Photo Courtesty Bob n Renee @ Flickr.com I remember being a teenage drummer in the late 80’s and early 90’s, looking through issues of Modern Drummer, the bible for kids such as I. And I remember looking at images of these strange, flat disks with cords hooked up in what approximated the shape of the drumset I knew and loved with big-name drummers sitting proudly behind them. People would read over my shoulder and say, “that’s the end of drummers! Now that they can have a drum machine do what you guys do, they don’t need you anymore. And soon they just flat-out won’t need musicians at all.”
Some part of me found this whole line hysterical, but a large part of me worried they might be right. What would happen once a newer, presumably better technology came into prominence?
We’ve had a few decades to learn the truth and the truth is just fine, thank you. Drummers are still very much needed and revered in the musical community, as are musicians of all stripes. Yes, there is a large segment of the music landscape dominated by electronic instruments, but even in these genres, when a really nuanced musical touch is called for, they call in the instrumentalist. And as it turns out, just because you don’t play a traditional analog instrument does not in any way make you less of a musician or artist.
What is the lesson here, and how does it apply to eBooks like the Barnes and Nobel Nook or the Amazon Kindle?
Fundamentally, there is a difference between the evolution of a need-fulfilling technological niche and the further development of new needs to fulfill. There are certain needs which are common to humans and even life itself for which science and technology have provided solutions. There are also human needs which never existed in the past that are a reflection of our technological and intellectual growth, and where these needs arise, new technological niches follow. eBooks fall under the category of digital media, generally, and while they certainly fulfill a role similar to books, they do not altogether replace that need because they occupy a different set of spaces.
Consider for example the common need to travel: even plants need to get seeds away from the parent tree in order to spread their influence. Humans have invented shoes, domesticated horses and other animals, invented chariots and eventually stage coaches to get where they need to go. Ultimately, we get to our modern era, when a curious thing occurs: our need to travel has cleaved off in many separate facets. Trains and ships have existed for many years without replacement because they fulfill a role of bulk transportation. Automobiles have not been replaced by air travel because air travel is only efficient in groups over relatively long distances.
It is true that one does not see horse-drawn carriages as a practical means of transportation anymore, save for a few isolated Amish societies. At least not in most industrialized settings. In rugged terrain like Afghanistan or even the Grand Canyon, however, four feet remain the only truly reliable means of transportation. So even in the case of technologies urban societies have long-forgotten, sometimes usefulness does not go away simply because something newer has come along.
Scrolls definitely disappeared once bound books became available. But books did not get replaced by radio. Radio did not get destroyed by television. Television remains irritatingly powerful in our Internet society. And after all this time, what reason have we to believe that books will get replaced by the Nook? One good power outage should disabuse us of that notion.