Future of the Book I

by rsbakker

Daily aphorism: The world is a supermax prison. If you see the light, it means the guards have foiled your attempt to escape.

John Barber, a regular for the G&M, has started a series of stories on the future of the book. So I thought I would tag along in my parasitic way. In this first article he critiques the conventional assessment, suggesting that the flame of literature is alive and well, despite all the professorial handwringing over the death of the book. He cites Raymond Mar, a cognitive psychologist at that bastion of bureaucratic dysfunction, York University, who makes an apparently pretty optimistic induction: the book survived film, radio, and television, so it will survive the internet as well.

Of course this reasoning is solid only if the analogy holds between those past technological innovations and what we’re experiencing today – which it obviously does not. First, it’s not the ‘internet’ which is the culprit, it’s information technology in general. Ghettoizing the culprit makes the problem seem more manageable. Second, the difference between information technology and the analogue technologies he invokes could not be any more stark. A radio finds its place within a realm of uses, and stays there. The same for film. The same for television. Information technology, which allows the innovation of innumerable virtual machines – iclones call them ‘apps’ – just refuses to stay put. We are standing on technological marbles today in way that is utterly unprecedented.

The transition is actually more analogous to the dawn of writing systems and literacy. The question we then need to ask is whether the bard survived the book, which he did not. This gives us grounds for a pessemistic induction regarding the book in the coming digital madness.

This is why I’m inclined to be pessemistic about the books future. I’m squarely with those futurists who think that all business models that rely on the propriety control of information – the ‘book,’ remember, is inseparable from the commercial practices that make it possible – are in for a hard ride.

To whit, the music industry. I was in HMV yesterday and was astounded to find them selling books, as well as twice as many movies as CDs. It’s if they’ve decided to hoard all the endangered species together in their bid to make a living off information.