Monday, April 25, 2005

Will Books Disappear?

I've enjoyed reading this week Plato and the Internet, by Kieron O'Hara (co-writer of the computer game "Tomb Raider 4," according to the cover). It's given me a much better perspective than I had before on what exactly the Internet is, how it came to be, and how it affects the acquisition, production, and dissemination of "knowledge."

The world O'Hara describes, I now realize, really is my world. Although I don't play computer games (reflexes poor), download much music (still stuck at the "put a record in the record player" stage, although "record" = CD), own an iPod or a cellphone, and my iBook is fast becoming an antique — I am a "knowledge worker" in this world of information overload. Most of my income is derived from data entry for two knowledge management systems (Inscriptifact and Accordance), although I try to maintain a presence in the old knowledge economy (books and articles).

That's made me think about the role of the new cybernetic acquisition of knowledge in the "ecology" of other systems of text acquisition. I think that those who prophesy the end of the old regimes of printed books and actual libraries in real, not virtual, buildings, are on the wrong track. They are thinking of information only in terms of retrieval. You can't beat computers for retrieval, and if you are treating a text as a source of information, the computer will greatly magnify the power of any text to serve as information or evidence. That's not going to go away.

But a text is not just a database. A novel, for instance, is not going to be accessed as a novel except by reading it straight through, and the best way to do that (don't start with me about E-books) is in a bound book. This applies mutatis mutandis to any book linearly organized — i.e. to books of imaginative content, of sustained argument, of cumulative pictorial or narrative power. They are still going to be best accessed in the old-fashioned way, unless they are going to be used only as information (e.g. checking Fielding for the syntactical patterns of British English in the 18th century).

On the other hand I think that books of non-linear information (like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and indexes) are eventually going to disappear in print format. (Or do you want to flip through a dictionary to look up words?) Just the other day I was ribbing a grad student because he actually had the massive dead-tree version of the Anchor Bible Dictionary on his bookshelves taking up space, instead of at his fingertips in the laptop. Not in my lifetime, but eventually, these printed sets will disappear.

But the Bible will still be printed, and so will books about it. And biblioblogs will still discuss them both — I hope.

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