Maybe I just spend too much time thinking about this stuff, but I was kinda disappointed by Kevin Kelly's "Scan This Book" in the Sunday Times Magazine this week. I guess I was hoping for something more dramatic.
He's spot on about the leveraging that can happen if we can get all of the book content digitized. (It's really the same concept that Lynch is talking about in Open Computation, but broadened far beyond the scholarly literature.) We're already beginning to see the kind of dynamism that can occur in a web world, and Kelly is good at expanding on that to envision the kinds of things that can happen when books go "liquid."
After a couple of sections outlining this vision, however, Kelly shifts his focus to what he sees as the main impediment to getting all of the books digitized as quickly as possible -- current copyright law. I find little to disagree with in his analysis here, but most of it is pretty old hat to anybody who has been following the discussion for awhile (which, I should add, is likely only a small portion of NY Times Magazine readers, who probably won't be as jaded as me). New to me, however, was his notion that in exchange for copyright protection a creator "has an obligation to allow that work to be searched" and I think that's a great concept.
My main gripe with the article, however, is that in his breathless excitement for the possibilities inherent in the "universal library" he unnecessarily overstates his case and, as is typical of net evangelists, undervalues the physical printed book. "All new works will be born digital," he says. "In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail." What "clash"?
In his excitement about the digital world, he casts physical books as lonely, isolated, unconnected containers of content, yearning to be free and part of a community. Once we liberate them, and enable them to join in the great conversation, who needs physical books anymore?
He quickly glides over the fact that books have never, in fact, been as isolated and lonely as he would project. Every book that comes into being is part of that larger conversation, connected to the rest of human knowledge via the human beings that make up that conversation. While it is quite true that the digital library he envisions is a qualitative leap in what one can make of that conversation, there's no need to overstate the case in order to make the point.
More importantly, however, he misses the fact that one of the most appealing qualities of the physical book is its physical nature in the first place. The fact that I have digitized the content of a book, no matter how well that is done, does not mean that I have completely captured all that is valuable about that book. I haven't captured the physical experience of it -- and that is part of what we value in books. If the only thing that we valued about books was the content, why would there be so much variation in type design and paper and size and shape and color and artwork? These are all aesthetic choices, designed to enhance the experience of interacting with a physical book.
I own several editions of James Joyce's Ulysses. When an expensive anniversary edition became available a couple of years back, I couldn't wait to get it. I read it through over a long weekend, savoring not just the hilarious and rich humanity of Joyce's language, land & story, but loving the feel of the pages, the heft of the volume, and delighting in taking my own thick fountain pen to those pages to continue a private conversation with JJ. I can do something like that with a digital version, but I can't do that.
This is not to argue that one of those experiences is better than the other, only to point out that they are different, and that both are valuable. Having a digitized version of Ulysses in Kelly's universal library is obviously necessary and important -- but so is having a wonderful designed and presented physical volume. We don't need to give up one in order to have the other.
A motion picture of a play doesn't replace a live play. A photograph of a painting does not render painting superfluous. The wide availability of recordings has surely not emptied concert halls and stadiums. This is all so obvious, so why is it that so many people seem to think that the digital world and the print world are somehow in opposition to each other?
I am not, of course, suggesting that everything that is currently in print needs to continue in print. Kelly's "all new works will be born digital" may be hyperbole, but in fact a very great deal of what currently comes into being in print is better off being born digital. Never again having to deal with a cheaply bound 2-inch thick volume of poorly edited conference proceedings is indeed a blessing. And for a library like mine, focused almost entirely on biomedical research literature, there will be very little, if any, need for print, in just a few years. I see no cause for regret in that whatsoever.
Printed books & magazines will continue to have value, however, because of those very physical qualities. How they will co-exist in the digital world, and what impact the "liquid" book will have on how we read & write & design physical books remains to be seen. But certainly there's room for, and a need for, both.
I get teased for never going anywhere without my laptop and, truly, I can hardly imagine a day when I wouldn't spend at least a little time tap-tapping on the keyboard. But I still always carry a fountain pen, and I use that every day, too.