The first question from the floor summed it up. "I'm sure I speak for everyone," he said, "when I speak of the sense of gobsmackedness that we are all feeling."
We had just heard Martin Jaques' talk, the LSE lecture: When China Rules the World. He showed us graphs and tables and extrapolations that showed a Chinese economy which, by 2050, will be twice as strong as any other economy in the West. It was a remarkable and compelling talk that had the audience gasping, oohing and aahing. I can't summarise it. Martin Jaques summarized it and it took him over an hour having set off at a cracking pace. His book, of the same title, comes out at the end of June. It'll probably be challenging and it could be a jolting, scary ride. Read it or hide from it. My guess is that within ten or fifteen years the most useful tool in the armoury of any financier will be a solid grounding in Mandarin.
On a less devastating note (at least slightly) was the panel discussion: Brave New World – Rights and Wrongs in the Digital Future. This was all about the rise of the E-book reader. The panel included Steve Haber of Sony, so a good deal of the talk centred around the Sony Reader, who are also one of the sponsors of this year's Hay Festival. I remain a sceptic about E-book readers. I'm yet to see compelling evidence that the device can do any more than a book apart from the ability to carry a library around. Me, I only read one book at a time. E-readers are bigger, you have to charge them up (and with the best will in the world the day will come when you forget to charge it and it will then be just so much ballast until you find a plug socket, and always assuming you've packed your wire and transformer) and it doesn't have pictures, at least not of any reasonable resolution. I often buy books by their cover. Call me shallow, but I suspect I am not alone. Also, drop a paperback into a puddle and you have a damp, curly book. In the unlikely event that it becomes unreadable it only cost you seven or eight quid. Drop an e-reader in a puddle and you're damp from the tears you'll shed. They are a big investment. That leads me to another thing. I buy a book, if it's good I lend it to Sarah. Would we have to buy two e-readers, an e-reader each? You're looking at a £500 investment here. Sorry it doesn't add up.
So imagine my luddite surprise when I discover they've been selling e-readers like hot cakes. I heard a podcast last week where this was discussed, (I think it was on Sofanauts, my current favourite podcast) and they have apparently been selling rather well in the US. I put it down to the Kindle having mobile internet capabilities so I reckoned it was just a blip. (The UK version can't do that, it needs a wire.) Okay, maybe it's a short term thing. I still think people will drift back to books (even if they ever drift away). When I'm on the bus I always like to peek at what other people are reading. Will it come down to – he's got a Kindle and she's got a Sony, I wonder what they've got on there? So far I have NEVER seen anyone reading one on the bus or train. Head in the sand, maybe – they'll never catch on. I bet the Chinese are still reading books.