June 1999 can be marked as a turning point in the distribution of media. That was when a university student named Shawn Fanning released a project he was working on that would change the face of the music industry. His project was a software program called Napster and it ushered in a new way music could be distributed.
What Napster did is to allow people to share their music with others in a new and simple way. Since then, the very nature of the way music is purchased, sold and distributed has experienced a massive shift. The proliferation of music devices such as the iPod and the fact that, as of this writing, iTunes is the #1 selling retailer of music is testament of that. Since then, the same revolutionary pressures in distribution have taken hold within the newspaper and movie industries. Now, the next frontier appears to be the book industry.
Technically speaking, it appears strange that the first media to experience this revolutionary shift was not books. After all, in terms of file sizes, text media is much smaller than music or movie files and thus are much more easily distributed than movies or music. This would have been especially important in the days before broadband internet connections. However, if we look at the matter culturally, it makes sense.
The last time the book “industry” saw a major change in the way books were packaged was when Johannes Gutenberg built the first printing press. So while the music and movie industries have changed their format of delivery several times within the past few decades (music: gramophone record, vinyl record, 8-track, cassette tape, CD; movies: super-8, VHS, DVD, Blue-Ray), books have come in the relative same format for the last 500 years. Therefore, literacy and reading has been strongly equated with books and buying books has generally meant going to a book store. While different generations can remember watching movies or listening to music in different formats, everyone has read books the same way.
After reading this news article in the Toronto Star, I’ve started to realize that there is a growing push in selling books in digital format. While digital books can be read on multi-use devices such as a Blackberry or iPhone, the growing popularity of the Amazon Kindle and it’s endorsement by celebrities such as Oprah is beginning to revolutionize how books are being bought and sold. In addition, the proliferation of digital media players is also allowing for an easier distribution of audiobooks.
This affects education greatly. Educations systems around the globe are based on books and one of the most important hubs in any school is the library. With the proliferation of digital media players of all kinds and the ability of just about all of them to double as an ebook reader, a paradigm shift in how we think about the distribution of ideas and is inevitable. It seems to me that the overdependancy on books and the bias that books are the only way we can obtain and share knowledge is no longer sustainable. Now that these technologies allow for ideas to be distributed in a variety of new ways, we have an obligation in our school system to change the way we think about knowledge aquisition and about differentiating both the instruction and the means of instruction.