Sunday, 11 October 2009

The death of the book?

Two things on the Guardian website today make interesting reading: first it's Angela Merkel decrying Google's attempts to put every book everever online so they can be searchable. She is, it seems to me, rightly worried about the implications for copyright protection.

The second is one writer's negative experience negative of the new Kindle.

In its own defence, Google has apparently said it wants to put all these books online in order to make out of print and rare books accessible. That's as maybe, but unless there's some sort of system that stops you from being able to view the whole book in one hit, it does seem to be just mass copyright theft.

Google styles itself as a champion of information freely accessible to all, yet it restricts search engines in China, in order to get in in the first place, and while they are providing other people's information for free, they are making a killing. You can understand why people like Rupert Murdoch (quoted in the Guardian article) are getting a little pissed off with this.

It has been argued that music piracy doesn't kill music, because people who actually like the music make a point of buying it after having perhaps sampled it illegally. With technology like Kindle it does seem that this is already possible for books but, and admittedly this is anecdotal, is doesn't seem that the technology is quite there.

The writer of the Guardian piece doesn't like the screen because it's grey. This is to avoid backlighting, which is hard on the eyes after a long time, apparently. And the Kindle itself is a bit like iTunes used to be before it got rid of its DRM (and is a bit like Apple generally in that it only works with its own software and formats). By the sound of it, the Sony Reader is a much better designed e-book and can handle a multiplicity of formats. And if you've got an iPhone or iPod touch, you can read Kindle books on those because, I suspect, it's economically prudent, for Amazon to allow it.

If I ever buy an e-book, it's not going to be for a while. What I want from my all purpose device for books, music, internet, phone, computing and TV is just not there yet. Lack of backlight is certainly an attractive proposition. But, unsurprisingly, this makes it difficult to read in the dark. But why can't everything be like that? If they can invent electronic paper without a glare, why isn't someone working on an equivalent for the internet? With the option of lighting if required. I wrote three years ago now about what sort of multimedia device I wanted, and there's still nothing that fits that description. Come on techgeeks, get those thinking caps on.

I think digital is the future. But as for the argument that something like Kindle is better for the environment, I am sceptical. I have a friend who works in environmental engineering. I asked him once if the digital adverts they have up the sides of some escalators in the tube were better for the environment than all the stick-up ads. He said it was highly unlikely given how much power they used. Ok, Kindle is a different type of screen, but it would be good if someone did a proper study into it.

Fundamentally, I like the feel of a book in my hand. I like the way they get slightly battered the more and more I read them. I like the sense of accomplishment I feel as I survey the many tomes I have ploughed my way through. And I'm also a compulsive hoarder. I like the cover illustrations and the fact that you don't have to plug them in or charge them up, they are just there. And they're more tangible. Along with letters, newspapers and now books, the evidence of our society and our way of life is disappearing. Maybe we don't necessarily need to leave a record of ourselves for future generations, but we always have up to now and it's provided us with a fascinating insight into how humanity and our culture has evolved. What are we going to do, set up some archive system that prints a set number of things just so we copies? It could be the Time Capsule Institute or something.

For all these reasons, I shall be sad when/if books disappear for good.

1 comment:

TheTelf said...

I would suspect that books probably won't disappear in our lifetimes because we're used to them and we're nostalgic about them. As long as a generation who has grown up with books is alive, books will be worth printing. However, I can imagine a (reasonably distant) future in which our generation is long gone, and everyone alive has grown up with books being more of a novelty than a mainstream product (perhaps the way that the generation after ours feels about LPs).

If people have no nostalgia about the feel of a book in their hands, the smell of old paper etc, then they'll start to make a decision based on utility and efficiency, in which case, I can see e-books (or their all-powerful super-holographic decendents) taking over.

There's an interesting question of data-compatibility (can we get into a state where we can't actually read a lot of our generation's historical record because technology has moved onwards), but I've had long arguments about that before, and I'm not going to start another here. :)

I'd be interested to see some statistics on the tube-adverts thing. Taking into account long-term production, transportation and disposal costs of paper adverts, I can see an argument for digital screen ads being more eco-friendly.