The iPad and Information’s Third Age

Today we have a guest post by William Rankin, direc­tor of edu­ca­tion­al inno­va­tion, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of medieval lit­er­a­ture, and Apple Dis­tin­guished Edu­ca­tor, Abi­lene Chris­t­ian Uni­ver­si­ty. ACU was the first uni­ver­si­ty in the world to announce a com­pre­hen­sive one-to-one ini­tia­tive based on iPhones and iPod touch­es designed to explore the impact of mobil­i­ty in edu­ca­tion. For the past year, they have been con­sid­er­ing the future of the text­book. Rankin, who made a brief appear­ance on NBC Night­ly News last night, does a great job here of putting the new Apple iPad in his­tor­i­cal con­text and sug­gest­ing why it may solve the great infor­ma­tion­al prob­lems of our age.

It may seem strange in the wake of a major tech announce­ment to turn to the past—570 years in the past and beyond — but to con­sid­er the role of eBooks and specif­i­cal­ly of Apple’s new iPad, I think such a diver­sion is nec­es­sary. Plus, as reg­u­lar read­ers of Open Cul­ture know, tech­nol­o­gy is at its best not when it sets us off on some iso­lat­ed yet sparkling dig­i­tal future, but when it con­nects us more ful­ly to our human­i­ty — to our his­to­ry, our inter­re­lat­ed­ness, and our cul­ture. I want to take a moment, there­fore, to look back before I look for­ward, con­sid­er­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Guten­berg’s rev­o­lu­tion and recent devel­op­ments in eBook tech­nolo­gies and offer­ing some basic cri­te­ria we can bor­row from his­to­ry to assess whether these new tech­nolo­gies — includ­ing Apple’s iPad — are ready to pro­pel us into information’s third age.

In the world before Gutenberg’s press — the first age — infor­ma­tion was trans­mit­ted pri­mar­i­ly in a one-to-one fash­ion. If I want­ed to learn some­thing from a per­son, I typ­i­cal­ly had to go to that per­son to learn it. This cre­at­ed an infor­ma­tion cul­ture that was high­ly per­son­al and rela­tion­al, a char­ac­ter­is­tic evi­denced in appren­tice­ships and in the teacher/student rela­tion­ships of the ear­ly uni­ver­si­ties. This rela­tion­al char­ac­ter­is­tic was true even for tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion. The man­u­al tech­nol­o­gy behind the pro­duc­tion and copy­ing of books and the immense asso­ci­at­ed costs meant that it was dif­fi­cult for books to pro­lif­er­ate. To see a book — if I couldn’t afford to have my own copy hand-made, a propo­si­tion requir­ing the expen­di­ture of a lifetime’s worth of wages for the aver­age per­son — meant that I had to go vis­it the library that owned it. Even then, I might not be allowed to see it if I didn’t have a priv­i­leged rela­tion­ship with its own­ers. So while the first age was rich in infor­ma­tion (a truth that has noth­ing to do with my per­son­al bias as a medieval­ist), its pri­ma­ry chal­lenge involved access.

Gutenberg’s rev­o­lu­tion, ush­er­ing in the sec­ond age, solved that prob­lem. Dri­ven by one of the first machines to enable mass-pro­duc­tion, infor­ma­tion could pro­lif­er­ate for the first time. Mul­ti­ple copies of books could be pro­duced quick­ly and rel­a­tive­ly cheap­ly — Gutenberg’s Bible was avail­able at a cost of only three years’ wages for the aver­age clerk — and this meant that books took on a new role in cul­ture. This was the birth of mass media. Libraries explod­ed from hav­ing tens or per­haps a few hun­dred books to hav­ing thou­sands. Or tens of thou­sands. Or mil­lions. And this abun­dance led to three dis­tinct rev­o­lu­tions in cul­ture. Though the uni­ver­si­ty ini­tial­ly fought its intro­duc­tion, the print­ed text­book pro­vid­ed broad access to infor­ma­tion that, for the first time, promised the pos­si­bil­i­ty of uni­ver­sal edu­ca­tion. Wide­spread access to bibles and the­o­log­i­cal texts fueled sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tions in reli­gion across the West­ern Hemi­sphere. And access to infor­ma­tion, phi­los­o­phy, and news led to the dis­man­tling of old polit­i­cal hier­ar­chies and some of the first exper­i­ments with democ­ra­cy (have you ever stopped to notice how many of the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies were involved in print­ing and pub­lish­ing?). (more…)

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Experiments in Publishing (Take 1)

Those who read this blog reg­u­lar­ly may remem­ber my past posts (herehere and here) about the Ama­zon Kin­dle and recall that I have mixed feel­ings about it. You’ll also know that I’ve been inter­est­ed in what authors such as J.A. Kon­rath have accom­plished by releas­ing books on the Kin­dle itself. (Heck, some of you even knew about Konrath’s suc­cess­es before I did.—Thanks Kurt.) And now, since recent­ly becom­ing a hap­py Kin­dle own­er myself, I’ve decid­ed it’s time to make an exper­i­ment in this new fold. So let me tell you about it.

Pub­lish­ing Exper­i­ment 1: If we know any­thing for sure about pub­lish­ing right now, it’s that it is chang­ing. Authors, I believe, must become the sci­en­tists run­ning exper­i­ments with new tech­nol­o­gy, new pub­lic­i­ty strate­gies, mar­ket­ing, you name it. There’s just too much mon­ey involved for the big (and some small) press­es to car­ry out the kind of test­ing and idea-try­ing that needs to be done. That leaves us inde­pen­dent authors to try things out on our own.

In that spir­it, I’m releas­ing a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries in the Kin­dle for­mat just after Christ­mas. A Long Way from Dis­ney is offi­cial­ly out now, but I’m “releas­ing it” on Sun­day Dec. 27th, a day I’m call­ing Dis­ney Com­man­do Sun­day! The think­ing here is that by ask­ing peo­ple to all buy the book on a sin­gle day, I can go after the top of Ama­zon’s Kin­dle best­seller chart and gar­ner more atten­tion (sales) there, espe­cial­ly with the after-Xmas new Kin­dle own­ers.

I’ve priced the col­lec­tion low ($.99) because I’m more inter­est­ed in how many copies of the book I can get out there than in how much mon­ey I can make off of sales. For those who’ll be count­ing, the $.99 price point will give me 35 cents and Ama­zon a hefty 64 cents per book sold. They’ll win out regard­less, but it’s their sand­box and I want to play.

You can buy this Kin­dle book on any com­put­er once you’ve estab­lished a Kin­dle read­er preference/Kindle account. You have three choic­es here. You can do this with:

1) An actu­al Kin­dle. 2) An iPhone run­ning the Kin­dle App (down­load) or 3) Any PC run­ning the new Ama­zon Kin­dle soft­ware for PC (down­load here).

You can­not buy the Kin­dle book for any­one else, and no one can buy more than one copy. It’s cer­tain­ly an inter­est­ing set of rules, isn’t it? Well, this is what Ama­zon has set up. If you’d like to aid this exper­i­ment, please for­ward this blog post to oth­er authors, read­ers, Kin­dle own­ers, and exper­i­menters in the pub­lish­ing field. It should be inter­est­ing to see what this can gen­er­ate with a min­i­mum of pub­lic­i­ty and zero bud­get.

If you’d like to sam­ple any of the short sto­ries from this col­lec­tion, you can hear any/all of them free online at my web­site and find out more about the Kin­dle exper­i­ment here. I hope you’ll choose to come along and help make some waves with this idea. I do think that the more suc­cess­es inde­pen­dent authors have with this new means of get­ting things done, the bet­ter it will be for all of pub­lish­ing. Per­haps that’ll be our next debate.

I’ll be back lat­er this week with a few sto­ries from the col­lec­tion and then again next Sun­day for the big sales kick­off! See you…

Seth Har­wood pod­casts his ideas on the pub­lish­ing indus­try and his fic­tion for free at He will be teach­ing an online course (The Essen­tial Art: Mak­ing Movies in Your Read­er’s Mind) with Stan­ford Con­tin­u­ing Stud­ies start­ing in Jan­u­ary. His first nov­el, JACK WAKES UP, is in stores now.

Kindle Competitor Gets Off to a Shaky Start

Look­ing to take back some of the e‑book mar­ket from Ama­zon’s Kin­dle, Barnes & Noble has released its new read­er, the Nook. This week, Walt Moss­berg, the influ­en­tial tech review­er, gave his thoughts on the new gad­get. Need­less to say, it’s not a good PR day when he says that it feels like a prod­uct “rushed to mar­ket.”  Watch the video review here.

Kindle the Answer? For Author J.A. Konrath It Is

With six pub­lished nov­els under his belt, you might think J.A. Kon­rath has it made. But, if you know much about the cur­rent pub­lish­ing mar­ket, you could cer­tain­ly ques­tion that. Made or not, JA made a very inter­est­ing dis­cov­ery recent­ly when he sat down and com­pared his Hype­r­i­on ebook roy­al­ty state­ments with the pro­ceeds he’s brought in by putting up four nov­els on Ama­zon’s Kin­dle store all by him­self.

What did he learn? That self-pub­lish­ing ebooks can be a lucra­tive and very real option for known authors! You’ve got to read the whole post here to get a full sense of the fig­ures involved and why this has been work­ing for him.

While we’re at it, if you want more writ­ers dis­clos­ing their roy­al­ty state­ments in blogs, have a look at what Lynn Viehl has to say about the pro­ceeds from her NY Times Best­selling books at Thanks to April Hamil­ton at  Pub­le­tari­at for bring­ing this to my eye.

You can find out more about Seth’s work (includ­ing his lat­est book Jack Wakes Up) at

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.