Losing Our Way: on technology and being creative in the modern world

The Apple 1.0
The Apple 1.0

I have an open letter posted to Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, over at TW this month. I take Cook and Apple to task for not being creative with their digital book applications (the iBook Store and iBook reading system). I honestly don’t see any truly innovative digital reading applications out there offered by any company. It’s sad. But the truth is there’s not much innovation anywhere in the commercial part of the virtual world anymore. Think about it. What was the biggest application everyone wanted this summer? Yup. Pokemon Go.

Creativity in the ebook world did in fact occur on the hardware side of things beginning about a decade ago as the Kindle and iPad were being developed and ramped up. But the actual user interface has been a serious disappointment to me. You can read some of my reasoning over at that Talking Writing piece.

I want to add a couple things more here, though. First, for writers and publishers, the act of creating electronic books is still astoundingly archaic and poorly designed. Publishing to Amazon requires a three to four step translation process and then moving your file to a separate text munching application that can convert your always questionably formatted file into Amazon’s proprietary .MOBI format. You’d think by now they would have worked with Adobe or Microsoft to create a print to .mobi file command that by-passes all the bullshit.

Source: Getty Images and/or Fortune
Source: Getty Images and/or Fortune

Apple’s iBooks authoring tool, which appears to be a souped up version of their slide presentation app, Keystone, seems pretty cool and sexy when you first check it out, but you have to have the patience of a yoga master to use it for any extended text file transfer (my novels and short story collections are several hundred pages of text). Their program is chock full of useless bells and whistles for any serious writer. It is, impressively, intended for multi-media digital book applications, but in all the experimenting I’ve done, the media tools are extremely limited, cumbersome, and tend to seriously fuck up text management. I can see how it could be a tool that teachers might mess around with or, even, that students might use for presentations and reports, but it’s not a serious tool for professional writers.

Some of the problem here for all digital book publishing systems is that Amazon, the king of the hill, refuses to use the industry standard .EPUB format for documents. They may argue that they’re trying to create a proprietary security system to protect authors (and their products), but we’ve seen this game before: control the file format and you control the market. Writers and publishers don’t do themselves or the future of the ebook any good by rolling over for Amazon. But that’s where we are right now. Still, if there were one accepted file format I think it would be so much more likely we would see third party innovation for ebook reading applications that might begin to push the envelope.

This formatting issue creates bizarre problems too for all of us who are power readers — and there are many kinds of power reader out there, not just novel geeks and literary dorks. Teachers, lawyers, journalists, marketing and sales professionals, and, yes, students, are all power readers. If we’re to use our Kindles, iPads, and smartphones to read, we need the ability to access publications from all sorts of platforms and the ability to move them from one device to another and to store them in whatever backup system we choose. That can’t be done right now. Apple only lets me transfer files from one device to another if I buy that item from the iBook store. Amazon essentially does the same thing. There are work arounds and ways to finagle your way through these limitations, but that’s not very nice to consumers if you ask me.

Note: This same problem exists in the iTunes world in general now. Apple recently set up a special paid status for anyone who wants to use the iTunes iCloud for storage of all their media downloads from whatever source.

So in a lot of ways we’ve been watching the computer move from being a tool for the mind to becoming a way for companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon to make money off of us. We have watched this and willingly been complicit.

What’s interesting to me as someone who has reported on and written about technology for over three decades is that the serious innovation and design work that was so amazing in the computer world until about 2010 is now going on in the world of energy and transportation. I remember the early days of PCs quite well. Very few people really understood how important they were going to be to our culture. It’s not exactly the same, but the development of electric cars, hybrid engines, high efficiency solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and all the high-tech architectural materials coming out these days portend the same kind of society-technology revolution. The biggest limitation we still face is in energy storage, but that’s what people said back in the 1970s about computer chips, and we all know where that went.

60-minutes-sophia
Source: CBS News

Last night on 60 Minutes they ran an extended segment on artificial intelligence and how it is going to change everything. They focused on IBM’s commercially famous Watson. But they also showed cute little AI robots along with a more realistic, somewhat humanistic cyber something named Sophia (click her photo if you want to get a taste). Ten years ago I would have been impressed with all the “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, baby” talk. The thing is, I have seen nothing. I see it in how the industry has approached ebooks. I see it in how app upgrades and new versions of operating systems and software (especially Microsoft Office) are just ways to keep squeezing money out of us. And I kind of see nothing with social media in general, too. It’s like we’re all sitting around at some endless fireworks show: “Oooo!” “Wow!” “Ah!” When’s it going to end?

Don’t get the wrong impression here. I’m not a Luddite. I don’t have a problem with all the computer gadgets and media trinkets they’re dangling in front of our faces. It’s clear to me that the market will dictate what succeeds and what fails. That’s why I’m concerned with the system of ebooks and reading applications they’ve been trying to get us to froth at the mouth about. They’re just not good enough. They’re not tools to enhance the reading process. And they’re certainly not as cool as books made out of paper. They should be. They should be hundreds of times cooler. But they aren’t … so far. Let’s see if someone can start thinking different again.

Read my Talking Writing open letter to Tim Cook, “It’s Time to Think Different’ About E-books”

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Originally published at davidbiddle.net.