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The fetishism of books

Posted By Chris Aucutt On August 25, 2009 @ 2:09 pm In Essays,Technology | Comments Disabled

We’re entering a period of information upheaval. The methods of storing, retrieving, and managing information are finally catching up to the available technology. With our collective knowledge and literature available to anyone with an internet connection, there is bound to be a flowering of scientific and artistic thought.

But we’re collectively stumbling with transitioning the technology and user interface of books.

This is important because books have grown up with our civilization to become the foundation of our complex society and advanced technology. We are all trained from an early age to harness the power of the knowledge locked up in those bundles of paper. Books define the concept of information management to such an extant that it’s unconsciously shaped the semiotics [1] of our modern web-based system of knowledge storage.

We’ve been able to ignore the outdated book-based management system until very recently. The Amazon Kindle [2] became the first ebook reader that married the long-form book format to the advantages of the internet and cheap storage. Now you can download a book directly to your Kindle, and store a full library in about the same space as a typical topical nonfiction.

The adoption of ebook readers has been slowed by people who feel they prefer old fashioned books to their new digital brethren. Despite the arguments, I don’t think this has anything to do with the comparative advantages of a dead tree book (no need to recharge, self-referential interface, leafability) – rather it has to do with our primal urge to hoard and the symbol of the book for knowledge. We feel safer with a physical representation of the printed word than one which disappears when the electricity stops.

This fetishism may be a good thing.

The length of the content inside books is determined by the technology itself. Authors are driven to flesh out a work to fit a standard size rather than match the minimal length that the subject matter really requires. The best example of this are business and self-help books: most of these could be cut down to have or even a quarter of the length and still get the message across – but the economics of publishing encourages writers of these works to expand their writing to book length, thus diluting the knowledge. This is why websites covering the same topics are so popular: they aren’t restricted to expanding the verbiage for reasons not related to the content.

By delaying the movement to a stable economic model for publishing knowledge online because some people still prefer paper books, we could hasten a change to short-form knowledge that better suits the technology with the added incentive of being easier to understand. A stable economic model is important because content creators need an incentive other than personal fulfillment. Right now most content online is supported by ads, while paid content is shunned. Until we come up with a method to financially support content, the evolution of information technology will stall. To see how hard of a problem this is, check out the Xanadu project [3]*.

The process of evolving fiction to a non-book format is harder because fiction elicits a deeper emotional feeling in the reader.  The novel, for example, developed because it was the perfect fit for the age of the printing press: works were book-length, and authors were keen to make their stories longer, deeper, and richer. Currently the interfaces for reading anything longer than, say, 12,000 words induce eye-strain or lead the reader to distraction. We still need the book metaphor for an enjoyable experience. Short stories are different because of their length.

Right now we’re collectively working out how to order our written knowledge to take advantage of the new forms of transmission and storage. The web and ebooks may not be the future; however the system of web metaphors has been successfully used and improved upon for the last 20 years, so this may be it. The great thing about this process is that it’s done unconsciously by readers and writers, in the same way that language evolves and works itself out (which is changing because of the new information technology too).

What I’m getting at is that how we store and retrieve our collective knowledge is changing, and the outcome depends on the technology, how we structure the information, and how we incentivize its creation and distribution. To put this in perspective of the last revolution in information technology: Gutenberg hasn’t invented the printing press yet**.

*The most fascinating part of the Xanadu story is that it partly inspired Tim Berners-Lee in creating the World Wide Web, but he wanted information to be free…and was pragmatic enough to create a technology that’s ‘good enough’ to use within months.

**Eurocentric, I know, but Western Civilization was better at harnessing the power of the printing press than the Chinese.

Article printed from Budaeli: http://budaeli.com

URL to article: http://budaeli.com/2009/08/the-fetishism-of-books/

URLs in this post:

[1] semiotics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics

[2] Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00154JDAI?ie=UTF8&tag=buildfromagra-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00154JDAI

[3] Xanadu project: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.06/xanadu.html

Copyright © 2007 Chris Aucutt.