities.

Wilcox suggested that Stanza wouldn’t exist without Kindle. This gave him a ripe opportunity to trot out a catchphrase pertaining to the unit: “the container affects the experience.” And just as he was about to get beyond the topic of E InkTM, he then suggested that E InkTM wouldn’t really make its way onto cell phones. The outside of cell phones maybe. But I wondered whether Wilcox might somehow find a way if Nokia came to him with millions of dollars. Then he might appear on another panel, hold his haughty head up high, and remain absolutely convinced that he was right. (Note to Wilcox: If you’re going to talk like a snob, it helps to speak like William Buckley.)

I don’t want to delve into Ms. Hamilton’s Indie Author Movement (almost TM, but since it represents “the people” in a rather naive manner, I will leave subscript silliness outside of my report). Mainstream publishing just doesn’t have what the Indie Author needs. And how dare these other authors tsk-tsk their fingers against self-publishing? It’s not vanity at all to pay your hard-earned money for a slapdash operation without editorial oversight. The books industry, Hamillton proudly declared, is now as ignoble as the movie industry. Nothing more than highly commercial fare! I mean, they haven’t thought about the niche markets at all! An author publishing her work was never vanity.

“Uh, great. Thanks,” responded Coker.

By the time Wilcox brought up “tipping points,” I wondered if the bright young thing had ever considered the common reader. Fortunately, the next panel brought this very important subject to the center.

Tools of Change: Jon Orwant

Jon Orwant is a highly confident man. Some might say (and a few certainly did to me) that he is one of the great egotists of our epoch. By his own admission, he is certainly not an amateur. But then when you’re the Engineering Manager for the world’s biggest search engine, and you’re white, and you’re rich, and you’re male, and you’re at a conference with an egregious gender divide in place, and the likes of Tim O’Reilly and Cory Doctorow are there trying to throw a few jabs and you answer their questions without really answering their questions, well then you really don’t have a lot to lose, do you? Particularly when you’re talking about Google Book Search. Which is just so much better and making everybody so much money! Even in this economy. And isn’t cash what it’s really all about in the end?

There was a good deal of swagger at the panel titled “Google Book Search: Past, Present, and Future.” And I don’t believe the Scrooge parallels in the title were entirely unintentional. But it was my second favorite panel of the day.

“I’m happy to geek out about copyright,” announced Orwant at the onset. But everybody wanted to hear him talk about Google Book Search. Google has some seven million books indexed. It’s “a platform for searching, discover, reading, and buying.” (Fun fact: The word “buy” appears six times in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” — I know this thanks to Google Book Search — and it is always used, in all cases, in relation to buying items for the poor. But this may not have be the “buying” that Orwant or Google have in mind.) Google Book Search has a Partner Program, in which the rights holder wants the content searchable, with boxes of books and PDFs sent Google’s way for OCR magic. It also has a Library Project, in which 100 million books are checked out of libraries and scanned. Google, Orwant says, doesn’t charge for it. No money exchanges hands. Charity! Nevertheless, the “buying” participle still exists in that “platform” designation.

Thanks to a concept called blending, Google Book Search options remain in the top search results. An effort to direct traffic GBS’s way. For while Google is the patron of GBS, GBS must be kept profitable. You didn’t think they were doing this out of the goodness of their heart now, did you?

There are 1.5 million free books, all public domain titles, available on Google. But if you want to access them, well, you’ll have to go to Google. Or you’ll have to have Google generate results at your site. Because the Google team are specialists in latency. They can do things with milliseconds that you couldn’t work out in your dreams. As an experiment, Google recently unleashed Google Books Mobile, which means that you can nose search Google Book Search from your smartphone, assuming that Thomas Friedman isn’t hogging all the bandwidth on the island. Orwant was careful to point out that Google is not in the handset manufacturing or carrier business. But he anticipated, just as many of the seer-like speakers at Tools of Change did based on sketchy inside information, a “rapid evolution.” Nevertheless, because someone had cracked a Twitter joke about reading Ulysses, there remained the possibility that someone was using GBM for serious literary endeavors. Why? “I personally have no idea,” rejoined Orwant to his own question. This was an experiment to see what usage will be like in the next few years. Google wishes to dominate.

The revelation about 1.5 million free ebooks prompted Cory Doctorow to press Orwant on a question about why these couldn’t be released as a torrent. A sensible idea. But you see, Google needs to keep these books on their site. Because they’re constantly tinkering with the display results. Latency and other assorted topics of expertise, remember? And there is no evidence that GBS harms sales. Trust Orwant on that.

Tim O’Reilly tried to badger Orwant too. You see, O’Reilly used to have good webpage placement for many of his titles. But those days are gone, replaced by Google Book Search results above the O’Reilly pages. And that hardly seems fair. “It’s not me; it’s the algorithm,” responded Orwant. But wasn’t Orwant one of the guys who came up or oversaw the algorithm? Orwant may have only been following orders, but it did raise a very important point. If a publisher has a specific webpage for a book title, should they not have that webpage come up in the search results before a GBS page?

There’s some comfort in knowing that 99% of the books at GBS have been viewed at least once. Even the sleep-inducing textbooks. Which is really quite something. Which brings us to the future, which is based on the past, which does not involve thrown mugs. You see, Orwant was once the editor and publisher of a magazine. Subscription base: 12,000. (He said at the panel that he did not know what he was doing.) Orwant loitered in a bookstore and watched people picked up his magazine and would approach them for insights. (He said he did not know what he was doing.) He learned valuable lessons about pictures, the size of the title, and other layout factors. (He said he did not know what he was doing. But as we learned above, he’s no amateur.) So if Orwant did not know what he was doing, he certainly wanted to figure out these trends. Perhaps in telling us that he did not know what he was doing, he is actually alerting us to the possibility that his real interest was in tracking. And, lo and behold, now GBS is all about figuring out what people are reading next. It hopes to introduce more options to render these images as XML. Which means text-based pages and character recognition. Which means distributing content further and getting more GBS results. And why are the publishers being so irksome about the price point? They can’t possibly make a profit at $50 a pop, but they can at 50 cents a pop. If the information can’t be free, then it can certainly be brokered at a cheaper price thanks to Google technology. Of course, the price has to work for Google, not the publisher.

That snippet view you see with some titles? Orwant’s official position, pressed by Cory Doctorow, is that it’s fair use. But once the October 2008 settlement in Authors Guild v. Google is approved by the court, you’re going to see that snippet view jump to 20% of the book. But in the meantime, GBS’s dominance is all but confirmed. You’ll begin to see public access terminals in libraries. But there’s always consumer purchasing options. A guy named Adam Smith (no joke) is head of the product. Sure, we’ll reap some benefits of these developments, but it doesn’t feel entirely right that a private and cash-heavy corporation holds all the cards. Particularly one with the smarts to keep a savvy guy like Orwant on the payroll.

Tools of Change: Bob Stein & Peter Brantley

tocsteinThe morning started off with Bob Stein, founder and co-director of The Institute for the Future of the Book. It’s worth pointing out that for thirteen years, Stein worked for The Criterion Company, which he founded. Stein observed that he had always viewed the Criterion discs as items that he published and that this notion of “publishing” arose from a then groundbreaking video in 1980 that depicted the moving image with text on a screen. In Stein’s view, there was a McLuhan-like distinction to be made between user-driven media (books) and producer-driven media (movies, radio, and television). But because issuing a laserdisc meant giving an item to one individual at a time, it involved “publishing” it. (In fact, the early Criterion logo featured a book turning into a disc.)

The Internet, however, stretched Stein’s meaning about what a book was. While CD-ROMs offered staggering data that permitted a user to study the life of Stravinsky, the Internet, of course, imploded this notion. There began to emerge a separate sense of what a book was or could be independent of its categorization of an object. The book itself became much more important than data or content, and became very much about connecting other people. To illustrate this, Stein cited three examples: (1) Without Gods, a blog that chronicled Mitchell Stephens writing a book for a year, in which every day had a post and coteries of readers emerged who went on the journey with Stephens; (2) McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, in which a draft of Wark’s book was posted online, with each paragraph represented by a card (and in turn generating numerous comments next to the text, putting the reader on the same level as the author); and (3) an annotated version of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which twenty students annotated the book (similarly to Wark) using a WordPress plugin called CommentPress.

Stein viewed the recent experiment involving Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as a failure to create a culture of public reading, but a success in connecting seven women together through the annotation. And Stein believed that the connection that the book had engendered was now part of the book as well. In Stein’s view, if you look at a book as an object, you effectively hide and obscure the social engagement that comes with the tome. And that social experience is perhaps more corporeal than we realize. So Stein’s new definition of a book is “a place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate.” The authors may become leaders of communities of inquiry (nonfiction) or they may become creators of words that readers populate (fiction). To this end, Stein viewed World of Warcraft as “the best book as a place.” It is therefore up to publishers to create a future that involves building and nurturing communities for authors and their readers.

Stein’s examples certainly represent fascinating enhancements which permit a book to take on a supplemental life. And it really had me thinking about some possibilities I may employ to augment the roundtable discussions that crop up here from time to time. But is the supplemental reaction to a book really part of a book? The buzz term “social community” kept cropping up at these keynotes and panels with troubling frequency. While I’m all for the notion of the information wanting to be free, I’m wondering if these supplemental aspects truly encourage other people to think independently about these subjects, and whether open source philosophy and “social community” (soon to be trademarked, I presume) is truly open to opposing viewpoints.

My skepticism was warranted when the Digital Library Foundation’s Peter Brantley gave a presentation that came perilously close to the treacherous Speedlearn experiment from The Prisoner. In Brantley’s view, a book is a social construction simply because we create our own reading environment in our home, shared with other books, or we happen to create that space in public. Therefore, getting involved with a “social community” becomes vital to the form. Such enlightenment! I wondered if Brantley, like many readers I know, had ever read a magazine or a mass market paperback while sitting on the can, or whether his income bracket had made such a common consideration declasse. I suppose if I sat with my ass hanging out long enough, I could probably justify the amount of toilet paper on the roll as a vital “personal space” component. If someone were to pay me money to stand in front of a bunch of unquestioning techies, I could also claim to have seen a deity while reading some Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker and attempt to persuade you that this was a religious experience that called for a “social community.” But you’d probably throw tomatoes at me and demand that the cane extract me from the stage. And rightly so.

Here was a man who presented a programmed keynote without spontaneity, even producing slides like “ah, let me explain that…” to mimic his seeming asides. It was as if the audience was there to be programmed rather than consider a viewpoint. And it was the primary reason why I decided to skip Cory Doctorow’s predictable anti-DRM rant. One of these was quite enough for me.

Among some of Brantley’s generalizations:

“A book is a social construction.”

“A book is a machine to think with.”

He even used the phrase “We’re reaching into books,” as if to suggest that the reading experience was more of a phony New Age experience in which some fifth circle might be obtained. But then in Brantley’s deense, I’m naturally suspicious of ponderous speakers who walk up and down a stage wearing a silly beret and holding a coffee cup. If Brantley had delivered his keynote in French, smoked an unfiltered cigarette, and perhaps thrown in a few passing references to the oppression of the working class, then I suppose I might have forgiven him. But he was dead serious about this.

A book may be generated by a machine and ebooks may be available through machines, but that does not mean the book itself is a machine. Nor should the reader transform into a machine. This kind of perspective may work in programming circles, where jargon and other linguistic bullshit is tossed around as casually as spitballs. But for those readers — most of us, I would gather — who see books as organic, guys like Brantley really fail to see the bigger picture. And I’ll have more to say about how the reader’s perspective — with the exception of one notable panel organized by Kassia Kroszer — has been utterly ignored by these slick and affluent concept slingers in subsequent posts.

(Photo: James Duncan Davidson)

Tools of Change: Initial Report

During a morning in which news of layoffs at HarperCollins and the future of BookExpo America was severely reduced in time and topography, here at the Marriott Marquis, Tools of Change rolled on. I appear to be the only guy here wearing a T-shirt, but not the only one nursing a hangover.

I’ll have some reports of the panels later in the afternoon. But I can report that the crowds here are largely male, that the recent publishing news has left those attending this conference with their hopes somewhat crestfallen, and that Tim O’Reilly and Cory Doctorow offered a few contrarian questions to Jon Orwant — that too cocksure man from Google, who answered in response to a critical query, “It’s not me; it’s the algorithm.” Orwant’s answer is quite fitting, because nobody here I’ve talked to really does have the answers, nor do they want to take responsibility. A CEO insisted to me that his POD machine will change the world, but when I asked him about whether or not an independent bookstore could afford to lease it, he refused to divulge the details. A new e-reader displays a crossword puzzle, promising “annotations and marks,” but one cannot so much as fill in the letters for 4 Across. Peter Brantley lectures to his audience like a New Age dope hoping that we’ll accept his mantras about “social community” without question, but there are considerable holes to his sunny utopian vision.

Nobody knows anything. But people wish to carry on as if they somehow do know everything. And that means being on the cutting edge for any half-assed technological development that gets people’s eyes bulging out of their sockets.

That’s not the change we were promised. And these aren’t necessarily the tools you’re looking for. But we all carry on. Let us hope we aren’t fiddling while Rome burns.

Forthcoming Coverage

In addition to a rather enormous roundtable discussion that I have in the works here (author and book to be revealed soon), I should note that I’ll also be reporting on New York Comic Con and Tools of Change. There will be a considerable number of podcasts and written reports. Our Correspondent, who does not require alternating current and is somewhat adventurous, will most certainly not be confined to Podcast Alley, expecting people to come to him. Our Correspondent will be considerably more pro-active, walking the floor, and interviewing numerous figures of interest. But a few sitdown interviews have been scheduled. While most media outlets will be circling like moths around the high-profile lightbulbs, the emphasis at both affairs will be on the people who aren’t getting that kind of attention. If you are attending either event, please tap Our Correspondent on the shoulder and whisper the words, “Tom Spurgeon didn’t return my emails,” if you have something interesting to say. I anticipate being bald and beardless at both conferences, although any number of factors could affect my hair status. So there are no guarantees.