F   U   T   U   R   E

i s   i t   a   b o o k ?

In which the Future of the Printed Word is discussed, not without some temerity but Hopefully with a general sense of the Rational Order of Thought.

"The original is unfaithful to the translation."

- Jorge Luis Borges

The electronic document has, in a sense, a life of its own -- it is dynamic and changes to it can easily be made at any point in its life span. J. David Bolter has said, "The pixels of the electronic medium define a space inherently different from that of ink on paper." The complexity of the electronic document's place in time and space makes it difficult for us to answer simple questions about its status. Who is the document's author? Who owns the data? Do contributors give away their rights to their contribution? Do they have any say in how it is used? How it is edited or distributed?

These seem like new problems, brought on by new technology, but in reality they are forgotten ones. In the oral tradition, no one owned a story. Individual reciters added and modified their recitation to suit their audience. The concept of the integrity of the text and the rights of the author came later, and grew stronger with the invention of print. Now electronic technology seems to be weakening the author's firm hold on the text.

As we asked in our Foyer section, what is the psychological weight of text? The e-book is a delicate balance between the consumable text we read from the screen; and its real physical being of ones and zeroes. The screen itself is two-dimensional, but the text is not limited by this. Modern computer graphics allow for movement, color changes, and video and sound clips to be incorporated into webpages or CD-ROMs. What are the implications of this amazing flexibility for the future of text?

William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace, wrote an autobiographical story on disk called "Agrippa: a book of the dead." Only thirty-five copies were 'printed' and they have all been left unopened and unread -- "Agrippa" is programmed to scroll along at a fixed pace on the screen and then encrypt itself, becoming unreadable after one projection. It is a story that can be read only once. But if no one has played it, is it, like the tree falling in the forest, perhaps not a story at all? How would an archivist go about preserving such a text? Perhaps one copy would be left unopened and one would be kept in its encrypted form. Is the encrypted version, being the most permanent, the real book?

"Agrippa" is more insistently linear than any traditional book The biggest problem electronic texts have is their dependence on a mediating machine to be read (or translated). Scholars of the future will not be able to learn to read computer disks as scholars of the past learned to read hieroglyphs. No Rosetta Stone can make the encoded information decipherable to the naked human eye. If the technology to translate the disk's magnetic bits into visual or audible information is not preserved, the information will all be lost. Archivists have experienced this problem already in their attempts to preserve recorded music (on tape, cylinder, record or other archaic format), videotape, and motion picture film -- the technology to use the item must be preserved together with the item, or it can't be used.

Medieval manuscript layout is echoed by modern hypertexts. The ancient or canonical text was located in the center of the page, with the margins reserved for contemporary commentary. It was easy to move from text to notes; the 'help' button was always accessible. With the development of printing technology, the notes were first moved to the bottom of the page, and then to the back of the chapter or even the back of the book. This has tended to distance the text from the reader.

The electronic book is indeed flexible, but it also lacks some of the strengths of conventional books. Paper books are often eminently portable (you can even read while in the bathtub) -- computers can be portable as well, but have more limitations, such as the need for access to electricity. In addition, computer skills are more complex than simple reading skills -- as the technology advances, so must the user adapt, whereas a person who can read one print book can read any other print book (if, at least, it is in a language that person can comprehend).

[picture of a person writing on a wax tablet, from a Greek vase]

illustration of the design from a Greek vase, showing a scribe writing on a wax tablet -- which bears a considerable resemblence to a person using a laptop computer

As we have said, an electronic text requires the use of a 'translator,' in the form of a computer. The computer is a very complicated machine. A layperson has difficulty with this complexity when the computer breaks or behaves strangely. When a book breaks (say the pages are torn or the cover comes off), fixing it is merely a mechanical operation. A 'frozen' computer often cannot be used at all, whereas a book with no cover is still at least partially readable.

In addition, the newer technology is expensive and therefore access to it is more limited than access to books and other printed materials. Of course, we do well to remember that the printed book was not always as accessible as it is today -- even three hundred years after book printing was first introduced into the West only the richest of the rich could afford to purchase a book of any kind -- indeed, only the richest portion of society possessed the literacy required to consume an entire full-length book. And in our time, even in the "first world," computers are as out of reach for many as books were before the Industrial Revolution.

-- written by Emily-Jane Dawson and Karen Drayne

Please see our Bibliography for books, websites, and articles on the history and future of the book, reading, writing, the paper format, and hypertext.

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