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Outdated Limitations

I love learning about industries outside of my own. There are many parallels to be found, and those parallels can make aspects of my work more clear because of their distance from my immediate concerns.

It’s rumored that the CD can play back 74 minutes of music because when it was developed, the president of Sony’s favorite symphony was Beethoven’s Ninth, which was 74 minutes long. He wanted to deliver a format that would play his favorite symphony in its entirety, and that determined the size of the now-ubiquitous (and outdated) CD.

Consider that this decision has resulted in a generation of music defined by a 74 minute cutoff. Songs have been scrapped from famous albums, left on the cutting room floor, because they wouldn’t fit within that framework. Likewise, songs that maybe should have been left on the cutting room floor have been added to albums, to flesh out a collection that otherwise would have seemed too short in an age where 74 minutes is synonymous with ‘album duration.’

The history of music is one tale after another of technology guiding sound. The advent of 45s changed the amplitude and volume of the music recorded, and the rise of cassettes did the same. Each new technology brought with it different strengths and weaknesses, and the music shifted to adjust to these variables. Gig bands had to change their sound entirely once they started recording, because some elements of their music didn’t sound right once committed to wax. Today it’s the same, whether the medium is magnetic tape, laser-etched polycarbonate, or 1’s and 0’s.

Just as music technology has warped and shifted and sanded and pruned the music we listen to, so has publishing technology changed the way we perceive and imbibe books, essays, and other written work.

For a very long time, a ‘book’ was a printed work of a certain length, and that length was set by how many pages it was economical to print using existing technologies. Just as CDs were definde by the somewhat arbitrary length of a specific symphony, the length of books were determined by the economics of the physical vehicle used to deliver the words (the paper, ink, and book-binding materials), rather than the words themselves.

This state of affairs is changing fast. Today, print on demand technologies have made printing and delivering physical books far less costly, and as a result, a book can be nearly any length the author desires. The age of trimming down or fluffing up a book to suit the ideals of the printing process are behind us in a practical sense.

That doesn’t mean we’ve moved on in perception, however. We’re still in a transition stage in determining what length a book should be. Our experiences with books for generations has been the same — same length, same look, same texture and weight — and it will be some time before we can fully move on to new standards, and feel the same nostalgia for a 70-page book as a 250-page book. It will likely be even longer before we can accept a book without weight, a book with interactive media, a book that doesn’t feel like a book. Eventually these things will become commonplace, and new standards will arise that kill our perception of how ebooks should be. It’s the nature of nostalgia to cling to things that remind us of moments in time, and new technologies, and the work produced with them, lack such history.

Like music, though, publishing will change. Like songs, the written word will adjust to fit the confines of its new technological reality. And like recorded sounds, this will be amazing in some ways, leading to new innovations and concepts and experiences, and in other ways it will kill the magic of what we’ve come to know. It will be uncomfortable and disconcerting. It will be a process some will work through, while others cling to the familiar at the expense of their exposure to novelty.

I think there’s value to be had in both old and new, and I think many other people share this feeling. You can see this in the analog movement in the music world, and a similar movement happening within publishing, with a renewed focus on handmade and limited editions physical works. These throwback methods work best, I think, when paired with forward-facing digital editions, but there will be some who will always prefer the old to the exclusion of the new, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s value in both tradition and innovation.

One takeaway from this is that there are numerous limitations put on our work that exist only because of tradition, not because they’re still actual anchors on our creativity. The length of books is a great example: many authors write books of about the same length because that’s the length of book we’ve grown up with. What if we wrote books that were 3000 pages long? What if we wrote books that were less than a page long? What would that look like? What kinds of stories could we tell?

Consider that you may be operating under similar limitations, and that you may be capable of a massive breakthrough if you’re willing to move past established convention and play in the wilderness. Consider that you may be a prisoner of outdated limitations, and that the only way to know whether you want to continue adhering to them — or would prefer to establish new limitations, based on variables you care about — is to step outside the walls and play.