21 October 2009

Don't turn the page on the humble book

I’m going to start today’s entry with a little parable. Don’t worry; this will make sense with what’s coming after it.

Euripides rolled up the papyrus scroll and placed it on the table with nearly a dozen others containing the original of Aeschylus, the Greek playwright. The scrolls were among the million or so that made the Library at Alexandria one of the marvels of the modern world. As he rolled up the scroll, he turned to his co-worker, Hypatia.
“You know, this place is great and all, but is it really a smart idea to have all of our ideas in one place?” he asked. “I mean, paper burns, right?”
“Oh, come on,” Hypatia said. “This is Egypt. Nothing’s going to happen to us, or to this library…”

Of course, that proved to be untrue. The library was burned to the ground in 391 AD as part of Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all "pagan" (non-Christian) temples. Now, nearly 2,000 years later, not one of the million scrolls remains. Why? In my opinion, this happened because the Egyptians put all of their eggs in one basket. They thought, as I’m sure we do now, that their information was going to be somehow permanent because of it, but history, as it often does, has other plans.
I was reminded of this while making breakfast this morning, while a host on NPR was discussing how Barnes and Noble, the venerable bookseller (and one of my former employers) was getting into the business of developing their own electronic reading device to compete with Kindle.
The device, called a “Nook,” sounds impressive. According to an article in Wired.com, it can hold digital versions of 1,500 books. The Nook also comes with built-in WiFi, 2GB of internal storage and an MP3 player. If you go by features alone, it beats a book hands-down.
In fact, in a digital age, it makes sense to NOT make books: you have to cut down trees, make the paper, print to pages, bind them, ship them, and finally, hire some snotty kid who just graduated from St. Cloud State with a journalism degree to sell them for $7 an hour. A digital book, on the other hand, exists as the sort of miraculous “ones-and-zeroes” that make our modern lives possible. It’s cleaner – it doesn’t create paper waste, doesn’t involve manufacturing in the traditional sense, and, best of all, it’s sold by computer, not a snotty college kid.
Here’s my worry with this stuff. For now, the humble book is more or less holding its own as the dominant literary format, but the Internet, and devices like the Kindle and Nook, are closing the gap with each passing year. It’s like cell phones were in the 1990s – a luxury item that now, a mere decade later, is a ubiquitous household fixture. I could foresee a future where the book is eventually eclipsed by these sorts of electronic mediums – mediums that require infrastructure, power, constant Microsoft updates, etc.
The ancient Egyptians were probably much like we are: smugly confident that whatever we build will last forever, that nothing will ever happen to the sorts of self-aggrandizing towers we build for ourselves. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and all it would take to have our own “Library at Alexandria” moment is for a series of solar flares to destroy all that we have worked so hard to create – including the digitally-store knowledge we’ve accumulated along the way. Here’s where books come into their own. Unlike their digital brethren, the only things they require to operate are a decent light source.

I’m not against digital progress. But at the same time, I think humanity needs to temper this desire to relentlessly “improve” everything to death. Our world, and our society, is more fragile than any of us would like to imagine, and if the unthinkable were to happen, I’d like to know that all that we’ve learned along the way would not be lost because we converted it into a format that ceases to exist when the society that created it does.
We shouldn't face the prospect of an intellectual dark age simply because we ran out of battery power.

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