Of books, stone tablets, and the Internet
19 December 2005, Around lunch time
In a comment on an old post, I was asked what I thought of the future of books; will they die out, etc.
I see books as yet another instance in our society of a technology that is used in documents, beginning say with stone tablets, going to papyrus, vellum scrolls, books, etc. Each technology has had its "day", and yet we still use all of these technologies in one way or another - think of a plaque, isn't it a kind of stone tablet?
Documents have three aspects: technology, form, and use. A novel, for example, is meant to be a long work of prose that is leisure reading material; as such, the novel arose around the same time as the book technology, because that technology is a great and efficient way of holding a whole bunch of pages together, which none of the previous technologies really excelled at. It wouldn't work in stone tablet form, or at least it'd be prohibitively expensive to produce. Take receipts as another example: Does a cashier receipt from the convenience store really need to be verbose? No! You know what you're looking at because it always uses the same form, so it might as well use a kind of shorthand for efficiency. Same with the technology; people complain that the ink disappears, but really, do you need to keep a receipt from a convenience store for that long?
Attach:Books/Books/scrolling.jpg Δ I take many of my ideas from this book, which I highly recommend: Scrolling Forward by David M. Levy. I also highly recommend on this topic his talk at the Library of Congress (he's currently the holder of the Harissios Papamarkou Chair in Education and Technology at the Kluge Center) called Reading: from the Fixed Page to Movable Electrons.
So, I don't think that books will disappear, because I think they will continue to be a useful technology with certain forms and uses, in the creation of certain kinds of documents. Take the novel, for example; while e-Books definitely have their place, a novel isn't the same presented as a digital copy as it is in print. It is just a different experience to read something on a screen. I do think that less books will be printed as people realize that they can create a different kind of document digitally, one that is equally satisfying; but I think novels and books are intertwined in a way that you can't pick apart. You can't change the technology in a vacuum; once you change the technology, you've effected the use and the form as well.
Well, that's all for now. What do you think? Blog