Posted on April 28, 2009
The post-print revolution continues
From Steven Johnson, writing April 20 in The Wall Street Journal, reflecting on an experience with his Kindle:
I knew then that the book’s migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways. It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them. It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.
There is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution. The question is: Will we recognize the book itself when that revolution has run its course?
This is what has already happened to the newspaper, and really, journalism in toto.
I’m not ready to buy a Kindle; I’m resisting because there are already too many electronic devices in my carry-on, and I find it tedious to plug everything in at night in hotel rooms to ensure that all batteries are fully charged come morning. But I have held and tried out the Kindles of other people, and it is a fine device, quite comfortable to use, easy to read. I won’t be old-fashioned and say I prefer to touch paper and turn pages.
Whether I buy a Kindle or not — whether you do, or whether some other e-book gadget replaces the Kindle a year or two down the road — is not the point.
In addition to what has happened to the newspaper, I often think about what has happened to scholarly research as a result of digital technology, another transformation of ink into bits. When I was in grad school, the library catalog was electronic, but the nasty academic journals were still bound in volumes resting on endless shelves, structured by the impenetrable Library of Congress cataloging system. I’d haul out the cumbersome books, thumb around until I had the right issue, find the table of contents, find the page. Often a short scan would show that the article was of no use to me; then on to the next. If it turned out to be an essential article, I would lug the book to the photocopy machine (which still ran on coins, not a scan card) and miserably copy each page, lifting the lid and repositioning the clumsy book 10 or 20 times.
Now my research is a collection of downloaded PDF files, every article fully searchable, neatly categorized into digital folders on my hard drive and my USB. Searching the journals can be done from any computer. Almost any article can be downloaded in seconds. Notes can be taken with copy-and-paste. Reference lists are so easy to compile, with so much less typing that I used to need to do.
Much has been written about the transformation in European thought, religion, politics, and society following the diffusion of the printing press in the 1500s. Many people have observed that the Internet sparked a comparable revolution. But the transformation isn’t over yet — it goes on, and the Kindle is just one more step on this road, like the invention of page numbers and indexes some time after the debut of the printed book.