Sunday, 13 June 2010

Are Books Going To Be Obsolete?

From a discussion in the comment section on a Pharyungula post came the conjecture that e-readers will make books obsolete. It's an interesting conjecture, one that might have plausibility given how we've seen other media made obsolete by advances in technology. Born into a world with cassettes and records, first the CD and then the MP3 format have changed how society listens to music. Cassettes are dead, records limited to an esoteric market. CDs are currently in decline.

I still buy CDs, but I'm really not sure why any more. Any CD I buy goes straight in the computer to be digitised into MP3s. Then that CD sits unused on a shelf taking up space. MP3s don't have the fidelity of CDs but that doesn't really matter. It sounds almost the same and is far more convenient. Truth is that most people don't need CD quality, especially when listening through the terrible generic iPod headphones.

And as for portability, I have access to my music on my computer, on a network media player, and on my MP3 player at the push of a button. Instant access of digital music pretty much whenever and wherever I want. CDs just can't compare, not to mention are more prone to data loss through the flimsy nature of CDs. But what of books?

Medium matters
To think of media like music or video, it's important to remember our relationship with the product. A record is useless without a record player, as is a CD or an MP3. A record player is useless without a record, just as a record is useless without a record player. To simplify things, the record is the information content and the record player is what changes the information into music.

This is the digital gap. Take the text file on your computer, the medium it is stored in is a series of 1s and 0s that can be decoded into text. It's hardly a complicated shift, but one nonetheless. To make it a little more complex, that decoded message is then encoded into the output format to be displayed.

By contrast, a book in itself doesn't need any of that translation. The information content as in the medium by which it is viewed. When you buy a CD or a DVD, you're buying the information. But to use that information you need a medium which can translate it. A book has no such requirements, once in possession of the book it can be viewed anywhere without needing to be decoded.

Consider even the problem of translation. If like me you have a lot of books, getting them into a digital format is tough. CD to MP3 is really easy, it's a digital to digital transition. Even an analogue to digital transition between record and MP3 can be done without too much difficulty (though cleaning up a record is time-consuming). But to spend time digitising books is a huge and lossy endeavour - all for the same portability as a book affords.

A digital future
This is not to argue that e-books aren't a good idea. There are several advantages to e-books and to owning an e-book reader. The first is distribution. We don't even need to imagine the instantaneous, low-cost delivery system. Most books being less than the size of a song in terms of data, getting information and having access to it anywhere in the world is a great idea.

Since I'm a programmer I have a number of programming textbooks. Carrying these around is no easy task, I'm shuddering at the thought of moving because of the number of books I have. Digital media makes sense for a lot of tasks, if I had my collection purely electronic I would have my entire library on a small medium. Textbooks are much worse for this than novels.

Digital media is easy to back up too. It doesn't fall apart through multiple readings, and any loss of one copy can be easily be replaced through a proper backup system. The flip-side of this ease of use is one of the evils of the digital age: Digital Rights Management. With a physical book, one can easily lend it to friends or even keep a copy of something if its deemed inappropriate. With DRM technology, the fundamental use of books in that way is restricted. It puts ways too much power in those providing the translation.

Even something as simple as a manufacturer going out of business could mean the permanent loss of information. Owned books that are rendered unreadable. It's not just instances like Amazon remotely deleting books from kindle users, without having open standards that aren't locked in any way can this potential problem be averted.

Lessons from the paperless office
In the 1970s, predictions were made about the office of the future. Paper would be made redundant as digital technology became available. Yet for a time the digital age meant an increase in the use of paper. The technology didn't make paper obsolete, it was complementary to the use that was already there. Even now as I look around the offices that I work in, there's plenty of paper everywhere. A computer in the middle of the desk and paper surrounding it.

As much as I would prefer to do all things digital, at times I need paper print-outs of specifications and documents in meetings. What's on the computer is no doubt vital to the business experience (indeed it is my livelihood!) but it hasn't yet met the versatility of paper, and won't completely without serious changes to technology or business practices.

Sure, if computers were utilised in a proper way paper would be redundant. After all, there's nothing really that can be done with paper business-wise that computers couldn't handle. A change here and there to how things are done and suddenly we're living in the reality of a digital age. Yet this is not happening. I'd attribute this not to the habits of people in charge, but that offering comparable functionality isn't enough. If it ain't broke, don't fix it comes to mind.

It's not out of habit that paper is not obsolete, but that despite offering advantages in some respects it would take a lot of change to replicate some of the processes that are already provided. This lesson, I feel, can be transferred over to books. Ask yourself how books are used, not just by yourself but in general. The information content of a book can be easily replicated digitally. But can the digital use of a book match the versatility afforded?

How would libraries work in a digital environment? What about sharing between friends? Handing down of books through generations? Giving away books to strangers? That books in themselves are both information and information delivery all in one, this affords the book a versatility that cannot be easily matched.

My personal hope
I really enjoy reading, even though I have music at the touch of a button I still more often than not carry a book with me for my ride to work. Having an eReader would not diminish that experience, it might even enhance it in some ways. As soon as I heard of electronic readers I wanted one. Now I'm waiting for the price to come down enough in order to justify a purchase.

I don't think books will die, at least not for a while. Books have what other information mediums lack, which makes it very hard to see how books will be replaced. What I do find impressive is the possibilities that the digital medium gives to enhance the story.

Right now I'm reading Gödel, Escher, Bach and some of the examples in the book would be even better illustrated through the use beyond words and pictures. If the music notation of Bach in the book could be something more than just sheet music - it could play the example. Concepts illustrated in words could be highlighted through interactive examples. To think of the possibilities for future books is amazing.

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