SCOPE AND CONCERNS
Futures of the Book
Whether by the measure of the East or the West, the book is an old medium of representation. In China, paper was invented in the year 105, wood block printing in the late sixth century, book binding in about 1000, and moveable type by Bi Sheng in 1041. In Western Europe, the codex, or bound manuscript, emerged in the fourth century, and metal type and the printing press were invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. Within fifty years of Gutenberg's creation, print shops were to be found in every major city and town in Europe, and 23,000 titles and eight million volumes had been printed.
The consequence was a new way of representing the world. Contents pages and indexes ordered textual and visual content analytically. A tradition of bibliography and citation arose in which a distinction was made between the author's voice and ideas and the voice and ideas of other authors. Copyright and intellectual property were invented. And the widely used modern written languages we know today rose to dominance and stabilised, along with their standardised spellings and alphabetically ordered dictionaries, displacing a myriad of small spoken languages and local dialects.
The impact was enormous: modern education and mass literacy; the rationalism of scientific knowledge; the idea that there could be factual knowledge of the social and historical world; the nation state of interchangeable individuals; the persona of the creative individual author. All these are in part consequences of the rise of book culture, and give modern consciousness much of its characteristic shape.
We are today on the cusp of another revolutionary transition, or at least the numbers tell us that we are. Within a decade of its invention, ten per cent of the world's population had become connected to the Internet. There was almost no place on earth where it was not possible to connect to the Internet. Billions upon billions of pages had been published.
And so we find ourselves thrust into a new universe of textual media. In one moment, the commentators supply us with utopian readings; in the next, apocalyptic. Leaving behind the linear world of the book, they speak of hypertext and non-linear readings, of formerly passive book readers whose wilful navigation choices have turned them into active users of texts; and of the representation of virtual worlds in which the distant is brought so close, instantly and palpably. In moments of gloom, they also speak of a new inequality—the information inequality that is the result of the 'digital divide'. And they speak of a world of reduced human interaction, as sedentary persons increasingly find themselves tethered to machines.
Do the new electronic media foretell the death of the book? This is one of the key questions addressed by The Book Conference and the International Journal of the Book. To answer this question, we need to reflect on the history and form of the book, as well as the electronic texts which, it is alleged, pose a threat. And our conclusion may well be that, rather than being eclipsed by the new media, the book will thrive as a cultural and commercial artefact.
Here are three possibilities for the book in the digital age:
As well as the conventional printed book (and there is little doubt that people will always be taking that old printed and bound artefact to the beach or to bed, for the foreseeable future at least), the same text may also be available in a range of alternative media. It could also be available on computer screen or printed to paper on the spot, as there is hardly a computer without a printer. It could be something that is read on an ebook reading device. It could be rendered to audio via speech synthesis. Or it could find itself coming to life through new electronic media currently in development, such as the paper-like plastic substrates that can be read from reflected light. The result will be greater and easier access to books, and new markets: the student who needs to have a chapter of a book tonight for an assignment due in tomorrow; the person who is visually impaired and wants the voice synthesised version, or another person who wants to listen to the text while driving their car; the traveller who instantly needs just one piece of information from a travel guide and for whom a small piece of text on their mobile phone, about a particular monument or the nearby restaurant, is sufficient; or the teacher who wants to use some textual material as a 'learning object' in an electronic learning environment.
The traditional book business ran on economies of scale. There was a magic number, somewhere around the 3000 mark, that made a book viable—worth the trouble to write, print and distribute. Of course, the longer the print run, the better it was, according to the underlying logic of mass production. Costs reduced the longer the run, and access was at the cost of diversity. Mass production made for mass culture. Supporting this was a cumbersome infrastructure of slow moving inventory, large scale warehousing, expensive distribution systems and heavily stocked retail outlets—bad business in every respect, and providing little return for anyone who made books their livelihood, and least of all authors.
It's not only the electronic reading devices that change the economies of manufacturing scale. Variable digital print does the same thing. One thousand different books can be printed in one run, and this entails no more cost than printing one thousand copies of the same book. Small communities with niche markets now play on the same field as large communities with mass markets. Book printing machines the size of a one hour photo lab will be located in schools, in libraries and in bookstores, all of which will now be able to 'stock' any or even every book in the world.
These developments will favour small communities of interest and practice. They will lower the entry point to the world of publishing. Museums, research centres, libraries, professional associations and schools might all become publishers. They'll be more than happy if a title sells a few hundred copies, or is even provided to the world for free—options that were not previously possible. As for quality, publishing decisions will be made by communities who feel deeply for their domain of content, for that is their domain of interest and expertise. It has never been the case that quantity, the traditional mass market measure of success, equates with quality. This equation will prove even less tenable in the future.
Thousands of publishers and millions of new titles need not add up to information overload. There is already more than any one person can digest, yet we manage to find ways to locate what suits our particular needs and interests. The result of expanded publishing opportunities can only be good—a more healthy democracy, a place of genuine diversity. Digital print will also provide a means to cross the digital divide. If you can't afford a computer for every person in a readership (a school in a developing country, for instance, or a new literature in a small, historically oral language), proximity to computers and digital print will still allow cheap printed materials to be produced locally. There will be no need to buy someone else's language and culture to fill a local knowledge gap. This could be a world where small languages and cultures could flourish, and even, as machine translation improves, find that smallness does not mean isolation.
So what is the book's future, as a creature of and conduit for human invention? The digital media represent an opportunity for the book more than a threat.
For that matter, on closer examination, what's supposed to be new in the digital media is not so new at all. Hypertext's contribution is mechanical: it automates the information apparatuses that the printed book managed by page numbering, contents pages, indexing, citation and bibliography. And as for the virtual, what more did the written word and the printed image do than refer, often with striking verisimilitude, to things that are not immediately present. Indeed, the information architecture of the book, embodying as it does thousands of years' experience with recorded knowledge, provides a solid grounding for every adventure we might take in the new world of digital media.
These are just a few of the principal concerns of The Book Conference and the International Journal of the Book. They provide a forum for participants in the book publishing industry, librarians, researchers and educators to discuss the book—its past, present and future. Discussions range from the reflective (history, theory and reporting on research) to the highly practical (examining technologies, business models and new practices of writing, publishing and reading).
The digital media have arrived. Let's hold them to their promise of access, diversity and democracy. Long live the book!
Images: courtesy Emerson College website