FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Future for Books and Paper

It's always been assumed that books and paper would be among the first victims of the Information Revolution (remember that phrase?).  But, as we've seen, it hasn't quite worked out that way.  To the contrary, argues anthropologist Alex Golub, the printed word will almost surely remain a part of our future:

It’s true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources “have features” or “are usable” while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct — paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven’t figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.

Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.

But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

Golub goes on to praise the librarian's and bookstore's role in "filtering" and organizing content, and even the decorative value of books in the home.  One suspects that Golub is not a voice in the wilderness, that he speaks for many who feel the same way.

Sources: Inside Higher Ed, Question Technology