Another publisher gets it wrong

In Publishing: The Revolutionary Future, an article in the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein talks about the massive changes that are in store for publishing and books with the advent of digital content and devices. The article begins well, summarising the revolutionary changes wrought by Gutenberg’s press, and quickly reaches the present day with mention of the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, Apple iPad, and the era of a ‘practically limitless choice of titles’. So far, so good.

And then Epstein says this:

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary’s haikus. That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.

You read that right: by Epstein’s logic, because you can access any book with one click, another click could obliterate the contents of the world’s libraries and consequently bring civilization to an end. I suppose I’d better be careful where I click, then – I might delete the internet!

The belief that storing words digitally is more dangerous than storing it on paper is a popular one among NYRB writers; a couple of years ago, Robert Darnton, Director of the University Library at Harvard, argued (a bit more sensibly, it’s fair to say) that digital storage, unlike paper, has to contend with the obsolescence of hardware and software at a rapid pace*.

*I wrote about Darnton’s article in a post here called Defending the Library of Google

True enough, but what many commentators who are not familiar with technology fail to realise is that digital content’s most powerful advantage is that it can be perfectly and rapidly copied, not merely to backups but to local and offline copies in hundreds or thousands or millions of locations around the world.

There are good arguments for keeping physical books in the digital age, and I hope that they continue to be produced and archived indefinitely, but the possibility that some Google employee (perhaps formerly from the Buzz division) might click ‘Delete’ instead of ‘Publish’ and thus wipe out every single digital record in existence is, well, just not one of them. Even the most durable book or stone tablet will degrade over centuries and millenia, and if there are only a few hundred or thousand copies made, they can be easily lost of destroyed; indeed, the main reason why we have the records we have from ancient Rome and Egypt are because they were popular stories or publication, so that many copies of them were made.

Equally, what we write and create today will survive, not simply due to the durability of the software or hardware (and there’s certainly room for improvement there) but because of the volume of copies – and we have the power to create not just hundreds of copies, but millions. Continue reading “Another publisher gets it wrong”