They say you should never speak ill of the dead, but Steve Jobs, widely considered to be a visionary, and to many a god, made some predictions that suggest he was neither omnipotent nor even particularly far-sighted.
In 2008, for example, he suggested the Amazon Kindle was doomed to failure. Here’s the full quote from the New York Times:
It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore… Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.
Let’s put aside the fact that referring to less than one book is a either a peculiar way of saying “no books” or a missed opportunity to delve into the fascinating world of book fractions. And let’s ignore the fact he was flat out wrong about the success of the device. And let’s, for a moment, look at his reasoning: “People don’t read anymore.”
He said it twice. He must have been sure about it.
The moment I got into copywriting, I heard it, too – and not from the sort of office back-seat drivers who wouldn’t know their arses from their elbows; but from managers and sensible, seasoned colleagues.
The response I gave in my head was always “Then why have you hired me?”
To be fair, those who proffered this advice didn’t mean “everyone is now basically illiterate”. They meant that scanning was the way people “consumed content” online. And there’s a lot of research that tells us this is true.
So perhaps people – and Jobs – should have been saying “people read differently nowadays”.
But I’m not sure if that’s really the case, either.
I’m pretty sure the Kindle went OK after Jobs’ dire soothsaying, and if sales are not necessarily booming at the moment, that’s not because people have given up on books.
I’m also fairly certain that searching for a pertinent piece of information among less relevant detail isn’t something that humans discovered only after the invention of the screen and the pixel.
And I’m convinced that George Tannenbaum is right when he says, on this very subject (which was the inspiration for this post) that:
The fact is, no one reads what’s dull, insipid, smarmily slick, dishonest, shilling, jargony crap. No one reads an in flight magazine, or a message from Sleepy’s, the mattress superstore.
(Gossage died 13 years before Time named the computer the Machine of the Year and Commodore launched the 64.)
Speaking of the Commodore 64, it’s considered the highest-selling computer of all time. By 1994, Commodore International was bankrupt and defunct.
Technology, and the world that shapes it, changes outrageously fast, but it doesn’t tend to change humans – not essentially.
Maybe our attention spans are getting slightly shorter. Maybe Millennials are a touch more impatient than Baby Boomers. Maybe we’re evolving – ever so gradually. Of course we are.
But people still read. And they will for a while yet.