Reading the future: Part 2 of 2

Last week in Part 1, I talked about the Espresso book machine: what it is, what it does, and its impact on the modern publishing industry. This week I'd like to suggest a new application for the Espresso that has the potential to dramatically change the print media landscape, as well as the nature of the user's relationship to the product.

The Espresso book machine is currently an awkwardly functional item. If you are looking for a rare or out-of-print book, it's invaluable. However, if you're shopping for anything else in the book store, as most customers are, the Espresso is little more than a grossly over-priced inkjet that can't really help you.

Outside of a perhaps woefully small niche, the book machine has little to offer in its current incarnation. But this is a first generation idea. Down the line, a few versions from now, if we're lucky, we'll see some innovative thinking. To see what is exciting in the future, though, I'm going to take a quick look back into the past.

Consider the Ford Model T. The automobile was priced way beyond the average consumer's means. It lacked the support infrastructure it really required for optimal usage. It even had trouble driving on America's mostly unpaved roads. With all those factors considered, the Model T was a difficult machine to own. That said, the Model T was the harbinger of great things to come. Ford sought to fill a need in the consumer landscape that most thought was (at best) a luxury, or (at worst) a dangerous fancy of the wealthy.

Ford filled this need with a complicated and innovative device, the bleeding edge of technology. In time, the little black buggy's descendants would become the most iconic of American tools, an irreplaceable device used everyday by most adult Americans.

The Espresso book machine has the potential to fill this same roll in our culture. By simply re-aligning the focus of the device, its usefulness to the average consumer is multiplied exponentially.

Imagine stepping into a book store, or a corner deli, or up to a sidewalk newsstand, and instead of grabbing a paper from the stack, you order one up built to your specifications. You don't read the Travel section because it gets you down every time you leaf through it, for example. Have no use for the classifieds right now? Wish you had some of your paper's online blog content in your print edition? With custom print-on-demand at point of sale you could add or subtract the sections of your choosing. Every customer could be the editor-in-chief of their own private international news organization.

For years newspapers have been wondering how they can stay ahead of the 24-hour news cycle curve that the internet created. Today newspapers are out of date by the time they arrive in a reader's hands. By printing at point of sale from a networked device, the content is live and updated until the very moment a customer purchases it.

Subscribing customers could be issued "smart swipe" (or RFID) cards that tell print-on-demand devices exactly which material to spit out. If you wanted to make a change to your daily read, you could update it online like your Netflix queue or your DVR program.

By synching with your RSS, reader the device could recognize which blogs you've already read in the day, and save paper by not printing duplicate information. Or, alternately, it could print out the comment threads those blogs generate during the day for your evening review.

...It sounds like a lot of wasted paper, though, doesn't it, printing out all those articles that you normally would just read on the screen? But consider in comparison the amount of unsold daily newspapers generated every day. By only printing the material consumers need we cut out an astounding quantity of unsold waste.

Printing on demand at the point of sale has other benefits. Costs to publishers are reduced even further by cutting out expensive shipping from the equation. Fewer trucks on the road means lower fuel emissions, something everyone can benefit from even if they never touch one of these devices.

By observing the content customers are purchasing and printing, advertisers can better tailor their messaging. If you're reading a host of content for new mothers, there's no sense in serving up ads for denture fixative. This level of demographic readership knowledge is the holy grail of print advertising. Couple real-time customer information with a google-esque pay-per-ad-served sales model and you've just re-engineered the newspaper business model into a streamlined modern engine.

This revolution need not be limited to the daily rags, magazines, comic books, trade publications could all benefit from this technology. Imagine the ability to purchase academic journals, which are traditionally only available by expensive subscription, for sale on any street corner at a fraction of the current price.

Complaining that internet technology is killing the publishing medium is like starving to death in a car because you didn't know how to turn the key and drive to the store. You have to leverage every tool available to you (and maybe invent some new ones) to stay ahead in the consumer market. Look at the things that aren't working, and figure out what good you CAN get out of them and what must be changed to make them work.

The only thing that beats "free" in the rock, paper, scissors game of capitalism is "convenient," and "convenient" is about the only thing the Espresso book machine has going for it right now. As it stands right now, the Espresso is not the device that can save print media, but it may be prophet for a better time coming. And after a few years of development, who knows?

Reading the future: Part 1 of 2

In the past year I've read a number of articles about the Espresso Book Machine. The item is essentially a vending machine that offers a selection of hundreds of thousands of popular books. It's able to perform this amazing feat by printing and binding the book as you purchase it. By printing on demand, the Espresso doesn't need to be a gigantic machine full of moldering stock no one wants. At the end of the day a worker can simply reload the machine with ink and paper, check to see what titles are selling well or poorly, and be done with it. It's a task more akin to putting toner in a xerox than stocking a bookshelf.

Unfortunately, while the Espresso performs this amazing feat quickly, all told, it does so rather poorly. The end product is wholly black and white and lacks cover art. But at least the books are cheap… right? Well, not exactly. The price for one of these instant pulps is around $43.00 (American). The Dean Koontz paperback you might drop into your beach bag probably set you back 8-10 bucks, and it had cover art.

But this article is not meant to condemn the drolly named Espresso; instead my intention is to peer into the future and see what impact this device might have in our culture. And, if people are paying attention to this technology and thinking along the same lines I am, the Espresso –or machines of its ilk– could metamorphose the consumer media landscape.

The first place I heard talk of the Espresso was from comic author Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Planetary, X-men). He theorized that in the future, people would own devices like the Espresso in their homes, printing and binding books for personal use the same way you run off emails from Grandma or photos from vacations. He goes so far as to reference a thing called Papernet; a sort of hard-copy Napster where authors and consumers trade book files and then create hard copies in their home offices. File > Print > Literature.

Papernet is a lovely idea, but it's also oddly anachronistic. The baroque notion of utilizing bleeding-edge technology to do the work of an ancient form is quaint in its improbability. It would better fit in a steampunk setting than in our real world; it's a throwback to a combination of zeitgeist and technology that never was and never could have been. Ultimately people want one solution or the other: either print or screen reading.

Debating whether or not one reading format will come to dominate the other is futile. I consider myself a futurist, but by no means do I think print is on its way out--but neither are the new organs of reading. It's obvious to all that digital content has toppled more than a few big-name newspapers. This doesn't mean, however, that you should believe any street-corner doomsayer proclaiming that by the end of this (or any) year you'll no longer be able to hear the crinkle of the sports section as you leaf through the morning gazette.

In that big ladder-wrapped New York Times building scraping the sky of 42nd Street, there's an entire floor devoted to research and development. The news giant is thinking about and pouring dollars into new methods of news delivery. David Byrne had a great article about his tour of the facility. Making considerations for existing media devices and thinking about new ones (foldable screens!) is a big step in the right direction.

Eventually the Espresso (and surely some copycat technologies) will find its legs and even its keel, but for now a fifty-dollar book just isn't a supportable model. What is? What can we expect this technology to mean for the the publishing market in years to come? Next week in Part 2 of this article we'll discuss all of that. Stay tuned.

Why medicine commercials are such bitter pills

Sarah Haskins is a comedian and commentator for Current TV. For those who may be unfamiliar, Current is Al Gore's TV network of user-generated content. The network reads a little like Gideon Yago/Morely Safer slash porn with a strong liberal bend and a soundtrack by the kid in your dorm who has a Black Flag tattoo but wants to get it covered up with a Radiohead tattoo. I'm not saying it's a bad network; quite the opposite, in fact. The content is always interesting, often insightful, and usually really well produced. The weekly "Target Women" bit that Sarah Haskins offers up is an example of the network at its best. This week she commented on pharmaceutical advertising:

Haskins presents a pretty interesting observation. Pharma advertising uses and reuses the same weak tropes. The commercials are mostly indistinguishable from one another. Pain relief, allergy medication, antidepressants; even while the products vary widly in application the commercials look to be cut from the same cloth.

But why? Advertising fortunes are made on the backs of Big Pharma contracts. You would think that all that money would buy, if not creative innovation, at least some semblance of originality. Certainly, legal compliance and federal regulations place a lot of limits on advertisers. But even considering these stringent controls, how have we ended up with so many similar ads?

I believe in many cases this startling resemblance is born of laziness. We all know what a pharma commercial looks like, because we've been watching the same one for years now. It's easy to produce this commercial and know that it's consumer-safe. It's the advertising equivalent of Jason Statham movies. Statham shows up in about three movies a year. His films are never blockbuster successes, but they always do all right at the box office. I dare you to clarify the differences between the Transporter, Cellular, War, Revolver, and Chaos (all Statham films, all pretty much about a tough-looking bald guy with a gun and an accent).


The safety of similarity is a cop-out answer. In the end, if you have a headache, there's very little difference between Advil and Tylenol. You would think drug manufacturers would be doing all they can to separate their images from each other, but I suspect their intention is quite the opposite.

Modern pharmaceutical advertising is designed to make it difficult for the consumer to distinguish competing products from one another. By homogenizing the message, every ad you see becomes an ad for every product on the market. These spots aren't so much supposed to inform you of the benefits of a particular medicine as they are designed to remind you that you are sick, or that the potential exists for you to get sick, probably in the very near future.

Now, I'm not suggesting some malevolent advertising conspiracy; that's a ridiculous line of thinking that won't get us anywhere. It is simply worth more to get customers into the drug store aisles looking at product than it is for the same consumers to be sitting on their couch forming opinions about products. No one buys Imodium in their living room.

Consider the following scenario: You're at home after a tedious and perhaps stressful day at work. You are simply happy to have some time to relax at the end of the day. You may have some sinus pressure (or a stress headache, or minor indigestion, or whatever) but you're not even thinking about it, because you're just happy you get to watch Lost (or Current TV?) and eat some Háagen Dazs. A commercial comes on describing all the symptoms you weren't really thinking about but realizing now that you have. Now you're thinking about it, wondering if it's going to get worse. Like a cut in your mouth you can't stop playing with. Maybe you should just take something and stop worrying about it...