CES 2011: And the Winner Will Be…Reading

Predictions are a fickle business, but with the new year just begun and CES still days away, the writing for 2011 is already on the wall (and I don’t mean Facebook).

There will be stories, tweets, posts, photos, videos, slides and all sorts of content spewing from CES about the latest technological gadgets and guesses about consumer demands. But underlying it all, almost unnoticed, will be something bigger and far more powerful than any collection of microchips: The return of long-form reading.

Yes, reading, that thing we do with our eyes and brains, requiring no additional functionality other than desire and perhaps more time in the day.

In the ‘90s the “killer app” of the Internet was e-mail. This past decade saw the rise of People as the killer app thanks to social media, easily the most disruptive and powerful force of the new post-modern digital age. Now reading has re-entered the mix in a big way, becoming the main Raison d’être for many technological innovations as well as invigorating traditional media businesses:

  • E-book sales were 10 percent of trade sales in 2010, and it’s expected that number will double in 2011
  • Surveys suggest that people who purchase e-reading devices subsequently increase the number of books they buy. “For the first time in a long time, there are many more places for people to buy books,” said David Shanks, CEO of Penguin Group USA
  • Kindles and Nooks are great and are indeed moving well, but that’s nothing compared to the wave of tablets about to hit the market, from Microsoft and HP to others running on Android (even Vizio is getting into the game.) Tablets have led to a kind of rebirth for long-form reading and especially for magazines, and though app sales have slowed recently that will likely change once these new devices and the iPad 2 become available
  • Services like Storify are helping to bring back long-form narrative, assembling the disparate social layers of a story to make it whole. Then there’s Readability, an app that frees web pages from ads and other distractions from the text. Instapaper, an app for storing online content to read later, has nearly a million users
  • One person’s tweet is another’s cue to dig deeper. As a recent Wired piece put it, “The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation.”

Of course modern media consumption isn’t just about text; it’s not like video is going away (quite the contrary.) The way we tell stories will continue to evolve and require multimedia narratives told in layers across platforms and with multiple inputs.

But reading will remain at the core. In a way, the shift toward tablets and mobile devices are merely new ways to do something very old. We can change technology and our culture can mature, but we can’t change who we are as human beings.

We are readers, we demand quality, and we will ultimately voice those demands with our wallets.

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