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

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 “links,” 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?

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 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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sam L. September 1, 2018, 12:12 PM

    “First, Don’t be Evil.” Well, they’ve blown THAT all to HELL.

  • Sam L. September 1, 2018, 12:18 PM

    I can swat a fly, an insect, and a spider with a magazine or a newspaper, but not with a computer, an e-book, or a smartphone.

  • Pattikins September 1, 2018, 1:15 PM

    BLah blah blah

  • EndOfPatience September 1, 2018, 3:04 PM

    What disturbs me most about moving everything to bits, is the ease with which history can be retconned.

  • Ulysses Toole September 1, 2018, 7:19 PM

    “EndOfPatience” …can you explain that better?

  • RosalindJ September 2, 2018, 12:13 AM

    It’s the litmus test of a new acquaintance who visits; “What did you think of this [volume]?” v “Why do you have so many books?”

    Though I have going on ten terabytes of backup going now, nothing will ever replace a book or a couple thousand. The heft, the smell, well-thumbed, loved and returned to once again. That retention of information is less with electronic media comes as no surprise. Not at all.

  • H September 2, 2018, 3:29 AM

    I flat-out do not trust any individual who does not read, and books in printed form at that. This from bitter experience.

  • Dr. Jay September 2, 2018, 4:01 AM

    I feel lost without a stack of books to read.

  • John Venlet September 2, 2018, 6:18 AM

    Give me a book, preferably hardcover, anytime, as those bits and bytes which are allegedly being curated by Gaggle are going to, if not disappear, just become a scrambled mess. Exhibit one for my contention is my first blog home, which was on the BlogSpot (Gaggle owned) platform. I started blogging there in 2001. What remains of Improved Clinch from that time is basically one page, covering the year 2003, and the majority of the links I embedded in those remaining posts are also basically disappeared, or lead down blind alleys. Give me a book.

  • Rick September 2, 2018, 6:28 AM

    Most people don’t read anything these days. I’m in other people homes almost daily and rarely see books or magazines. Lot’s the vacation rental houses I go in will have a shelf of bodice busters and pop fiction that renters leave behind but I’ve never found a book I wanted to read. Sadly, as result of many eye surgerys my vision is so poor that I have to use either my computer or a large Ipad to read at all these days. I’ve started giving and selling my library as I know I’ll never be able to read these books now. As grateful as I am for ebooks they do not offer much beyond text. I still enjoy sitting in our den being surrounded by my old printed books.

  • Eskyman September 2, 2018, 2:08 PM

    My library was once fairly large; I gave a lot of books away, as I travelled a lot and had no way to take them with me. I still own books that my father had, and that my grandparents, uncles & aunts left to me. These days I’ve hardly any books at all: maybe a couple of thousand are all that’s left.

    I’ve been trying to put all the books I’ve loved onto electronic media, so that my grown children and their children could enjoy them, since I can’t afford to send them physically. My children now live in Australia, which complicates things since postage is so expensive these days & there’s no longer any “boat mail” option.

    It’s a fool’s errand though. My kids don’t read the books that my father and I enjoyed so much; they hardly read at all, it’s all movies & TV & YouTube & cell phone stuff. I know that the library I’ll send to them on digital media will probably be erased and used for external storage, if it isn’t just dropped into a drawer and forgotten.

    There’s the same problem I’m facing with my rifles & pistols; my descendants are now subjects living in a nice country that has no Bill of Rights or desire for one, and they aren’t allowed to keep them, so who will I give them to when it’s time?

  • John the River September 2, 2018, 8:02 PM

    Not just books.

    Movies went digital, many movies today don’t exist as a series of still images that change slightly from cell to cell on a reel with a magnetic sound track Heterodyned to the side.
    As I wrote on my blog in 2012…

    So in 2012, Hollywood has set a format that will last for the ages…have they? In ten years what physical platform, or data encryption scheme will be used? And ten years after that? How soon before the “new” digital film records of today are obsolete, and then how long before they become incompatible closely followed by unreadable? If civilization fell tomorrow and in a hundred years someone……dug up a film reel of “King Kong-1933” and data cartridge of “The Hunger Games-2012“, which film would be the first (and likely only one) to be viewed again? Hold “King Kong” up to the light and you can see that there are images on it, the magnetic stripe on the side would take a little longer. But would anyone ever stubble upon the technology, encryption and language used to read “Hunger Games”?

  • Schill McGuffin September 2, 2018, 8:32 PM

    Textbooks, technical books, and the like have the definite advantage in electronic format of being easily word-searchable, without leaving the reader at the mercy of the comprehensiveness of whoever assembled (or didn’t assemble) an index. So far as literature is concerned, the only advantage is being able to pack a whole library into a small space, but that’s of no value if your battery runs out.

    Sam L. — You can definitely swat a bug effectively with a computer, e-book, or smartphone. Having done so pretty much commits those things to nothing but a flyswatter role thereafter, though.