Why Are Tech Bros Trying To ‘Disrupt’ Books, Which They Don’t Even Like?

It’s the beginning of a new year and you might have seen, floating around on social media, lists like 52 Books To Read in 2024 or 42 Books That Will Change Your Life posted by Library Mindset, an account with 4.6 million Instagram followers. You might notice comments on these lists like “Omg I wish all this information was in my head.” You might notice what these books have in common: white backgrounds, almost entirely male authors, a focus almost entirely on business and self-help.

But this isn’t a column about diversity. It’s about more philosophical questions: What are books? What purpose do they serve?

It seems to me that there is a fundamental discrepancy between the way readers interact with books and the way the hack-your-brain tech community does. A wide swath of the ruling class sees books as data-intake vehicles for optimizing knowledge rather than, you know, things to intellectually engage with.

In a world where tech billionaires dominate so much of our culture, it’s troubling to see books treated like mere vessels for self-betterment the way that cold-water therapy and Fitbits are. Some of us enjoy fiction. And color.

I’m not saying that all self-help is bad. There’s always been an audience for short and snappy self-improvement books (there’s a reason why there are only 7 Habits, not 70), and that’s just fine. But I do worry about a larger phenomenon that I’ll call the bulletpointification of books and media.

A recent Blinkist post titled “7 Blinks To Understand the Conflict Between Israel and Hamas,” may give you some idea of the scale of such bullet point derangement.

There’s a reason why Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist is the favorite novel of countless numbers of corporate go-getters and celebrities. It’s a short, shallow parable about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, and it comes with some highly quotable maxims that can serve as inspirational action steps (for instance: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure”). The Alchemist is the ultimate message book, with easy takeaways.

The popularity of book summary services like Blinkist and Shortform is a perfect encapsulation of what gets lost (nuance) in the bulletpointification of books, in which every bit of information is served in digestible bite-sized portions that you can upload right to your brain. A recent Blinkist post titled “7 Blinks To Understand the Conflict Between Israel and Hamas,” may give you some idea of the scale of such bullet point derangement, as if a blink was a proper unit of measurement to use to understand a genocide happening before the world’s eyes.

I have seen many VC-funded book startups come and go, usually led by well-intentioned people who think they have a good idea about how to “save” books. Remember all of the startups saying that they would be the Netflix of books? The latest bunch of startups that are for sure going to “fix” what’s wrong with books are focused on AI.

Yann LeCun, the chief AI scientist at Meta, proposed in a tweet about AI assistants that if Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media defines books as “a user interface to knowledge,” then AI assistants are poised to become “a better user interface to knowledge.” Peter Wang, CEO of a software company that deals with machine learning and AI, chimed in to predict that publishers would stop publishing straightforward books, and instead put out “nuggets of thought that can interact with the ‘reader’ in a dynamic and multimedia way.” He calls these new book products (which are basically just reinvented enhanced ebooks that were supposed to be the next big thing circa 2010) thunks.

THUNKS! I truly thought he was joking!

In July of 2023 Elizabeth Minkel wrote an excellent piece for Wired about why she believes that generative AI won’t be the next technology to disrupt books: “Many of the people looking to “fix” things couldn’t actually articulate what was broken—whether through their failure to see the real problems facing the industry (namely, Amazon’s stranglehold), or their insistence that books are not particularly enjoyable as a medium.”

Yes! Business books are good for business but is the business mindset good for books? Too many entrepreneurs come into the book space and don’t realize that the majority of readers love to get lost in books and to ponder them and process them and to argue with our friends about them.

With the rise of year-end reading goals on sites like Goodreads, even those of us who actually like to read can get caught up in the commodification of reading, where productivity must increase year over year. Optimization and efficiency leave very little room for meandering walks with great big books that require deep thought and engagement. And I don’t know about you but that’s what I love about literature the most.

As my friend, the novelist Isle McElroy, so aptly put it, “so weird when people read a novel looking for answers. novels are questions. question after question after question.” Reading does not guarantee moral certitude, nor will any individual book be able to undo systemic problems. But being able to sit with nuance and contradiction and complexity can make readers become more discerning consumers of media, and coming up on the 2024 election that could only be a good thing.

As industries like book publishing become more and more tech-focused, it would be wise to remember that raw data alone is not helpful; it’s the interpretation that matters.

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