Prometheus in the Machine?

During my reading of Possession I found myself marvelling at how often Roland or Maud could have spared themselves time and trouble with modern technology. Even Roland’s initial theft from the library would have been unnecessary with a digital scanner. Given Professor Ullyot’s fascination with free information and my adoration of anything free in general, I found a scientist named Brewster Kahle:

He is working towards the construction of a library that he hopes will encompass every single book ever produced. Kahle gave a TED talk back in 2007:

He underlined some of the challenges facing a completed digital library but insisted it is possible. Some quick facts: at the time there were some 26 million volumes in print at the Library of Congress. That entire collection could be condensed into a digital archive that could fit in one room, in a device that costs $60,000. I imagine the technology and its pricing have improved since then. Kahle appeared idealistic in the video and skimmed over certain problems such as funding and reparations to the authors, clearly hoping to develop a legitimized peer-sharing system similar to torrenting in order to distribute and collect texts. I found it interesting that he accurately predicted the rise of the E-reader: displaying a beta model and suggesting that services such as Kindle would become the way of the future. Perhaps this foresight will extend to his dream of a complete, virtually uploaded library? Kahle’s project currently has half a million volumes and continues to function as the Internet Archive which unfortunately faces ongoing legal issues.

Although the digitization of books has led to controversies involving piracy and recompense, this new shift has spawned a multitude of clockwork apparatus designed to expedite and enhance the bibliophile’s experience. Take the Espresso Book Machine, a miniaturized manafacturing plant installed at a number of University bookstores (U of A has one). Customized book building is very real; I was able to take advantage of it for a recent gift idea and the process is streamlined and professional:

Bookmobiles, once a European staple, have been revived thanks to upgraded printing technology. They are essentially ambulatory libraries now, as satellite technology and roomier hard drives allows them to download and store thousands upon thousands of books. These have found a niche in the third world where personal internet access is not guaranteed. Do you think there is a place for these contraptions in a city like Calgary?

More recently, interactive books for the iPad and other e-readers have been released (I think we briefly discussed this in class). In this TED talk Mike Matas demonstrates the world’s first interactive e-book, Al Gore’s Our Choice which is probably the most unnecessarily futuristic (but aesthetically appealing) method of reading I have ever seen. The touch-screen technology has reached a point where one can accurately simulate turning a page. Is the physical sensation of holding paper replaceable? Does anyone actually crave it badly enough to forgo the video gaming aspect of these books? Do you find the visualizations distracting, and if so, do you think they destroy Our Choice as a definable book?

Beyond the flashy dials and lurid colours to keep your average reader engaged (I am thinking of myself), digitization has prompted all manner of cataloguing, indexing and information retrieval possibilities that have probably cost a lot of people in our field their jobs. Googles Ngram viewer is one of many such burgeoning search tools; it allows visitors to check the frequency of any words in their 5 million strong collection based on dates. Any word! Try dropping in swear words and you will see the crassness our society has fallen into.

A few questions:

-Do you believe that some of these new literary technologies enhance or decrease an interest in reading older, less accessible texts? Imagine reading a digital copy of Tristram Shandy that decoded every allusion or eloquence for you in plain English. But I also suspect most reading portals will have a star system for their books – do you foresee new readers, attracted by the convenience of e-books, flocking instead to whatever junk has been recommended by ‘the masses’?

-Do you think Possession would be plausible if set in the 2010’s? Would Roland and Maud’s experience of sifting through these old volumes, rifling through sheets of yellowing paper, necessarily be different and if so how? 

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