I wonder if JWs are currently undergoing a more significant transformation than generally appreciated. And I wonder if the drivers for that change are a combination of legal, economic, and technological factors.
Legal challenges changed JWs stance of whether they are a "religion" with "ministers", in the 1950s, and stopped them charging for the literature in the 1990s. Economic challenges have produced all sorts of cutbacks in literature and branch facilities in recent years. These drivers of change are much discussed.
But I want to focus on the impact of changing reading technology.
Changing reading technology has long been analysed as an important factor in the development of early Christianity. Some have argued, for example, that books of the New Testament such as Luke, Acts and John are roughly the size of text that will comfortably fit on an average length scroll. So the technology of the time may have dictated the length of some NT writings.
Christians adopted the Codex format very early and soon a number of long texts could be combined within a single Codex. This may have affected the formation of the canon as the four gospels, letter collections and so on could easily be brought together as larger units.
Use of the Codex also served the function of distinguishing Christian texts from Jewish texts which continued to be transmitted on scrolls. Codices were also cheaper, easier to produce and transport. Some were made as rough private copies and others had a more professional finish. All this impacted the character and growth of early Christianity with social and economic implications.
The history and course of early Christianity is closely bound up with the reading technology it employed.
The same is true with modern day JWs/Bible Students in a number of significant respects. Therefore the recent move away from printed books and emphasis on tablets and ebooks may be highly significant and suggestive of further developments.
The Bible Students took advantage of the favourable climate for religious magazine publishing the late nineteenth century. In fact they excelled as perhaps no other. They have also taken advantage of book technology in the promotion of their beliefs in Africa and elsewhere.
When the organisation is viewed primarily as a publishing company then its claims of exclusivity at various stages of development are elucidated. For example many of the earliest disputes between Russell and his aqaintainces were essentially disagreements about who had rightful ownership of subscription lists, and editorial structure. Problems intimately tied to the religious publishing industry.
Later when successor Rutherford expelled members such as William Schnell and Olin Moyle, often disagreements about book publishing and sales were at the root. For example a careful reading of "Thirty Years a Watchtower Slave" suggests that Schnell attempted to establish a book selling company that rivalled (in a small way) the Watchtower, and this lay at the heart of the disjuncture.
Many of the exclusive claims of the Watchtower, even the doctrine of the "faithful slave" itself can be read simply as attempts to convince consumers of their published material not to give business to rival vendors.
In more recent times the organisation has strongly discouraged JWs from researching and publishing their own material on Bible topics. Stoops (an American company that sells books and stationary and other items useful to JWs) and other fringe JW businesses have been tolerated if they don't infringe on the central area of competence of the WT producing religious material.
Even when encouraging JWs to learn foreign languages to preach, the organisation has been wary about brothers promoting outside language learning aids and sought to fill the niche to some extent itself.
But if JWs are moving out of print publishing, doesn't this perhaps change... everything? Not overnight and not consciously, but in fundamental and enduring ways,
I guess, most fundamentally of all, if the Watchtower organisation no longer relies for its very survival upon consumers of their material exclusively purchasing their print material, might this alter their exclusivist claims? If other people selling religious books is no longer a threat to their core activity, might that change their rhetoric and approach long term. And I really mean long term, because old habits die hard and attitudes are deeply ingrained. But as new generations of leaders come and go, and there is no longer any organisational necessity to forbid outside publishing, might the prohibitions relax? The exclusivist claims recede?
This is only one area in which changing reading technology may affect the structure and outlook of the organisation. It may also impact the sense of community and history, as physical libraries are downscaled or decommissioned. No longer will future JWs pick up old study books full of underlining and annotation. JW books won't be found in outside libraries and thrift stores.
Long JW books used to be 400 pages upwards, and classic "small" books were 192 pages. The lengths (as for early Christians) was dictated by technology. This time the set up of the printing presses plus the general expectation of how long a "book" should be. As the WT moves away from physical publishing, the length of its "books", their format, character, and function may develop in subtle but significant new ways. Books that were once objects to be bought, stored, cherished and adored, are now downloaded, used and cross referenced for a limited time. This may change not only the physicality, but the actual content,
Two things I notice about recent depictions of reading technology in the WT literature: 1) Kingdom Halls are depicted as full of brothers and sisters using tablets rather than physical magazines and books and 2) pictures of the new system still depict believers using traditional book format rather than new technology. I don't know whether this says more about the idealised, almost primitive conception of paradise, or the eagerness for brothers to adopt new technology in the present system.
Compare the brother using a tablet in the KH on page 25 with books in the new system on page 13.
In any case I reckon the change in reading technology and practice among JWs currently taking place is highly significant and may have long lansting and deep ramifications. The early Christian adoption of the Codex or book format had vast historical ramifications. And as a technology it endured for nearly 2000 years. The significance of moves away from published physical books among JWs must be viewed in that sort of context. We are only scratching the surface at the moment,