Wooden spoons were improved with metal (because of the splinters)

Let’s address the central premise behind This is not the end of the book;. The book is going to disappear, but literature can survive this disappearance. The electronic medium can accomplish everything the book can – the book exists because the means of production remain convenient and it will be phased out eventually. Soon it will only be valued as sentiment, the way email has supplanted but not yet replaced the greeting card.

Eco and Carriere demonstrate remarkable foresight and historical knowledge but I disagree on their belief that the book will endure in its current, leather-bound, printed-paper form. I have no wish for my presentation to appear harsh, because I respect Eco and Carriere very much as intellectuals and learned a lot reading This is not the end. But I think they are misguided in their belief that the book as a physical object will not migrate onto e-readers, tablets or computer screens.

The technology of e-reading and the power of the Internet is misrepresented and a little bit underestimated by Eco in particular. On page six he suggests that “one can also imagine that the fantastic invention that is the internet may likewise disappear. Just as airships have disappeared from our skies” (6). He goes on to compare the development of the Concorde aeroplane to the invention of the internet, noting that the Concorde was eventually deemed too expensive and abandoned. The problem with this analogy is that the Internet is not a product that is assembled in a factory and then assessed by one patent-holder whether it is profitable or not. Take a look at this website:

http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/

The Internet has at least 14 billion pages indexed by search engines. The largest of these, Google, produced more than 50 billion in revenues in 2012 providing a flagship service that is entirely free of charge:

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/is?s=GOOG+Income+Statement&annual

I don’t need to further stress how large or entrenched in our economic and geopolitical landscapes the Internet has become. While it is certainly plausible that we could face a massive energy crisis in the future, rendering our electrical systems defunct I suspect the Internet domain servers would be amongst the last devices to power down. So much of our infrastructure now relies on the Internet – communication for transportation, sources of news, regulation of financial markets. In the event of a global catastrophe our society would fight to keep the Internet available at all costs. Books, on the other hand…

The batteries and electrical energy powering our e-readers and other devices are taxing, but books also consume the environment. Paper production releases hundreds of millions of tons of toxic waste into our ecosystem. North America produces five hundred million tons of paper, much of which goes into landfills or recycling processes that can be environmentally unfriendly in themselves. Paper consumption has been linked to climate change. If you would like to verify these assertions, feel free to check out this boring report on paper and energy consumption I found:

http://cieedac.sfu.ca/media/publications/Pulp%20Paper%20Analysis%202010%20_2009%20data_%20Final.pdf

Eco, whose name is somewhat ironic in this context, is misguided in his belief that the digital, not the textual medium is a doomed fad. Books are a doomed, five thousand year-old fad, partially because the Amazon and the ozone layer cannot take much more punishment.

I would also like to refute the claim that technological or digital mediums are necessarily ephemeral. Carriere discusses the DVD as an example of the short life-span most digital forms have: “I was finally sure that I had my ‘lasting media format’. How wrong could I be? They are now announcing much smaller disks, which require new players and, like the e-book, can hold a substantial number of films” (15). He goes on to bemoan that there are things “technology is ruthlessly outdating.”

The somewhat Luddite stance Eco and Carriere take here is surprising to me given the thoughtfulness and nuance with which they discuss memory and grand cultural narratives later in the book. But I would argue firstly that the form of information storage and presentation might be changing (DVD to Blu-Ray, Kindle to iPad, etc.) but this is not very much different from the shift our ancestors made to paper from vellum or papyrus, or the invention of the index or table of contents. The basic idea of learning and reading via computing: 0’s and 1’s translated into human language, is still consistent since the computer’s inception; and most importantly the content is always transmutable. Computers were developed to break codes in World War II after all. In the future, file extension names might change but the technological market will be expected to ensure compatibility and develop legacy software that will allow users to access dated materials. Any major operating system developer or software storage designer that enters the market expecting people to abandon everything on their old system will not succeed. I don’t believe that has ever been attempted.

This is why I think it’s unfair of Eco/Carriere to blame technology for the loss of old knowledge. It is sad that we have discarded so much. But both of them point out later on page 148 that people have thrown away books all the time: “How many precious documents and rare books have been destroyed as a result of simple negligence, oversight or accident?” So it is not the fault of technology. Technology has enabled a huge influx of diverse and in my opinion, very durable writing to profligate our collective consciousness and we only have so much room to spare. And as our storage space capacities continue to improve, it’s less likely we will lose access to obscure and esoteric materials, although our cultural dialogue is moving too fast right now for the uninterested to pay these things attention. Overall though, I believe the Internet is a positive influence on dissecting the grand narratives that have historically shaped the way we think about art and literature, the same behemoths that Eco and Carriere find distasteful. The E-book is in the long run cheaper (there are e-reader recycling/donation programs as well) and provides options that might have been inaccessible through text. For example, difficult translations. Or repressive societies: political dissidents in China might have had certain texts seized if ordered by mail – but a bit of careful digging and filter back-dooring on the net can facilitate access. The value of a book lies in the ideas it presents – if the words are appearing before your eyes as the author intended, then why does it matter whether or not it appears on a screen or on a page?

^ That is a discussion question.

More questions:

-Do you agree with Eco and Carriere that the book will endure? For how much longer? What sort of technological or societal limitations do you think we need to overcome in order for us to do away with the book completely.

-What do you think the objective of the book is? Eco and Carriere discuss that nothing else has managed to replace the book’s function so far, such as film, music, video games. As we move towards a more interactive medium found in more and more e-books, do you think the book’s relationship with the reader is becoming corrupted, or enhanced? What I’m really asking is, do you think it’s okay for me to play Age of Empires as a substitute for reading a history textbook?

-What sort of consequences do you predict the decreased value of the E-book will have on the world of literature?

-It is a potential problem that, although the digital medium will retain storage of old work, our hyperactive imaginations will brush past it. What do you think scholars can do to improve global interest in reading and writing about this knowledge we seem to be on the cusp of permanently forgetting?

-Is there anything else in my summary or presentation you take issue with or would like to comment on?

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One Response to Wooden spoons were improved with metal (because of the splinters)

  1. Sam Hossack says:

    Hi Toby,

    I wanted to begin by thanking you for your very thought-provoking presentation summary: I am looking forward to hearing your full presentation tomorrow! In preparation for our class discussion, I would like to here address your questions on the objective/purpose of the book.

    Although I do agree with you that the content of a book is the primary focus, I think that the medium does affect the reader’s perception of the content itself. Just as the same soup tastes differently when eaten with a wooden, metal, or plastic spoon, words can be perceived differently when read digitally or in paper form. Books, such as “Tree of Codes” and Barbara Yates’ wooden book covers represent the kinds of books that do not effectively translate from print to digital (and similar examples can be found for the opposite). In cases such as these, the print form of a book provides the reader with a much different understanding of the text itself. Furthermore, the print form allows authors to explore different ways of representing the same information/content. Books, such as “The Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter”, to name well-known examples, are produced with different covers, different pagination, different fonts, etc. to appeal to different audiences. Although this is also possible in a digital format, it is not nearly as effective.

    These things being said, the digital form of a book does have its own advantages. Content written specifically for the digital/internet format will invariably be more effective being read on that same platform. In contrast, content written for the printed page will be more effective being read on the printed page. “Tristram Shandy”, for example, is more effectively read in its long print form than on Project Gutenberg, as a result of Laurence Sterne’s intention that it be read as a novel (it is also possible to discuss the medium of novel-by-installments here as well).

    The second important question to discuss is whether it is possible to play “Age of Empires” rather than read a history book. As a history major, I am appalled at the thought of this, however, I do realize that interactive learning is much more effective for some people. Many students in my history classes do in fact learn class content through video games and other interactive mediums, and tend to do very well in regurgitating facts and figures, citing the different kinds of weapons used in particular battles, and naming every commander of every company (companies are a smaller command unit, usually consisting of only ~100-200 people). However, by not reading books, these students are not able to make effective arguments and cannot effectively apply their knowledge. As a result they tend to be less effective historians. Is it possible to learn history through video games and other interactive mediums? Absolutely, but these mediums do not teach what is ultimately more important, and the reason we ultimately do read: to attain knowledge and be able to apply that knowledge effectively.

    In conclusion, it is necessary to recognize the purpose of reading, the purpose of having books, in order to understand whether or not they are valuable. There is an inherent benefit to interactive mediums, but these do not, and I would argue cannot, subsume the value of reading. Reading itself, is possible on different mediums (digital and print) but the experience of reading is fundamentally altered by this medium. I would argue that a particular medium can suit a particular content much better in certain circumstances, but it is ultimately up to an individual to decide the value of print and the value of digital mediums.

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