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Will digital books rule any more than digital money?

posted Mar 27, 2013, 11:42 AM by Ignasi Mas

 [From SavingsRevolution blog, 27 March 2013] 

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-thought-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.