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February 09, 2006

Vanity of the Physical Word

Back in the days when the only people who knew the Internet were people who had read Ed Krol's book we all understood something to be true: All information could be digitized and searchable. Back in the glory days of Panix.com, the first ISP, we would WAIS and Gopher and Archie ourselves into a pleasant oblvion of treasure hunts through the then sparsely populated and scantily indexed 'net. It wasn't even the world wide web (that's what 'www' means, by the way) because it didn't even span the globe. So when Project Gutenberg came along, we knew we were on the edge of a new world.

Of course, nobody took us seriously. Nobody believed that money could be made or attention could be maintained. It has taken roughly a dozen years, and now the implications of the thing we all knew, Moore's Law, has made the improbable, reality. And so today Google blows people's minds. It shouldn't. We've wanted this all along.

So their spat with publishers was entirely predictable, but here's the thing. Books don't move. Books are for sitting still, taking your time, working alone in relative quiet. Knowledge and information are useful all of the time, and those restrictions limit the usability of books. There was a time when it didn't matter that books didn't move, because nobody did business any other way. But now we in the IT /Software/Telecom industries require that information previously jailed in books move. The information outside of books now dwarfs that inside.

What I am doing with music, I expect soon to do with books. What am I doing with music? I am buying it piece by piece and recalling it at will. Today I can listen to The Family, George Duke, and St. Etienne on the same CD, in my car, from my laptop, from my phone or over my home theatre. When I want, how I want. I manage a huge library. I'll do the same with written material in the future. When I want to recall that passage from 'Dry September' or from 'Battle Royale' that intrigued me in highschool, I can bring it up. Maybe it costs me a nickel. Maybe it costs me a dollar.

Remember. There was a time, just 10 years ago, when eBay didn't exist. The very idea seemed impossible. People scoffed at Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com. Right now, people doubt the poltical influence of the blogosphere. There are certain fights not worth fighting. It doesn't make sense to fight the digitization of the information in books.The very crux of this matter is this - did Shakespeare write, "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well"?. No, but that is the most popular adaptation into television. Chances are more people have learned it the wrong way. Some may not even know it to be Shakespeare. One of these days, coming soon, we will consume cultural knowledge from around the globe the same way we sample food and music. If the authentic producers don't get with the digital program we will live in a world of Chef Boyardee info.

The obvious lack of mobility for non-digitized documents can be an asset or a liability, as folks on the Google Blog note:

"Nature, politics and war have always been the mortal enemies of written works," she said. "Most recently, Hurricane Katrina dealt a blow to the libraries of the Gulf Coast. At Tulane University, the main library sat in nine feet of water -- water that soaked the valuable Government Documents collection: more than 750,000 items -- one of the largest collections of government materials in Louisiana -- 90 percent of it now lost."

A book is a form of a document, and document is a loaded word, coming as I do from Xerox. Don't fence it in.

I enjoy the vanity of the physically printed word. I would love to be able to order books printed to spec, just like those custom collections they used to sell on TV like so many KTel album collections. Dear Barnes & Noble, I would like to order a fresh printing of a leather bound 'Gullivers Travels' and a new paperback copy of 'Oliver Twist'. James Frey's book, I'll take as a PDF.

Posted by mbowen at February 9, 2006 09:23 AM

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While I'd never want to return to the day when the net and computers were not ubiquitous, I find myself curiously unable to adapt to electronic forms of information at times. While trying to master C++, for instance, I found book as pdfs of no use, because my learning style required sticking my thumb between pages and flipping back and forth. I thought I could simulate this with multiple open files, but found the kinesthetic aspect to be important. I wonder if the advent of e-books, with e-ink or rollup displays and all will change this.

This sort of technology, incidentally, is why I did a PhD in materials chemistry, but I found myself nagged by the thought that there would still be part of the experience lacking, at least to those of us who grew up with books. There is a physicality involved in the process of reading and learning that the book provides to some.

Posted by: Dave Eaton at February 9, 2006 01:34 PM

I agree 100%. There is a special experiential dimension to reading books and working with paper that enhances the learning process. I think there's something very powerful about 'finger memory'. A pal of mine is a musician who says there is nothing quite as intellectually stimulating and challenging as playing an instrument while listening to fellow musicians and improvising simultaneously.

So I think people should pay a premium for physical books and I don't think publishers should consider the existence of online publications as a threat to their profits. But as with the music business, there is going to be a real distinction between what kinds of content makes best sense in which medium.

I cannot imagine, for example, learning calculus out of anything but a fat textbook. When I first paid something like 70 bucks for my first Salas & Hille, I couldn't imagine why it might be worth that much money. Likewise I find it almost impossible to learn a new programming language in any other form than an O'Reilly volume. There are a great number of qualities that make that form worth it.

On the other hand, I find Rocketboom takes a lot of time to get used to seeing on my Tivo, but dropping by the website is rather cool. Google Video works perfectly for certain types of content.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 01:45 PM

Good points. I remember similar choking when I realized my physics and math books would cost about 25 times what my English major roommate paid for his complement of books in a semester (our subsequent employment and remuneration convinces me that I made a better choice economically, but it was hard to take then.)

Your original post hits around something I was thinking about when fiddling with Lego Mindstorms with my 9 year old the other night. I was about his age when a buddy down the street got a TRS80 and we started poking at it. It occurred to me that I spent the first decade of my life without computers, or cable, or the inkling that there could be the kind of interconnectedness or quick access to knowledge that my boy considers normal (or more likely, doesn't consider at all, because it's the background of everyday life to him.) My son and I are from different worlds, in a way.

Like you say, what you do with one kind of data, you can in principle do with another, and the means to manipulate music or literature or tech data or art as iformation seemslikely to become even more widespread. The driving forces for these technologies must be huge.

It is an interesting time to be around. I am especially interested to see what will emerge to allow more and more of these things to converge in a way that is seamless.

Posted by: Dave Eaton at February 9, 2006 02:18 PM

Hot damn, Michael, is that a slide rule in your hand in your masthead photo?

Did you have to learn to use one of those in high school? We had a 'quantitative physical science ' course freshman year where we learned to use them. I learned plenty about significant figures and estimation that a calculator would never tell you, as well as having a physical manifestation of the power and utility of logarithms in my hand. Ties in nicely with the 'Vanity of the physical world' theme, too. You already had my attention and respect, but double props for the slide rule.

Posted by: Dave Eaton at February 10, 2006 08:07 AM

re books, i'm reading one about the black americans who went to help ethiopia during the facist invasion. very interesting stuff. i found it purely by accident. would that every be on the web

Posted by: Anita at February 10, 2006 12:38 PM