“If there’s one lesson we’ve learned — or should have learned — from living through the first decades of the digital revolution, it’s that this revolution does not have the same impact everywhere.” This line from John B. Thompson’s “Book Wars” appears in the last chapter, but it could serve just as well as the tagline or opening sentence.
This almost-500-page tome is called “Book Wars,” but a more precise title could easily be “Information Wars.” Thompson sets out to detail the recent history of the digital revolution of books and succeeds in not only providing such a history, but also showing a clear warning sign of how the digital revolution impacts every industry and individual differently. Books have always been both threatening and under threat — schools and other institutions in the United States have been banning them for various reasons since the 1600s — but, until recently, not by anything like digital technology.
We’ve been told for 20 years that technology will free up our time and make our lives more convenient, but the second lesson from “Book Wars” is that “nothing is as good at it seems.” It is time for us to wake up from the hypnosis Big Tech has placed us under by promising convenience, connection and equal access to information across the globe and recognize the lie that technology is an impartial savior of humanity. It is time we not be so easily enticed by the promises of “convenience” and that we start to see that technology is not neutral. Thompson points out, for example, that the impacts of technology are not consistent across industries or around the world. Thompson says the tech industry claims that “the tools of tech are neutral; it’s how they are used that isn’t,” but he shows otherwise. The tools are not neutral — and they were not intended to be.
Through many charts and graphs comparing volume of sales in dollars, absolutes and percentages of the market shares of the various formats of books (physical books, e-books, audio books and so on) across the previous decade, “Book Wars” shows the disruption that the digital revolution has already had on the publishing industry. This huge revolution was fascinating to read about as someone who has lived through it and can just barely remember most of it.
While the speculative debates are probably interesting to writer-readers like myself, for the general audience, the takeaway from this unexpectedly detailed analysis of technology’s impact on books over the last two decades is nearly the same as “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America” by Alec MacGillis, the book I reviewed in July for Real Change. In fact, during the last few chapters of “Book Wars,” I thought I was reading “Fulfillment” again. This is probably because the conclusions in both books come down to the tech industry’s winner-take-all approach — not just to the book industry, but to everything.
That message is popping up in nonfiction book after nonfiction book I read, no matter how unrelated they seem either to each other or to technology: Tech companies have become the richest in the world because of their ability to collect and monetize our data. We allow access in exchange for “convenience” and “free” services, while also ultimately elevating these tech giants to the god status they think they deserve.
Amazon is a bully with hugely disproportionate power: It knows so much about us, and we not only know nothing about its inner workings, but we also don’t know what exactly it knows about us. At this point, though, it’s probably safe to assume that Amazon knows everything.
And yet, the public still sees it as the main way to legitimize books; if your book isn’t on Amazon, it doesn’t exist. Even people who despise the company often still use it. It’s too hard not to, they claim. “I can’t find what I’m looking for anywhere else,” they say as they enable and deepen their own dependence on technology, which does not have any of our best interests at heart.
“Book Wars” ultimately teaches us that only one facet of technology is predictable: its lack of neutrality. Nothing about technology or its design is neutral, from products to platforms to “free” services. Technology was built not to serve the customer above all else — as Thompson reports Jeff Bezos claiming to be endeavoring to do — but to serve itself. This comes at the expense of our data (meaning our privacy) and the freedom of knowledge.
Technology will continue to successfully monopolize information — what the tech industry has gotten us all to call “content” — and thus knowledge, until we stop the war by revoking our consent.
Read more of the Sept. 22-28, 2021 issue.