Will books die off with digital immigrants?

Darren Neimke has posted up another installment of his podcast with a focus on how he optimises his information consumption. One of the interesting tidbits is that he doesn’t really read technical books anymore. This actually spun off a thread on our internal mailing list where some folks said that they are having trouble giving up books and that they still find them as a valuable source of information.

It is an interesting discussion and I have to say that I have all but given up using technical books as a source of information myself. I find that the wealth of information available in reference documentation and on the blogs of product teams more than enough for my purposes but maybe there is more to it than “I like books” or “I don’t like books”.

A book is a very sequential piece of media, for example a novel tells a story from beginning to end. Even with technical books, unless it is specifically constructed as a random access reference you typically have to read through it beginning to end just once (if only to build an internal cache in your brain that you can then randomly access).

For stories the sequential access model makes a lot of sence and if I look at the books I do read they are usually just SciFi books, and even then 90% of the time they are in an e-book format (a little promise of reducing paper consumption that I try to keep to myself).

Technical knowledge however is not linear, in fact if you have ever tried to piece together a training course around a computing platform like .NET you know just how much of a chicken and egg scenario it really is where you need to tell half-truths to get over a lump before you full-truth can be revealed. The fact is that the sequential access method just doesn’t work for technical knowledge and this is perhaps why we see more and more information finding a natural home on the web where it can be hyperlinked.

Using a web-style navigation system allows knowledge to be consumed in a manner that the suits the reader and as Darren points out, it allows people to zoom-in on what they are really interested in.

So here is a question – are books, especially those books that aren’t for the purpose of telling stories best off on the web, and, are books in general going to die off when digital natives are the majority? What about after the first generation of kids where every child carries a mobile computer to school instead of a backpack full of books? Then maybe?


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