Why rumors of the death of the book are greatly exaggerated


Tell me if you’ve heard something like this recently:

“Books in our schools will soon be obsolete.  In the near future, teaching will be primarily conducted by a new remarkable technology.  In fact, every branch of human knowledge can be taught through this technology.  Because of this technology, our schools will be completely different within ten years.”

Although it sounds suspiciously like promotional literature from Apple or Google extolling the virtues of the internet or ebooks, it is, in fact, a statement (in slightly paraphrased form) by Thomas Edison in 1913.  The technology he was referring to was not (obviously) the internet, but the motion picture (the “Vitascope” was but one brand of the technology; it competed against the “Projectoscope”, among others).


For all his genius, Edison had apparently not learned a basic lesson of human technological history: new technologies do not inevitably replace older ones, but often take their place alongside them.  The invention of writing did not eliminate memorization (although this was widely feared in the ancient world; one only need read Plato to see the anxiety expressed); the printing press did not eliminate calligraphy; the radio and motion picture did not eliminate the book; and television did not eliminate the motion picture (although this was a major source of anxiety amongst film studio executives in the 1950s).  And the internet, frankly, has not eliminated any of these other media (at least not yet).

Today in education circles there is a lot of talk about ebooks and their inevitable replacement of the printed word.  Consider the brave new world promised by ads such as the one below:


Note the tagline: “The Next Chapter in Learning.”  The work of Darwin, Mendel, Avery, Hershey, Chase, Watson, Crick, and the Human Genome Project is all well and good, but to truly experience “the next chapter” of biology, you need an ebook! Of course, it is easy enough to see beyond advertising rhetoric; P.T. Barnum would advise us never to trust a man who has something to sell you.  But whether or not the rhetoric will prove accurate, and whether the ebook will actually make textbooks obsolete is something no one can predict.  Yes, it is true that Edison was wrong about motion pictures, just as Lord Kelvin was wrong about heavier than air flying machines.  But we should not commit the historical fallacy of suggesting that just because wrong predictions about technology have been made in the past, they will inevitably continue to be wrong in the future.  In fact, many accurate predictions about technology have also been made in the past, and perhaps the age of the book truly is coming to an end.  Or to put it another way, even though Edison was wrong, perhaps Steve Jobs was right.

If you want some food for thought, I would suggest Leah Price’s superb essay “Dead Again” from the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  But although I have little to add to Price’s brilliant analysis (she doesn’t teach at Harvard for nothing), I do have one small illustration, suggested by a friend of mine (a fanatical computer programmer and web designer, ironically enough).  He put it to me this way (I’m paraphrasing here):

“Imagine that you purchase a PDF of your favorite novel and store it on the hard drive of your laptop computer.  Then imagine that you keep a paper copy of said novel on your desk beside your laptop.  Suddenly everyone on Earth mysteriously vanishes, sucked into some kind of strange, Mary Celeste-type dimensional rift.  For one thousand years the planet sits abandoned, populated only by flora and fauna.  Finally in the year 3012, alien explorers of superb intelligence arrive at our planet on an archaeological dig.  They discover your laptop and your paper copy of the novel.  The novel will be dusty, the pages stiff and yellow, and perhaps warped and stained with mildew, but still completely readable.  But will they be able to access the PDF?”  At this point my friend leaned in close and said, in a whisper suggesting a vast conspiracy of his fellow technophiles, “Anyone who says they could quite literally does not know what they are talking about.”

It’s a valid point–the sheer simplicity, versatility, and durability of paper are a strong reason to suspect it will never be replaced (though no doubt supplemented; after all, you’re reading this on a computer or a smartphone, aren’t you?).

Having said that, consider this: If you click on the link to Leah Price’s essay above and print out a paper copy of her essay, you will have a permanent copy of Price’s words that will certainly last you for months or years. But the link itself? Will it still connect you to Price’s essay if you check in on this page next month? Next year? Ten years?

Your guess is as good as mine.

the future