“Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is, uh, it… it has no, no texture, no, no context. It’s, it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um… smelly.”, Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 8, “I – Robot, You – Jane”
It’s a beautiful quote, that certainly paints Giles in vivid colors as an English old fashioned person. It was season 1, and there was a need to characterize the main characters. This quote worked wonderfully for that. Has it?
In a slashdot discussion, I see comments like “I like e-Books, but I just bought a bunch of leather-bound books — there’s something that does not quite match”, “there is a magic in turning pages” and others that Giles would absolutely adore.
Let me first make my position abundantly clear — I would throw away all my library in a heart-beat, not thinking twice, if I could have it all fit on a 16GB thumb drive that I could carry everywhere, and read whenever I want to. There are still some hurdles, but it looks like they are going away one by one, and I am hoping to do just that in a few years. My books are still all in my parents’ place in Jerusalem, not my new apartment. I simply do not have place for such a library, and am certainly not in a mood to move all my books there — and it’s a rental, and for all I know I might be out of there in eight months (and moving back my books really seems like a pain). I love reading, and getting more books, and basically there’s a room that’s filled with my library. Getting more books requires finding a place for them, and it’s swiftly becoming non-trivial.
I love books, but paper is just a physical manifestation of them. The real book, the abstract book, is just the series of words, needing some physical medium to be on. An e-book revolution would make the Gutenberg print revolution look like moving to a better form of ink. Publishing costs would be literally zero (e-mail the book to people who want it, put it up on a website or some combination). Gutenberg made copying costs smaller, and fostered a revolution in how people read and write. Making them zero would bring about a revolution ten times the size. But this is the small stuff. The real revolution would be that people could carry their entire library with them, always, all the time. We would always have everything to read.
What’s stopping the revolution?
First of all, there are the mystics. The Gileses, and the wanna-be Gileses on slashdot and the like, who keep harping about some kind of magical mystery to be found in paper. I’m kinda betting that when they stopped hand-copying books, people were worried that books will lose their individuality. When they moved to paper from papyrus, people probably complained that it feels wrong. Those people tend to be steamrolled into submission when the new technology arrives.
Then, there’s technology. Computer screens have too little resolution, and eInk is slow and specialized. These problems look like they’re destined to be solved, one way or another. At worst, the standard laptop would come with a second screen you can pull out of the usual screen and laid on top, which would be eInk. I’m guessing there’ll be something even simpler, like a screen that can move between modes or even some technology with all the advantages of both types. In a few years, when the price point for the cheapest laptops is 75$, and you buy it in supermarkets and grocery stores, everybody will just have that as one of their computers.
And last but not least, there are publishers. The traditional industry certainly has an entrenched interest in keeping the current model. I’m not even saying publishers will be obsolete (although that is a possibility). But even if they are not, these days forming a new publisher is a costly venture, and a lot of it is the expensive contracts with the printers and distributors. With eBooks, every three disgruntled editors thinking they are underpaid could open a publisher. Book stores, of course, will be obsolete. At most, there’ll be free sites linking to where you can paypal the 1-2$ per book and download a copy. Publishers, book stores and everyone involved in the industry will fight tooth and nail against it, including some backhanded methods like fostering DRM methodologies making eBooks less desirable. But like true love, nothing can stop technology. All it can do is delay it for a while…