Billions and Billions
Peter Lyman, associate dean, and Hal R. Varian, dean at the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, are trying to count all recorded information. They have gotten to almost two billion billion, or what they refer to as two exabytes. An exabyte looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. Printed documents of all kinds comprise only .003% of the total. Magnetic storage is by far the largest medium for storing information and is rapidly becoming the universal medium for information storage.
For the Love of Books
A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. This month: The Book Part of e-Books. While e-books have content, they have no physicality -- what John Updike fondlyMy aunt still has a rotary phone, one of those basic black telephone company models ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s. Whenever I use it-waiting forever, it seems, for the 8s and 9s and 0s to return to their designated spot-I'm reminded that the term "dial tone" has its origins in a very tangible activity.
I wonder if the "book" part of e-book will drift into that same vestige of cultural memory, more metaphoric than real. In the early days of television, shows were produced on a proscenium stage, because that was familiar to both audience and producers. When Aldus introduced PageMaker, its electronic layout program, it used the metaphor of a graphic designer's desktop to bridge the gap between atoms and bits. So e-booksellers use the metaphor of a book to give us a familiar entry into this new medium.
But the metaphor doesn't hold for very long. While e-books have content, they have no physicality (unless we delve into the finer points of quantum physics)-what John Updike fondly calls "the charming little clothy box of the thing" and others dismiss disdainfully as "books as furniture".
It's this totality of experiencing content, typography, graphics, layout, paper, and binding that D. T. Max refers to in the Summer 2000 issue of American Scholar, when he recalls taking down a first edition of Titus Andronicus, dated 1594, from a shelf in the Folger Shakespeare Library. "For a moment," he said, "Shakespeare and I were-perhaps even literally-connected."
Louis Rossetto, cofounder of Wired, is not so enamoured. He thinks that print culture changed knowledge from something to create to something to be absorbed or-in E-publishing jargon-to be "consumed". Whereas books taught us to stay in line, online media is simultaneously liberating and orderly, like an "acid trip with a great index."
At the E-publishing Expo, held in New York in November 2000, buzzwords like "digital content," "commodity," and "repurposing" dispel any lingering illusions that the publishing world is the province of people who love books and reading and writing.
For the past half-century, postmodernists have been questioning the authority of text and the autonomy of authorship. Now print on demand technology provides the means to act on these challenges. "What I need is the ability to cook my own book," writes Peter Cochrane, head of British Telecom's Research Lab and author of Tips for Time Travelers. "A chapter from here, a paragraph from there, and figures and diagrams from another."
The idea of someone else selecting content, determining flow--even specifying page layout and fonts--makes me cringe, although, to be perfectly honest, I must admit to a certain degree of cultural elitism and occupational protectionism as a writer, editor, and book artist.
But as a thinker and, perhaps more basically, as a member of society, my concerns run deeper. If we select only what interests us, how then do our interests ever expand? If we read only writers who validate our views, how do we gain a broader perspective?
When A. J. Liebling, wrote in the early 20th century that "the power of the press belongs to those who own one", he was making a cynical reference to the Randolph Hearsts of the world. I wonder if he ever envisioned a press in every spare bedroom or kitchen nook of America.
Elsewhere in his article, Max raises the question of what is meant by knowledge. "What is a culture if the information that forms it never stands still?" Since the development of the codex around 400 AD, he asserts, an implicit hierarchy of information has evolved with books at the top. "First we talk about an idea, then we assay it in newspapers, magazines, television, and radio, and finally we decide whether it merits permanent remembrance. If so, it finds its way into a book. . . The codex was proof (some would say misleading evidence) that there were ideas that lasted, that deserved special respect."
More practically, Max questions the durability of electronic media: 15 years? 50? After careful research, the New York Times opted to seal paper records in their millennial time capsule because of this concern as well as future compatibility issues. Further pondering the ethereal nature of bits, I wonder what would happen if our electronic society were wiped out by a disaster, either natural or man-made. If all our knowledge were digitized, if we were no longer able to take down a dusty old tome off the shelf, would we be thrown back into the Stone Age? Would we have to wait a few millennia for another Shakespeare, another Mozart, another Einstein or Gandhi?
None of this is an inevitable consequence of our developing technology, any more than people who quote Biblical passages to justify a hateful fanaticism are an inevitable result of reading Scripture.
The fact that the technology will continue to develop does appear to be inevitable, however, as are the legions of zealous e-trepreneurs and newly minted MBAs trying to develop a useful business model. If anyone can become a publisher, perhaps a new class of artisans will arise. They would select and organize digital content, design it, choose paper, print it, and bind it, creating once again a "Literal Book", a book-as-object and precious artifact, as in the early days of the printing revolution.
- - - - - - - cj Metschke is a Florida-based writer who is hopelessly attached to the physicality of books. Contact her by email.