Monday, August 6, 2007

The Expresso Machine

There is a new contraption on display in Washington DC, Alexandria, Egypt and Mid-town Manhattan. A Rube Goldberg device that hums, sputters, spits, moans and ultimately belches out a warm new book -- gives a new meaning to “hot of the press”. The contraption is the Espresso Book Machine.

It’s not pretty, but it works. Select a title and twenty minutes later you have a bound hard-copy book (complete with cover) to take with you. Click here to see a demonstration of the machine work

On Demand Books, the maker of these machines was co-founded by a former Random House Editor, Jason Epstein. He sees this machine as a solution for a single problem: the unavailable backlist. I see it as yet one more attempt to make books more accessible.

I remember sitting at Kodak headquarters in Rochester, New York about fifteen years ago and listening to one of the engineers describe a kiosk with CDs, a printer and a binding machine. The engineering drawings didn’t look a whole lot different than the current espresso machine.

The technology has changed, but the idea remains intact. Fifteen years ago CDs were an exciting step forward in redefining the book. Makes me wonder where technology will take us next.

I also find in curious that we are still stuck on the idea that a book has to be printed and have a 4 color cover. Any blogger can create more interesting and sophisticated literature in a few minutes complete with live links and interactive video. But I digress.

When you see this machine you have to wonder what this all means on a cultural and societal level. Will bookstores become ‘Kinkoish’ storefronts patronized by the very old and the most stubborn of Luddites who still require something as quaint as paper (after all, there are still those who actually still use an IBM selectric).

I am not convinced that this machine will be any more successful than the Kodak idea, but I am always intrigued by machines. . .

After the fascination with the machinery fades, however, I go back to wondering about how we will read in the future. I for one do not believe that reading will go away but that what we read and how we read it is bound to change. And more significantly, the whole idea of what a book is will change dramatically in my life time.

So, what will the book of the future look like? Will it be a dedicated electronic device like the Sony e-ink reader? Will we go back to scrolls using a version of the new OLED technology? Will the young and hip carry electronic documents on their phones and never touch paper again? Will libraries be able to replace their paper book selections in 25 years as the old ones fall apart from overuse?

I have lots of questions and no real answers. What I do know is that technology is moving faster than our understanding of how it will affect our culture. I find this both energizing and frightening – endless possibilities always are!

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