Saturday, February 15, 2014


Footprint on the Moon - Image from NASA archive
[Neil Armstrong passed away on the 28th of August, 2012. Reflecting on his life and legacy inspired me to write this essay, originally published elsewhere]

I am fan of the e-book revolution, and frankly think that railing against the ways in which e-books will destroy literature stinks of the elitist terrors that accompanied the shift from monastic scriptoria to the printing press as a means for

the mass production of texts. Just like the printing press, the e-book offers the world of the printed word to even more people, and the ability to copy and transmit entire textbooks to the opposite side of the planet nearly instantly can’t be ignored, even if there’s still work to be done to make the technology needed to read e-books available everywhere.

Oh, make no mistake: e-books have their disadvantages like any technology, and just as the widespread adoption of the printing press eliminated the “demand” for beautifully hand-illuminated volumes I’m sure there will be dimensions of the modern printing industry that will suffer as e-books gain more and more traction. There will be less need for beautiful covers, for example, since e-books need “covers” that are easily viewed both full-size and thumbnail-size –for which simple is better. Book sets designed with spines that come together on your shelf to create another image will be impossible to implement, of course. Certain writing techniques that rely on the author’s ability to control the layout of the page will die as well.

One wonders if the easy-come, easy-go nature of electronic files will push writers to produce lots of short, easy to read pieces or take advantage of the lack of space limitations to write enormous rambling tomes. Worse, the desire for ever-cheaper – sometimes free! –books may make it more difficult for publishers to support writers working on projects that require extensive research or travel.

Yes, there are many things that e-books will change about literature of all kinds. The type of literature – the style, the length, the genre – may well change. But despite the nay-sayers’ predictions of doom I find it difficult to believe that e-books will end books entirely. Like the printing press before it, the technology will force changes, but the fundamentals will likely stay the same.

No, the main issue I see when it comes to e-books is something much more subtle: ephemerality.

Consider Sumer and Akkad, the Egypt of the pyramid builders, the first Emperor of China, the religion of Mayan kings, the Achaean Greeks of Homer. What do these all have in common? What we know of them comes from what they wrote down.

Writing technologies have changed over the millennia, and as we’ve developed better ways to publish more words that can be distributed more widely, the corollary has been that the technology involved has become more ephemeral. The Sumerians inscribed their work on clay tablets that could be fired to create a lasting record. Most ancient civilizations cut words in stone, though of course such records were rarely much more than names and dates. The Egyptians learned to make papyrus, and the Chinese of the same era scratched words on strips of
bamboo, which could then be laced together and rolled. The skins of animals have been laboriously split into sheets and used for writing. Later, paper was invented in China and spread throughout the world as
a cheaper alternative to papyrus. Later still, we found yet cheaper ways of making huge quantities of paper from relatively small quantities of raw material, resulting in newsprint and the filmy papers of the cheapest of cheap pocket books. And now at last to “printing” our words with electrons – yes, the devices to read the
words are expensive, but the cost of reproduction is essentially nothing, and so with a few watts of electricity we could flood the world with copies of a new book. 

Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?

But think about this: Sumerian tablets are still with us, as are Egyptian inscriptions and Chinese bamboo scrolls. Mayan walls, either carved or painted with their intricate hieroglyphs can be found in forgotten temples in the jungles of the Yucatan. Huge, heavy tomes laboriously copied by hand after hand record fragments of Aristotle
and Plato on sheets of vellum and parchment. And all of these things have come down to us over hundreds – even thousands of years.

The ancient papers were heavy and robust, but even so they dried and crumbled over time, and one has to be very careful to avoid destroying the eldest documents we still have. Newer papers are worse still, some yellowing and cracking over mere years – let alone decades.

And what of electrons?

Theoretically eternal, this turns out to be the most ephemeral of all.Computers crash, viruses wipe memories, hard drives fail – even the amazing CDs and DVDs we love to use for “long term storage” are unlikely to last for more than 10-15 years before the plastic and metallic film break down and become unreadable - the contents lost

What irony, that in this age when our technology and education makes it possible for us to produce in one day more publicly available knowledge than entire centuries of civilization before us we have embraced technology that may well let our knowledge evaporate within just a few decades if we should ever fall.

Thankfully, even if all our words should fail there will be one record of our achievements that should last for centuries at least:

Neil Armstrong's footprints, pressed into the dust of the Moon like cuneiform.

No mere words could be so eloquent.

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