January 17, 2006

Bleached Woodpulp + Ink + Glue = A Mature Information Retrieval System

"The most technologically efficient machine that man has everinvented is the book." --Northrop Frye

ONE OF THE RECURRING THEMES in the discussion of the "new media" (internet, blogs, databases, web pages, online encyclopedia's, Google's thirst to control and contain all the information in the known universe, etc.) is if bytes will "replace" books. To many, it certainly looks that way on any given day at any given rest stop on the Information Highway. After all, the current Holy Grail of Deep Geek Hipness is to have everything -- every scrap, note, frame, word, and image -- stored on one's iPod for display at the touch of a fingertip. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Be that as it may, the book is not going anywhere. Indeed, the book -- in form and concept -- is the foundation of the new media; it is contained within and yet contains it. The very way in which we discuss the new media ( web pages, web browsing, and that constant root of all places cyber, the place, space and file called "index.html" ) asserts that the book remains the dominant permanent record of all things worth keeping. Storage mediums come and go in the cyberverse ( One word: "floppy."), but I don't think that the age when all information and opinions and records and history is held in some immense GoogleServer pile is one which we should welcome. Distributed information is more powerful and more secure when it is distributed not only throughout the Net, but in more than one medium.

The way-new information universe, straddled by the ever growing hulk that is ("First don't be evil." ) Google is barely out of infancy and just about due to grow into "The Terrible Twos." The book, by contrast, represent a fully mature information retrieval system.

What is good about the book? What makes it persistently valuable in storing, not the trivia of the day, but that which is valuable to humanity over the long term?

Let's review:

1) No "advanced" technology required. Ability to manufacture present in all areas of the globe.
2 ) Crude but functioning units can be made by kindergartners with pencil, paper and glue.
3) Operating system and interface rock solid.
4) All types of information can be stored.
5) Has been demonstrated to be able to retain information in retrievable form across several thousand years.
6) Of the two, the User will often crash first.
7) All parts can be recycled.
8) All or part can be backed-up at any Kinkos.
9) Can be powered for hours with one candle.
10) All users receive up to 12 years of interface training free.

Add to that the tactile and aesthetic pleasures of fine books where art combines with craft and you have something that will be with humankind well into the future long after this day's high-tech toys are consigned to a museum and listed in their paperback catalog.

Posted by Vanderleun at January 17, 2006 5:57 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Exactly. The book, an invention centuries old, is still ahead of its time. It will delight its "users" for centuries to come.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at January 17, 2006 3:29 PM

The codex!? I say go back to the scroll! ;-)

Why is it that no electronic bookreader quite duplicates the experience of a good book?

I've read several books on my Palm and Pocket PC handhelds and it's not unpleasant altogether, but it doesn't compare to a real book in your hands.

Posted by: Stephen B at January 17, 2006 5:21 PM

Don't forget that books are a heck of a lot easier on the eyes. There are tons of classics available free on the web, but I'd rather buy the book and avoid the eyestrain and headaches. We're a long way from technology that will eliminate this problem.

Posted by: Kurt at January 17, 2006 5:23 PM

Immediacy. The interweb by its nature demands that any item under consideration be read now, now, now. Sure, you can save it to an hundred various places, but when you finally notice it again, well, Good Lord! That was soooo last week!... why bother?

80% of what I read is on the 'net. 15% I read in books. 5% I see on the 'net and hardcopy (mostly from the ".va" domain). Guess what I remember the most... and re-read.

Posted by: Clayton Barnett at January 17, 2006 7:06 PM

11. It gives off a unique odor that is pleasing to many users.

Posted by: Sue Anne at January 17, 2006 9:49 PM

I'm waiting for, in a trial setting, the judge to "throw the laptop" at the defendant.

Posted by: ed in texas at January 18, 2006 4:44 AM

I'm still wating for 'print-on-demand'. That will be how the digital gets married to the tactile.

Imagine a book *never* being out of print.

Posted by: Eric Blair at January 18, 2006 6:31 AM

Bill Keezer remarks via email:

"I couldn't get the following past your comment filter:

If electronic media are so wonderful, why do we always print whatever we take seriously? I collect documentation for the software I work with and immediately print a copy. I print any critical customer email and file it in a paper filing folder with a label. I can find anything I have printed and routinely lose things in my directory structure.

If man were meant to view a CRT or a flat screen, he would have been equipped with 1760 x 1280 pixel visual fields."

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at January 19, 2006 6:39 PM

I rise in dissent.

Books do not have a search feature. (I realized that digital media were going to turn into the way we read when, standing in front of the bookcase with a book in my hands one day, looking for a passage, I realized that my thumb and forefinger were making a certain motion over and over. I finally realized I was trying to type command-F, and wondering why the book's Find dialog was so slow to appear.)

They are difficult to copy, and awkward to excerpt.

You cannot mark a passage, unless you're willing to disfigure the book with underlines and stick it full of little post-its sticking out porcupine-fashion.

Books are easier to read in bed, and safer to read in the tub (assuming the book is in print and a replacement can be readily obtained if you drop it in the drink), but these disadvantages of digital media are ephemeral and contingent.

Posted by: jaed at January 22, 2006 9:04 AM

The chair recognizes the dissent of Ms. Devoto and records it in the book of her permanent conduct record

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at January 23, 2006 2:52 PM

I like books. A lot. But just about every one of these points is either wrong or meaningless. Let's take a look:

1. "No 'advanced' technology required. Ability to manufacture present in all areas of the globe." : 'Advanced' is a relative term. The people of the Middle Ages thought the printing press was advanced technology. I would guess that at the time there were a lot of people praising the simplicity and convenience of handwriting. And the ability to manufacture is not present in "all areas" of the globe, unless by "areas" one means "on each continent". I'd wager that you could travel a few hundred miles from some point in the Amazon or parts of Africa or Siberia without crossing a printing press, for example. Ability to manufacture is of limited utility for most people, anyway, without access to a library - but I believe there are far more people who can post a book online without help than there are people who can operate a printing press without help. Eventually there will be some other new technology to replace our current devices. You can be sure when it arrives that someone will be there to extol the virtues of keyboards and LCDs.

2. "Crude but functioning units can be made by kindergartners with pencil, paper and glue." : When is the last time you saw a kindergartner do that without being taught? Kindergartners can do a lot of things when taught, including typing on a computer. I'd be rather more concerned that a kindergartner knows how to read and write - the prerequisite for either activity - but I don't agree that learning how to handwrite is necessarily any simpler than learning how to type. In the adult world, of course, nobody glues together their own books. I grant that in a police state the ability to produce one's own writing without a computer can sometimes have advantages (also dangers). However, I have yet to meet the person who forgot how to handwrite in the course of using computers.

3. "Operating system and interface rock solid." : They thought so at the Royal Library of Alexandria Library too, but alas history was not so kind.

4. "All types of information can be stored" : Really? When is the last time your book played "Beethoven's Fifth" for you? Or "John Lennon's Imagine"?

5. "Has been demonstrated to be able to retain information in retrievable form across several thousand years." : See point number three about the Royal Library of Alexandria. Stone carvings have retained information for longer period of time than books (and are in some ways more durable) and oral histories for longer periods than either, but books have other advantages. Each, however, was at one time "the dominant permanent record of all things worth keeping".

6. "Of the two, the User will often crash first." : It's hard to tell whether this is another claim for the durability of books (see again points number three and five) or a claim for the usability and convenience of books versus that of computers. Books are indeed more convenient in many circumstances, but trying to carry more than a few to the local coffee shop may prove to be somewhat less convenient. Oral communication is in many ways more convenient than books - it requires no paper and no printing press and there is no physical object to either carry around or preserve.

7. "All parts can be recycled." : In "the long run" the entire planet Earth will be "recycled". Is the intended claim that books can be recycled more efficiently than computers, with less overall harm to the environment? Perhaps, but one computer can efficiently produce, view, transmit etc. many books. To make an argument of this type one has to analyze the energy and resources used to produce and recycle books versus that used to produce and recycle computers. This is a highly complex issue that is far from settled. Forgive me if I say that this issue isn't remotely well-summarized in one sentence on a website. In fact, this may be a subject worthy of a book....

8. "All or part can be backed-up at any Kinkos." : And with a computer, one can back-up at will without leaving one's domicile or office. And not just back-up - if one wishes, one can distribute copies widely across several continents. Has the author ever actually tried to photocopy a book of any length? I have. It gets extremely tiresome after about thirty pages. (There are actually machines that will turn the pages for you, but they are not often found at the garden-variety Kinkos. And there are parts of the world where photocopy machines themselves are less available than computers.)

9. "Can be powered for hours with one candle." : This is by far the best point you made. It is certainly useful, convenient, and wise to be able to read, at times, without the presence of a useful source of electric power. However, this argument is unlikely to keep books as "the dominant permanent record of all things worth keeping". Bicycles and horses can be powered by a good lunch, and require little maintenance by comparison with planes, trains, and automobiles - the latter group also require fuels or large power sources. These facts did not preserve bicycles and horses as the dominant form of transportation. The places in the world without reliable supplies of electricity also happen to be the places without many books and without the means to transport many books. In these places, connecting a computer to a solar power station may eventually prove far kinder to our planet Earth than building the roads and burning the fuel required to transport (and house) large numbers of books.

10. "All users receive up to 12 years of interface training free." : Absolutely, unless one considers the large number of human beings who receive no such thing. Most of these people would care not a bit about the small amount of additional learning they would have to do to use a computer to read - if only by doing so they could get education, which is never truly free.

"[Books] will be with humankind well into the future long after this day's high-tech toys are consigned to a museum and listed in their paperback catalog." : This is absurd. Books will be with us, yes. As will online books. Individual physical books tend to end up in archival collections (translation: museums for books) after a hundred years or so, because they start to fall apart. Not unlike computers in many ways. Have you been in an actual public library lately? Mine removed its paper card catalog. It was replaced with computer terminals, and an online catalog that - get this! - actually makes it possible for anyone on Earth with internet access to determine what books are in its collection.

You make an interesting and I believe important point about the concentration of digital information. (Although you actually say little about it, other than that it is Bad, and you seem a little confused about the difference between an index to information and the information itself - especially for someone who extols Indices as Features of Books.) You do that argument a great disservice by mixing it together with these poor arguments about books vs. computerized digital information.

Posted by: David at January 23, 2006 4:01 PM