Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Masque of the Digital Death

Reading the commentators who extol paper and proclaim its immortality, I think of the entire scenario in terms of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”:

Digitization encroached on all aspects of life. Nothing on Earth could escape its grip. But the Paper Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. He gathered the most vociferous paper advocates from around the world and brought them to his abbey. They bolted the gate shut so no one and nothing could enter or leave.

It was folly to grieve or to think. The paper people spent their days and nights in constant revelry. A toast to paper! Hear! Hear! Paper is eternal! They drank and they danced, they read out loud from the Paper Prince’s extensive collection of paper books, until the midnight tolling of the grandfather clock in the furthest chamber caused them all to hesitate for a moment, but with the end of the chimes they resumed their gaiety.

A masked figure appeared at the party holding what appeared to be an ebook reader. Outraged, the Paper Prince and his paper courtiers chased the figure to the furthest chamber where it turned and held up the reader for all to see, and one by one dropped the revelers. And digitization held illimitable dominion over all.

Paper is not permanent, paper is not forever, paper is not eternal—but you knew that already. I think everyone accepts that, except for a handful of librarians and book publishers. Yes, it will hang around in a much smaller way for a long time, but that’s beside the point. Paper currently dominates the book market. Bowker estimates roughly 300,000 book titles published per year in the US alone. Paper is Prospero—I mean, paper is king. But the long-term trends are clear and there is no persuasive reason to believe they will or should reverse themselves.

William Powers’ paper “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal,” has left me even more convinced of the eventual death of paper, as I find his reasoning and conclusions unsatisfactory and unconvincing.

Sadly, it is the people within the book industry itself (librarians, publishers) that are often the most short-sighted when peering into the future, as the ones I read seem to look into their crystal balls no more than a few years or decades ahead, while I think in terms of millennia or billenia (does God think in terms of mere decades or centuries? Then why should I?). How will we read or produce paper books if forced off the Earth at some distant point in time and relocate to a planet incapable of growing trees or paper. Producing technology such as workable computers under such circumstances is a far safer bet.

Written communication existed long before paper and will exist long after. My own prediction for the date of the Death of Paper is 4,000 AD, give or take a few centuries.

I prefer reading a novel on my Sony reader to a paper book. I’ve read supposed experts on the internet who say there is no one like that, but they are transferring their own likes and fears onto everyone outside themselves. I’ve come to enjoy the portability and the compactness of the reader, as opposed to a cumbersome book. Yes, I prefer the reader to even just one print book, but of course it holds many and I can decide at a moment’s notice which of a hundred books to read.

A broader selection of ebook titles is needed, but publishers are starting to come on board—Penguin most recently. Ebook evangelists spill a lot of e-ink discussing an ePub standard for ebook files instead of the proprietary formats used by the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. Of course that would be a great idea and it’s a fun topic to think about and imagine how much easier everything would be, but it’s not happening anytime soon. The market needs to grow considerably before the time is ripe—and it will.

In the meantime, a toast to paper! It has served us well, but nothing inside the universe is eternal and eventually we’ll have to say goodbye as we move forward and say hello to new modes of communication.

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