Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Sherry Turkle and Being Connected, and How They Relates to Books and Bookstores--a Visit to Holy Cross in Worcester.

About a month ago, my sister was telling me about an interesting project going on at Holy Cross, in conjunction with their Monserrat freshman immersion program. The students were participating in a digital turn-off day (officially called Connections), and as part of the experiment, they were reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other.

After discussing it with some of her colleagues, they decided it might be a good idea for me to talk to a few classes about the changes in publishing and bookselling over the past 25 years, with special notice paid to online vs. bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and ebooks vs. physical books,.

First I decided to read Turkle’s book, which came out last year and seems to approach the issue from two directions. In part one, Turkle, MIT professor of social studies of science and technology, explores the increasing use of robots as substitutions for human behavior. This can be things like Tamagotchi and Furby toys, to the development of the more advanced My Real Baby and AIBO the robot dog. And then there are the robots that are more than toys, like the development of Paro, a pet seal for the elderly that has become quite popular in parts of the world.

In part two, she looks at the rise of less personal forms of communication, from text and instant messaging, to social networks like Facebook. At the same time, she investigates folks who spend time on Second Life and World of Warcraft. Connected or not? Well, it’s Turkle’s thesis that Facebook and even texting are just another avatar, a place to reinvent yourself. And in both cases, what were once personal connections get reduced to data. Those former connections—the personal interactions, particularly phone calls, are shunned.

At one extreme, technology becomes the substitute for the living being; at the other, people sort become part of the technology. And I guess both ideas describe what is going on in the book world. The physical bookstore becomes a website. The bookseller becomes a checkout device and a recommendation algorithm. A book tour budget is trimmed, and the savings are spent on buzz-creating social networking sites.

One thing I note about bookstores is that when you take price out of the equation (and you do have to take price out, as the prices are not "true" in a market sense—our major online competitor loses money on books to build market share), the major hurdle for competition is convenience. And I suspect folks make the decision about whether to shop online or at a physical bookstore for comparably priced items depends on how close a bookstore is and how much they like it.

All three classes went pretty well. I was surprised what a high percentage of students had been to a physical bookstore in the last few years to do something aside from buying textbooks. The last class, which ran a little longer, actually discussed how they read books, where they buy them, and how they make decisions about what to buy. And surprisingly enough for me, I think more of the students in the class read non-schoolbooks on a regular basis than I did in college.

So now it is up to the Holy Cross students, faculty and staff. Can they still stay connected without their technology? I’ll find out afterwards and who knows, maybe I’ll try to duplicate the experiment back in Milwaukee.

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