Scarcity to Abundance: E-books and the pain of the Digital Revolution

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It has been baffling to many aficionados why the e-book market has taken so long to develop… isn’t it as simple as opening up a new counter at the bookstore, or creating a new section of an online bookstore, and beginning to sell e-book content? Alas, e-books have proven to be much more than simply a new format for reading, as the constant banter over selling paradigms, formats, price, piracy and access have effectively demonstrated. E-books represent no less than a conceptual change to an entire world of literature, a foundation-shaking event that will eventually leave the industries devoted to literature forever changed. It is the real significance of the Digital Revolution: The fundamental difference between a commodity that was once scarce, and one that is now abundant.

Historically, any time a commodity undergoes a radical change in state, from scarcity to abundance—or vice-versa—all Hell usually breaks loose. Fortunes are lost and won. Political parties rise and fall. Paupers become princes. Princes become fools. Heads roll. The switch from scarcity of power to abundance, in the form of cheap coal, kicked off the Industrial Revolution, and the discovery of massive fields of oil further fueled it. The development from a scarcity of humans to an abundance forced sweeping changes in law and culture, and numerous scientific developments, in order to feed, clothe, house and care for billions of people concentrated into small areas.

At the same time, the evolution from an abundance of natural resources, to a scarcity of resources, such as fresh water, various foods and feed animals, have forced entire civilizations to alter their way of life to replace those resources, to conserve what was left, or to leave for better climes. An abundance of a particular skill, like expert furniture craftsmen, followed by a scarcity caused by increased demand, inspired machine design and factory production to take up the slack, forever altering the craft of furniture-making. None of these changes were quiet or easy, but they were essential to deal with the reality of change.

The evolution of the transistor, from scarcity to abundance, has brought the cost of computing down from hundreds of thousands of dollars in the mid-twentieth century, to a few-score dollars for the same computing power today, and put computers into the hands of the average person. The Digital Revolution, like the Industrial Revolution before it, has been driving change in many areas for roughly the past fifty years. And now, finally the Digital Revolution is making the same change to the lowly book.

The book evolves

What was once so rare and valuable that it had to be secured in private collections and libraries, loaned out in care and consideration, or copied and sold at whatever price the market would bear… is now virtually free to produce and disseminate. Literature, once limited to the physicalities of paper and the practicalities of transportation networks, can now be reproduced with captured electrons, and sent to the opposite ends of the world in seconds. Scarcity has been trumped by abundance. But the business of commodity-as-scarcity is still with us—and like the blaquesmith watching the automobile overtake his business, or the circus performer seeing his audience abandon him for television, the profiteers of traditional scarcity-based print publishing are dismayed at the future of the abundant digital book, and the almost incomprehensible impact it will have on their lives and fortunes.

If you examine most of the efforts expended by today’s writers, publishers, booksellers and lawyers to deal with e-books, you quickly see that their efforts are primarily designed to create an artificial model of scarcity to fit the e-book into. Amazon’s Kindle store, built around its dedicated readers and repackaged content, is a classic example of Industrial Revolution-era thinking: In many ways it is a sort of “bottled water” industry, created to Amazon’s specifications, to insure they will retain the same control over e-books that they currently hold over printed books.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, in Amazon’s case), savvy consumers are already recognizing the fallacies of this model, just as they have come to realize that “bottled water” is usually no better or healthier than what they can get out of their own tap, and a lot more expensive at that. Consumers are well aware that the water is still out there, flowing freely from streams and taps. E-books, like water, do not need to be packaged to be enjoyed… packaging only serves to create an Industrial Revolution-era paradigm that traditional capitalists can attempt to take advantage of.

E-books are a product of the Digital Revolution, and as such, are only being held back by Industrial Revolution paradigms. The realities of the digital world dictate that original creation is still work, but re-creation and delivery can be virtually effortless. Effortless re-creation and delivery means virtually-zero-cost, with a requisite loss of the need to recoup that cost… a factor that formerly needed to be added to the “cost” of any product. What’s left is the value of the original work alone, freed from the extraneous costs of reproduction and distribution.

Hard change

During the period known as the Industrial Revolution, we were conditioned to pay for products like books based more on the costs of reproduction and redistribution than on the original creation. And producers were conditioned to run businesses and recoup profits based on those same realities. With those realities removed, how do we recondition the public to pay for the creation of literature, instead of the production and distribution of printed and bound copies? How do businesses generate income and profit? And how do we deal with the blatant inequalities of such a system that, until now, have gone largely ignored?

The institutions and conventions that our forefathers built around the precepts of the Industrial Revolution, appropriate and effective as they were for their day, must be revisited for the realities of the Digital Revolution and media like e-books. Buying and selling paradigms, and the role of the many facilitators of that process, need to be critically re-examined and reshaped to fit the demands of modern reality. Issues like copyright and ownership must also be revisited, as they have fallen so far behind the Digital Revolution as to be almost worthless today. Compensation for creations must be examined, and up-to-date determinations need to be made of who is responsible for compensating whom, and how that should be accomplished.

What does this mean for authors like me? I wish I knew. Hopefully, a way will be devised to fairly compensate writers for their work—for, after all, if writers feel they are not being treated fairly, can we expect them to write for us?—and creative works will be available to the public in the spirit of abundance. Quite possibly some type of minute charge, like an information tax, will be levied upon anyone who downloads an e-book, with some portion of that tax to eventually find its way into the author’s pocket through a royalty system. Possibly governments will simply compensate authors for material entered into the information flow, paid for by more taxes and perhaps additional income for unusually popular works. Or perhaps some other method will be devised that we today cannot even imagine. For some authors, it might be enough to live off of. For others, perhaps the days of “making a living” as an author are over. But it may take generations to work it all out… so we may never know.

Evolution happens

The Digital Revolution, with its commodity-based shift from scarcity to abundance, will bring incredible and, in some cases, unrecognizable change to much of modern life… this is inevitable. Some of it will also be painful. The 20th century equivalents of the blaquesmith and circus performer must accept the fact that they will have to adapt, retire, or perish. But when we accept the realities of the Digital Revolution, and embrace the effort to develop new ways to work, to sell, and to profit, the eventual reward will be Earth-shattering.

The Digital Revolution provides us a unique opportunity to create a truly global marketplace out of the many disparate and uneven markets out there today. The effort to create a balanced, fair global market out of the chaos of Industrial Revolution-era international boundaries would be nothing short of apocalyptic… but imagine the reward of such an accomplishment. It would be one of the greatest, and most satisfying, challenges of the millennium. It must be addressed, if we as a global culture are ever to progress.

E-books are in a unique position of being able to stand at the forefront of the Digital Revolution, alongside digital music and other media. All digital media, in fact, share similar issues that must overcome the painful transition from scarce commodity to abundant commodity. But if those issues are overcome, they will be applicable to most other products of the Digital Revolution, smoothing the transition to other products, and aiding the development of whole new concepts of what a digital-era commodity is.

The state of our world, after the full adoption of the Digital Revolution, will likely be as unrecognizable to those of us alive today as the Industrial Revolution would have been to the farmers of the fifteenth century. The commerce of literature could also evolve into something we can barely understand today. But considering the value the world can derive, from a Digital Revolution poised to spread knowledge, entertainment and enlightenment around the world, who would we be to stand in its way?

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