The resurgent UK bookseller, Waterstones, recently stopped selling Amazon’s Kindle. For all Kindle’s convenience in accessing and consuming printed material it is a terrible way to read the books you love. Part of this is its Soviet era aesthetic but in the main it’s because printed-paper books remain the ideal way to read oneself a story. As James Daunt, the turnaround CEO of Waterstones says “The satisfactions of the book, in the age of social media and proliferating cultural choices, are very singular.”
By and large we tend to believe that the latest technology represents the ideal means of doing or experiencing content. But what if that is not the case and that for every content we enjoy there is an optimum technology and ideal experience? The optimum being the easiest and often cheapest means of consuming something and the ideal being the most enjoyable or rewarding cultural experience. The optimum may in time take the volume but the ideal retains the value in every sense of the word.
The optimum way to watch a movie is by streamlining one of an infinite number of titles to your TV or device on demand. But it is self evident that this is not the ideal cultural experience we seek when enjoying films. This remains the cinema, much improved by advances in digital projection and sound reproduction but essentially the same experience that you would have had a century ago.
An Apple music subscription gives you access to much of history’s recorded music in an instant. It and the services it copied, are today’s optimum way to consume music but they are not and will never be regarded as the ideal way to experience your favourite musicians. This remains the live gig or concert.
And naturally optimum technology constantly changes. In the case of film, from VHS rental, to satellite subscription to DVD delivery and onto streamed services. For music it was vinyl, reel-to-reel tape, compact cassette, CD, MP3 downloads and now streaming.
But the ideal rarely changes at all. For ideals have deep cultural roots. Cultural roots that are hideously difficult to shift even though a new technology seems to offer a superficially or actually more convenient alternative.
And in many cases these cultural roots transcend generations. For all that they are obsessed with a life in front of the screen, my kids also spend inordinate amounts of time buried in books. The ideal of book reading has been passed onto them because it is so ingrained in our collective culture. Reading books is the product of hundreds of years of human behavior and an activity that will not be easily unpicked, even though much of what we read today is through the screen.
Which leads me to two questions.
Can new ideals ever be established? In other words can today’s optimum technology for doing something become and remain the ideal even when superseded?
I guess this question can only be answered in hindsight but it seems to me that text-based search has the sort of cultural power and ubiquity that makes it an ideal not just optimal means of accessing information. Time will tell.
And what of television and television advertising? Were they optimum for a period in the technological development of entertainment or do they in some ways represent a cultural ideal?
Well, television itself has proved remarkably resilient as a means of information and entertainment. Despite the plethora of time shifting and on demand options watching live TV remains something deeply embedded in our culture.
And when it comes to television advertising? Perhaps it is time to concede that twenty years into our love affair with the internet and ten years into its untethering from the home and office, that the ideal form of advertising was invented in the 1950s. That the short form television ad is the ideal means of selling and building brands at scale and speed. Not the optimum technology for targeting people (this constantly changes) but taken in the round, advertising’s ideal medium.
Being the ideal experience doesn’t guarantee success; optimum technologies often take the lion’s share of expenditure. But being an ideal experience probably does guarantee survival, whereas yesterday’s optimum is rarely remembered – minidiscs anyone?