Are you an avid book reader and haven’t got a Kindle? You may want to try it. Digital consumption of books has improved my enjoyment of reading in three ways. Peace of mind: I know I can download a book anywhere I happen to be, I no longer have to worry about running out of books (I travel a lot). Readability: I can standardize the size of the font, I can adjust the text displayed on the reading device itself rather than having to adjust the focal point of my eyes by wearing a passive device on my nose (I’m pushing on 50). Multi-tasking: when I come across a word whose meaning I don’t precisely know, I can highlight it and its definition pops up (like most people, my curiosity is often overridden by laziness).
Against this, resisters proclaim that they’ll never give up the sense of smell and touch of their beloved books. They may not, but their children most certainly will. Literature itself has no smell and touch, we only project the sensory attributes based on our personal past experiences. Are you missing the horsy smell in your parking garage?
Notice that few if any of the benefits that I’ve mentioned so far –ubiquitous availability, vision aids, dictionary look-ups— would normally be considered essential features of packaged literature. Yet they are important because in our minds we consider the whole experience around consuming literature. And if there’s one thing that the digital world does well, it’s creating much broader customer experiences around basic acts – like shopping or reading.
In the physical world usefulness is about the product, usability is mainly about the packaging, and convenience is largely about the (sales and service) channel. In the digital world, these notions of usefulness, usability and convenience become blurred. In which category would you put the peace of mind, font-size control and multi-tasking benefits I spoke of above? That’s what makes the Kindle so powerful: it’s just so… integrated.
You consider me a technofile? What’s remarkable about the Kindle is how retrograde it is. As Gabriel Zaid points out in So Many Books, e-books are a return to the scroll as a linear textual format rather than the more flexible codex format consisting of discrete pages. And with that we lose the ability to easily browse the book, to make sense of it more comprehensively. Reading an e-book is now experientially more akin to watching a movie on DVD: we can only alter the normal temporal sequence in clumsy spurts.
And just like it’s hard to browse within e-books, it becomes more difficult to affix them in our memories. You can’t mark up bits or write notes on the margin, which we often do more to enhance our mental retention than for future reference. E-books leave no idle cues in our lives to remind us about them (unless you make it a habit to actively search your hard disk). I even find myself not remembering the title of the book I am currently reading on my Kindle, because when I start it opens straight to page one and subsequently it opens to the page where I last left off. You may never get to see the book’s cover. This is a clear area for product improvement.
I suppose that this loss of browsing versatility and reading memories is precisely what people mean when they express attachment to the tactile experience of reading books. Until solutions for these side effects aren’t found, I fully expect physical books to continue to exist alongside e-books. Old technologies will survive as long as there are entrenched use cases that the new technology model cannot support. For some kinds of books (books you want to study attentively, picture books, maybe poetry), the ability to browse is essential.
What does all this tell us about the opportunity from digital financial services in developing countries? The unique opportunity from going digital is in creating better customer experiences with enough hooks into your mental models and habits and minimizing your daily frustrations. It need not be at all about conceiving of superior products, such as a never-though-of before savings account. In the same way as e-books are more akin to ancient scrolls than the codices that came afterwards, digital financial services may actually be much more limited in what they offer than conventional financial services (think M-PESA here). We cannot judge mass-market financial services by some abstract notion of need or usefulness; what matters is how readily people can incorporate them into their daily life. (See in this context Susan Johnson’s analysis of how M-PESA connected with people’s informal money practices in Kenya.)
In addition, like physical books, cash has certain crucial characteristics which are very hard to replicate digitally. The fact that cash enjoys universal acceptance, no questions asked, while e-money depends on the availability of acceptance devices. The anonymity of cash versus the traceability of e-money. The fact that notes are fixed-denomination instruments, while e-money entails exposing the full balance of your account. Each of these benefits of physical cash translates into irreplaceable use cases. So I for one firmly believe that physical cash will co-exist with digital money for a long time, if not forever. Which is why my interest is in finding ways to make physical and digital money interwork better, rather than in replacing cash.
Originally published 27th March 2013 by Ignacio Mas
Reader Comments (2)
I realized paper was on its way out as a medium when my son, perusing our physical newspaper, unthinkingly placed two fingers on an interesting photo and slid them apart, expecting the photo to enlarge, as it should on any good reading medium.
"Oh", he said. "Paper".
That we subscribe to The Oregonian at all is more an act of civic duty than a desire for another news source: why would we waste time with news that is already twelve hours old, and doesn't have links to videos or other sources? What's more, I can't chat with far-away friends in the background while I'm reading the front page, I can't cut and paste, I can't forward links, and when my wife and I work the NY Times Sunday Crossword puzzle, we have to use a pencil which occasionally pokes holes in the newsprint.
But the result is that I end up too much of the time picking and choosing the news that agrees with my world view. I read Huff Post about a gazillion times more often than I read the Drudge Report. The Oregonian on the other hand has a small number of columnists that do a fairly good job of representing divergent points of view, and even though I know I'm right about almost everything, it can't hurt to stumble across some other opinions now and again.
Similarly, the Internet concentrates power, wealth and influence in the hands of a few mega corporations. Portland Oregon, where I live, is generally blessed by the absence of big box stores, and we have a wonderful variety of quirky one-of-a-kind retailers. But like everyone else, we have Amazon, and it is so so easy to use one-click shopping. The benefit and the cost of shopping on line is the same: I avoid having to walk to the train (time consuming but pleasant exercise, and a chance to greet the neighbors); taking the train to town (quick, cheap since I'm now an 'honored citizen', and I get to see and chat with strangers), walk to the shop, discover what is and isn't actually in stock, risk disappointment at not finding what I want, and repeat the travel in reverse to get back home. (And, of course, while I talk of walking to the train, we are much more likely to hop in the car, I'm sad to say).
My daughter once said why she loved shopping at Goodwill: "When you go in a regular store or on line, and you see something that you like, you know they have your size so you can buy it. But when you see something you like at Goodwill, you don't know if it is your size, so there is this exciting moment while you are waiting to find out if it fits you."
I think there are lots of good reaso
ns to appreciate community based savings led financial services, but your article helped me realize one of the reasons why I love savings groups, and my own savings group in Portland. They are quirky, they involve risk, they have unknowns, they involve lots of human contact, and they force me to deal with humanity as it is, not as humanity has been aggregated by distant algorithms. They are Goodwill as opposed to Amazon, the Oregonian as opposed to the Huffington Post.
Fri, March 29, 2013 | Paul Rippey
Hi Paul. Yes, I agree: with digital content you have a lot more choice, but people may in the end find less diversity within that choice. It all depends on how they choose to use the digital services.
Your story indeed fits entirely within the main point I was trying to make: sometimes things that are important to you about a product are not actually expressed directly in the product itself but in the experiences it triggers. I often say that in microfinance there is a disease going around called productitis which causes people to devote themselves entirely to inventing new product features (if only we were clever enough to figure out the account tweak that will make everyone want to save!), while neglecting the often much more important context within which the product will be used.
Sun, March 31, 2013 | Ignacio