March 17, 2009 § Leave a comment
Nine years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times* about electronic paper, which had not yet come on the market. I wrote as one who had been addicted to books practically since birth, and who could remember the particular feel of a paperback that has fallen in the tub and dried out: swollen, a little crunchy, needing to be read carefully. I had a fondness for books that had survived immersion similar to my appreciation for my cat when he sat still and let me bathe him. Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, and Marjorie Morningstar were a few of my victims.
But now I have a Kindle and I can’t take it in the bath. (This isn’t really a problem, since my bathtub is not a nice place.) I’m perfectly happy to read in bed. Since I’ve only had the Kindle a few days, it makes me feel like I’m doing something important, as when I first learned to use a computer. Not the same, of course. The Kindle is easy. It’s also made me more vividly aware that in the next decade or two print newspapers and magazines will vanish, and books will exist in far fewer numbers. That makes me sad—I’ll never lose my emotional attachment to paper—but it’s okay. We learned to live without papyrus. Nobody practices penmanship anymore.The problem is figuring out how not to lose valuable digital records as technology leaps ahead.
Right now, there are a number of people preserving old hardware and transferring data to new systems. Libraries make and will make decisions on a continuing basis about what to keep, what to transfer. But history depends on the found object, the book or pamphlet that has sat unread in an attic or library for a 100 or 200 years and come out perfectly readable, if a little musty. My reflex answer is to keep printed copies of everything important, but that’s not going to be what happens. Instead, we’ll develop computers that can emulate the processes of old systems, and all data will have meta-information about its own compatibility requirements embedded. Then you’ll open, on your new machine, that old disk or file you found on your grandmother’s computer and be bored or amazed at the stuff she used to write; you’ll lift forgotten gems from her Kindle. That may not work forever, but it’s as far ahead as I can see.
Still, it’s a little scary that so many questions now are answered by: In the future, when we have these really awesome computers Not to mention what will result when the computers become sentient, which may or may not happen, but I think it will. Perhaps they’ll be like 19th century schoolteachers, feeding us only moral tales in an attempt to eradicate the beast in humanity. Perhaps they’ll whisper erotic stories in our ears as we sleep in order to stimulate the amusing spectacle of human desire. More likely they’ll write their own books, and novelists like me will grumble about the competition.
In the meantime, anything I write is going to be printed on acid-free paper, bound and stored in a cool dark place. When I get around to it, that is. And since it’s my birthday today, will somebody bake me a cake like the one in the photograph?