Philosophical Musings

September 14, 2007

Wake Up and Smell the Medium

Filed under: ebooks,entrepreneurship,postmodernism — Elad Kehat @ 6:12 pm

Back in 1998 or 1999 – the good old days of the big internet bubble, I had a company that did web development projects for internet startups. That means I saw a lot of startups, 99 percent of which are long gone now. There are many reasons for startup failure, and having a stupid idea isn’t a prominent one. This post however, is on one of the stupidest ideas.
I don’t remember the startup’s name – all I ever saw was a demo of their product. They developed a product for ecommerce (remember, it was in the days of the big bubble), where you had a 3D, video-game-like environment that you moved through to do your shopping. Think Doom (which was the big name in first-person shooters back then) staged in a shopping mall. You walk through the virtual mall, looking at the shops’ signs, and hey, here’s a shoe store. You walk in. There are shelves with shoes on display. You get close enough to some shelf so you can see the shoes, but no, these are the ladies’ shoes, you want men’s. So you go to another shelf, and here are some nice men’s sneakers. You pick one up, look at it, check the price tag, put it back on the shelf, and move to the next one.
There were people from several other startups there, and a couple of VCs, and everybody was going Ooooh and Aaaah. I remember feeling strange at being the only one there thinking to myself, boy, this is stupid!
If I want to shop in a mall, I go out to the mall. Why on earth would I want to do that from my PC? Where’s the advantage? If you’re going to digitize the shopping experience, why don’t you give me a quick way to search through the merchandise for something I want instead of requiring me to “walk” through the “store”? How about reviews, recommendations, and all the other goodies that any decent ecommerce site offered even back then?

Didn’t they read Marshall McLuhan? (they probably did, but never understood what they read…)
The problem of course is that the common reaction to a new medium is “great, how do we make it more like the old medium?”. But old media almost never die (video didn’t kill TV, which didn’t kill radio, and cinema didn’t kill theater), and new media thrive by making use of unique new advantages that weren’t available to the old ones, not by merely copying the old formulae over.

And now we finally come to the thing that prompted this long rant: almost ten years later, with the internet hardly a new medium anymore, the same stupidity is still among us.
In this post on O’Reilly radar, a pretty good blog otherwise, Peter Brantley, whom, according to his CV, is rather experienced in libraries, technology, and library digitization, is all appalled by an “extremely clever, and intuitively appealing” idea:

“Imagine keyword searching through a book database, only the results come back as a picture of library stacks where the book is highlighted in context, where serendipity and browsing could happen.

You could setup the stacks image up so that you can “walk” along the shelves as if you were walking the stacks across your computer screen. If the mapping was done well, you could zoom up toward the stacks and view the book on the shelf. If you did this at several libraries, both public and academic, you could flip between your book at the public library and your book in an academic library setting, browsing across both shelves.”

That’s even more stupid than the shoestore I described above – with shoes at least you care how they look, but who cares what the book’s spine looks like?
Searching online through a book’s text is a great idea, and I hope that Google’s project is successful, but if anything, it makes the experience of physical libraries redundant. For 99.999% of books in the world (i.e. barring some beautifully illustrated old manuscripts) we only care about the text inside, and that can be delivered very efficiently online, as in Project Gutenberg. When online, books are just files. They’re not stacked on shelves, they don’t have spines, and there’s absolutely no reason to treat them like anything other than digital files. The Dewey Decimal System is a necessary evil – it’s damn hard to find the book that you want in a big physical library, so a librarian called Melvil Dewey came up with a notoriously hard to learn system to order all those books on the shelves. That was back in the 1870s! They didn’t know better. “Computer” back then meant a person who computes
Now why oh why would anyone think that it’s a good idea to reproduce the tedious experience of walking along the shelves of a library in order to find a computer file?

Anyway, since we’re discussing libraries and stupidity, here’s a nice video:

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