Without the machine there is no information. A zillion years into the future? I envision some primitive smashing his way into some well sealed vault only to find a pile of chips, and a machine that doesn’t do anything he can understand. All of it will be lost. Paper and ink? The written word? Maybe we had information storage down better than we thought. — JWM Comment on The Crypt of Civilization:
An intelligent teenager of my acquaintance tells me he now buys old-fashioned physical books because, “you can keep them.” Too, the memory of a printed page is always greater than retention from electronic scrolls, which he has noticed is approximately zero. And this, regardless of attention levels, which of course plunge in a medium riddled with âlinks,â which scatter the attention wonderfully. Of back-ups & throwbacks : Essays in Idleness
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, the cloud, ebooks, 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 iPad 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, represents 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?
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 long after today’s high-tech toys are consigned to a museum and listed in their paperback catalog. Perhaps there may be some new innovation at the dawn of some new day that will really and for all time displace the book, but that innovation and that dawn of that day is not yet. For now, if it is a really important bit of knowledge or expression we put it in a book. Just to be safe.
[Republished from 2006]
Update: Today, Webber sends in this wonderful cartoon.