02 December 2012

Book Apocalypse-Not Now

Almost as soon as e-books came on the scene, there have been talks of the demise of the book as we have long known it. These doomsday predictions are far from being true. While rapid technological reform (a more accurate term than 'progress' I think) has become the norm in today's world, it is far too soon to make such a forecast about books. E-books have been on the market in a significant way since just the mid-2000s; the codex has existed in virtually unchanged form for more than 1,500 years. In just that short time, we have already discovered that the amazing convenience and storage capacity of e-readers come with a price, with draconian (i.e. anti-sharing and ownership) DRM policies and rapid generational updates ensuring that e-readers function without some of the most useful features of the traditional codex.


While I am quick to refute those who claim the traditional book has run its course, I am often disappointed by the overly-sentimental apologias that are usually put forward by defenders of the traditional codex. The chorus of sappy humanists defending books on the basis of emotional significance and sensory experience (see here and here) does contain a few grains of truth, but books don't need such a subjective appeal in their defense. It makes for nice drama and all, but the traditional codex will not continue to endure because of its emotional power (or use as an ironic prop), but rather due to their remarkable technological persistence. The practical value of books lies in their function and design-not aesthetics.

Their relative youth aside, the future of e-books begins to look even more dodgy when one considers the problems with media persistence and obsolescence that are now being confronted by librarians, archivists, and technologists everywhere. Paper will survive for a few hundred years if left alone in a cool, dry place. The definitive lifespan of CDs, DVDs, harddrives, and other electronic files is still relatively unknown, but many experts are not putting it past 20-50 years, in ideal conditions. In addition, the traditional codex has undergone some cosmetic alterations over its long lifespan, but its basic structure remains relatively unchanged. The Kindle, on the other hand, is on its 5th generation in five years. Goodness, Microsoft isn't even offering full support for Office 2003 anymore. Can we be sure how long someone can expect to get help with their 1st generation Kindle? I hope no one has ever had to resort to calling a helpdesk to figure out how a book works (although it is an often over-looked reality that illiteracy is still a modern problem).

Until e-readers are free of their battery life, irritating DRM, and the obsessive drive for product innovation, I am sticking with good old paper. I can own them and share them and not worry about my out-of-print books dissolving into digital oblivion.

I hope humanity doesn't amount to this in a few decades:

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