The Book in Chains

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By Ken Fox

papyrusOn November 26, Alan reviewed the Economist article, From Papyrus to Pixels: The Future of the Book, and asked readers for their thoughts on the future of print. For my part, the distant future of print is very unclear, especially as the immediate future of the electronic book is riddled with contradictions between its existence as a useful object and a product of the market.

The Economist article makes some worthwhile points on the print medium, particularly in how genres evolve to adapt to their underlying technology – but in contemplating the “future of the book” the anonymous authors manage to ignore the elephant squatting on their typewriter. Of course, electronic books are the future. But they are locked up & straightjacketed by the fact that they are still “books.” Electronic texts flow like water. They can be downloaded, uploaded, copied, pasted, edited, altered, reformatted, resized, and reshaped (redundancies intentional for emphasis) as easily as … well there really is no analog analogy. Imagine you have fifty faucets in your house for various kinds of juice or soup, and a soupprocessing machine that can not only add a certain ingredient, but also extract ingredients, and you also have a pipeline to send your new flavours out to friends & strangers.

The purpose of ebook formats is to hamper this functionality. To slow the flow of texts, prevent copying, editing, pasting, all the things that electronic texts, by definition, are amenable to. In essence, to recreate the paper book in a new medium, but without the advantages of the old medium. Of course, the owners of content are able to exploit some advantages of electronic medium – they can send out books more efficiently, and at much lower costs, and can amass data on how books are being used. The Economist authors do talk briefly about this last point – but barely stop to consider the problem. We now have the potential to learn, in detail, how people read – but “we” will never learn anything from it because the sole purpose of this mountain of data is to extract more money from us. An article in the Economist that ignores economics? Pile that on top of all the other oddities at work here.

Imagine going to a library and finding that most of the books, especially the newer ones, have locks on them. Imagine buying a book, and passing it to a friend to read, and the friend finding that suddenly all the pages are glued together, and cannot be unglued without destroying the book. But those are just the print analogies. The great advantage of the electronic medium is in how it facilitates the transmission of texts, and above all, aids the reader’s ability to copy, edit, write back & re-produce them – and in that respect, ebooks, as a product of the marketplace, are badly out of step with their physical nature.

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