Dilemmas of a modern age.
Originally written 17.05.2011
Since I wrote this, my favorite used book store in Mountain View ( bookbuyers ) has closed. And with it my heart. No store had the used science fiction selection they had. Their loss is HUGE. And future generations will never know how much less colorful their world is because of it.
I still own that ratty beat up Leaves of Grass paperback I got when I was a young child. It means the world to me.
I can recite Walt Whitman’s O Captain my Captain from memory. The reason I can do this is because it was my favorite poem in my favorite book when I was in the fourth grade. I learned it to the last letter just for a school project. I remember practicing it when i was lying in bed in the dark. I remember finding the book that exposed me to it in the school library. And I remember buying my first real book. A copy of leaves of grass that more or less fell to pieces as I read and reread it. I remember fixing the binding again and again with scotch tape. Many years later as a young professional I remember walking the stacks of Strands book store in NYC perusing many wonderful used books. I happened across a small hardcover copy of leaves of grass. I opened the book to check the print date and see if it was a complete copy. Upon doing so I discovered a hand written note scrawled upon the inside cover of the book. The former owner had signed and dated their hope that someone would find this book as rewarding to read as they did in 1945. I purchased that copy of leaves of grass for 3 dollars. It is one of my most treasured books. I hope some day to leave a similar book in the stacks at strands for another young person to find.
Today however, I find myself wondering if the stacks of strands may soon find themselves to be fading into the obscurity of history. And while I am stricken by a feeling of loss in confronting that terrible possibility, I am also reminded of the inspiration and hope I have for the technology that may very well be the silver bullet that destroys so much of what I loved in literature. For the first time, I feel as though I am at odds with technology. And what’s worse is that I feel that there is no simple resolution to the conflict that has risen within me between what has been great, and what may be great. Are the two mutually exclusive? Must I choose?
At face value a book is merely pulped wood sliced and glued to a spine and wedged between two protective plates. It is an antiquated and somewhat inefficient package for the information that is compressed and stored within. But it is not without it’s novelty or it’s unique benefits. A book once owned is yours until you choose to part with it, or you die. You can loan it out, keep it hidden, or allow it to meet it’s end in any number of ways. You can choose to read it or simply block open doors with it. It is wholly yours to do with as you please and there is no great authority that can render your command of the book nullified. One book alone however is merely that. What made books special was when they came together.
Many have found themselves deep in the stacks of a library, or a book store. But some of us experienced the romanticism of that. The smell of the books wafting in the air, the almost reverent silence that permeated every wall. The soft rustle of pages turning, and the distant squeak of a book cart moving about on a mission all its own. And the feeling of expectation and hope that you might find some great story or idea among the works archived there. For me the stacks are intoxicating. But there’s more to the stacks than the stacks themselves. Books are knowledge. And vast pools of knowledge are curated by communities. The communities that have grown up around that effort are wonderful. Hacker spaces have reminded me of libraries from the very first moment I was introduced to them. They are not just shared spaces. They aren’t desks and drill presses. They are communities of people working together to advance the common good. To learn, to share, and to make. The first two parts of a hacker space’s goal could be directly applied to any library and it’s community. And while commercial book vendors similarly are very much a product of their communities, public libraries have the unique role of being truly democratic communities. Books are not just paper bound in leather or fabric. They are one part of a whole community.
The technology of e-readers are today in their infancy and much of what they are truly capable of has not been explored. We know that digital transmission makes the logistical process of distributing works much easier and cheaper. But we have barely scratched the surface of how interactive interfaces will impact the way in which we as a species commit work to writings in the future. How will that writing interact with other technologies and, those same technologies with it. These are amazing opportunities to explore new territory and discover new things about ourselves and better ourselves. The benefits of a small electronic gizmo being a storehouse for hundreds and thousands of works is undeniable. Readers are here to stay until they morph into some other device that meets the growing needs of digital age literature. Heck maybe at some later date even the written word will find itself rendered inefficient in the face of the seemingly unstoppable march of progress. Who is to say?
But the technology regardless of it’s efficiency is concerned directly with the storage of knowledge. And knowledge is intended to be curated be it democratically at a massive scale or among smaller groups. How will this new technology map to the communities of the world? And more importantly, how will this knowledge continue to be made available to all that wish to delve into it and later contribute back to it.
The printing press was one of the single greatest revolutions in the history of the world. It was the means for the common man to reach out and seize control of his own destiny from those who had turned knowledge into a commodity. The veil of ignorance now lifted, the entirety of the world exploded in creativity and growth. It also exploded into violence and chaos. Books had been the works of lifetimes. In some cases many people had died to protect books from destruction at the hands of enemies. For example, the Book of Kells is today a lynch pin of Irish cultural heritage and history. It was the product of multiple authors efforts and many gave their lives in the the service of writing or protecting the book. What the gutenberg press did is it took something like the Book of Kells or more famously, the Bible and it made it possible to distribute the completed work amongst many. At first the cost of even these copies was still very high. And in fact the cost of books has been gradually decreasing over time due to advancements in technology that have enabled cheaper mass production of copies. As a result we are all so much richer in culture and knowledge.
The other day I bought a copy of Knuth’s selected papers on fun and games. The paper back edition sold for nearly 40 dollars and the hardcover for close to 100. I understand the cost of a well made book such as my copy of “the red book” by Jung. But in this case the quality of the print was on par with any 8 dollar novel. One can argue that “limited” runs of books are expensive. As is the storage of excess stock and so on. But even as we begin to push about work in digital format the cost of many small distribution works remain very high. I suppose the argument then is that the author should be justly compensated for their work. However I cannot help but see a closed loop of knowledge distribution failing to reach out to many who could contribute greatly to increased developments relevant to research. I have been a proponent of open source and the free communication of knowledge for many years. While I recognize, respect, and in some cases endorse the decision to charge for knowledge or engineering capability, there are times I feel as though everyone is hurt by selfish decisions. Libraries exist to provide limited access to those who cannot afford to purchase costly books such as Knuth’s papers and his critical works on algorithms. When the world’s knowledge rests on silicon memory wafers how will we maintain this delicate balance of knowledge transfer and rewards for authors?
I don’t know how technology such as the E-reader will play into the future of the public library. I have written about my continued love of the public library and my own future visions in which technology is embraced by them and made available to people of every community. But the E-reader as it is being sold today does not lend itself to any of the use cases that libraries exist to fill. In many cases physical books are still a preferred medium. Adding to that I wonder about the fate of the used book store. It has been my experience that many libraries and book stores seem to rise to meet the requests of the vox populi. In so doing, they neglect entire volumes of information that still have definitive value. Used book stores have presented works and ideas to me that would have otherwise never made their way to my hands. Be it because the works were simply obscure, or because they had left print long ago. Or maybe the only reason a store such as strands would have a copy of a book is because that book is now the subject of legal scrutiny in terms of who if anyone owns the copyright. Sometimes it’s just because the shelves aren’t tuned to the popular literature of the day.
How will works be protected from policy blackholes and overzealous copyright. How will knowledge continue to be protected by my community? And what new threats will we face?
I can’t answer this. I am no lawyer and in fact, my guess is my hatred of lawyers will continue to grow as we begin to enter into this exploratory phase. The reality is that it will be very difficult to stop selfish people from hurting everyone based solely on the expectation of short term gains. As is usually the case. I think that groups such as public libraries and hacker spaces will become focal points of actions that will be taken either in political action or engineering to preserve the free exchange of knowledge.
Will communities be as strong a force for good when they are spread among the internet and are not longer able to carry their own voice in our geographic based democracy? Are we simply giving up on our voice by adopting these new technologies? How horrible is this question?
I find that many of the people I converse with daily about heady topics such as politics and technology are not geographically local to me. We are spread across the planet as stars are spread across the sky. For many people today they find their social peers not among the seats of a bowling alley but in a raid somewhere in the world of warcraft. The trouble is that our entire government is built around an idea of geographic representation. Soon the majority will in fact be the minority. And when that happens our entire electoral system ceases to be relevant to the very notion of democracy. Technologies that unchain us from our geographic communities chain us to the legislation of others.
I’ve written before about how important it is to make an effort to meet your neighbours, and involve yourself in the lives of them. To be an active member in your geographic community. But in many ways that is hypocrisy. I myself am unable to do it. The simple fact is I am dedicated to the communities I am a part of or have been a part of across many regions that I do not have the time to engage in any meaningful way with my geographic peers.
I feel that this fundamental issue will only become worse as our population moves more and more into a comfort zone in which community is not solely defined by daily physical contact. And there are of course many other implications of this change on social order that I am simply ignoring.
Lastly, where will future students go to make out when they should be studying?
I mean imagine you are studying in a coffee shop. You are staring at your kindle and the words aren’t even penetrating the fog of lust. The young lady next to you is so very obviously having the same luck you are concentrating on the origin of the greek drama. You need a deus ex machina to deliver the two of you to a place and time in which you can breach a barrier of social discomfort and be together. But now bereft of the stacks you are left to suffer in the arid badlands of civilization. Each merry laugh of a patron and gulp of coffee becoming acid in your own mouth and seething hatred in your own mind. Humanity will be consumed. All because we gave up on the wonders of the stacks.
Will an astronaut lost among the stars some day return to our planet and collapse on his knees before the half buried remains of the NY central library and cry out “You sons of bitches! You’ve finally gone and done it. You’ve killed us all!”
These are deep questions. And while I’d love to ponder them some more. Amazon just dropped off a book I’ve been dying to read. Catch you at the cafe.