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Join the discussion in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Digital Culture:

"The Invisible World Order," by Andrew Piper (July 29, 1998)
If digital technology is to serve humanity (and not the other way around), we'll have to come to terms with the database and all that it implies.

"The Right Mix," by Ralph Lombreglia (June 4, 1998)
Digital technology has made the private recording studio itself into a new kind of musical instrument.

"A Function Specific to Joy," by Harvey Blume (April 29, 1998)
Are we ready for computers that know how we feel?

"Where the Rubber Meets the Road," by Ralph Lombreglia (March 25, 1998)
The next phase of the digital revolution depends as much on education as on technology.

For more, see the complete Digital Culture Index
Portable Musings
The book is the network, the network is knowledge, and someday soon you'll be able to curl up in bed with all of it. This calls for some serious rumination

by Sven Birkerts

September 10, 1998

In the digital realm, where change is no longer a punctuating event so much as the steady-state principle of things, we have learned to turn a wondering, or bemused, eye upon whatever is the latest -- and then, shrugging or not, to adapt. E-mail is already part of our central societal nervous system; virtual reality and smart environments -- once part of the fantasy of Jetson futurism -- become more likely every day. So who will even blink at the news that the electronic book is already on the way, that not one but three breakthrough products are poised for imminent launch, and that after the inevitable bugs and clunk factors are smoothed out, a whole new way of storing, handling, and reading text may become as familiar as popping a video cassette into the box?

This is the way with ideas nowadays: suddenly they seem to be all around us. First came the laptop -- which got people used to the idea of portability -- then the Palm Pilot. And, recently, the London-based Internet book publisher Online Originals has begun to have some success with its small list of nonfiction and fiction titles, with one of the latter being accepted for consideration by the Booker Prize committee in May. On another front there was considerable buzz generated this year at the Chicago Book Expo by accelerations in print-on-demand technology -- accelerations made possible by vast increases in digital memory and printing speeds.

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Softbook Press's Softbook

But these are just warm-up developments. By early next year readers will be able to choose between three affordable and highly portable digital books. Nuvomedia will offer Rocketbook, a molded-to-the-palm device weighing 1.25 pounds and boasting a 4000-page capacity. Everybook, slightly more high-end, will release its EB Dedicated Reader, which weighs 3.7 pounds, stores half a million pages, and opens, like a paper book, to a two-page screen display. Softbook Press's Softbook, at 2.9 pounds and with a 100,000-page capacity, positions itself somewhere in between. Texts for all three products will be available for downloading through online booksellers, and battery life will be anywhere from six to twenty hours. Prices are expected to range from $300 to $1600, with the EB Dedicated Reader, geared most for the article- and brief-toting professional, costing the most. Writes Steve Silberman in Wired:
All three companies know the success or failure of digital books will depend on more than the device in the hand of the end user.... By negotiating agreements with book clubs (which could subsidize the cost of the digital readers), major publishers, and online booksellers (Bertelsmann and Barnes & Noble have invested $2 million apiece in Nuvomedia), all three companies will send their children into the world embedded in a network of products and conveniences that previous makers of new book forms didn't have.
Suddenly the unthinkable has product specs and procedures within the larger system -- it's here. In the excitable imaginings of marketing people, we are all about to enter the streamlined millennium, the unencumbered, instant millennium. Boasts Rocketbook: "You can take it with you. All of it. Anywhere." Soon, the proselytizers dream, every man will be an island -- or at least textually and informationally self-sufficient. Students will shed the pack-horse impedimenta of text books; professionals will have entire libraries in their attaché cases; and even rebel visionaries will be able to have their Wendell Berry or Henry David Thoreau crisp and backlit should they wish to commune with their master spirit under the stars.

Related features:

"The Message Is the Medium," by Wen Stephenson (Winter 1996)
A reply to Sven Birkerts and The Gutenberg Elegies.

"The Electric Word: An Exchange" (Summer 1996)
Sven Birkerts replies to "The Message Is the Medium."

"Is Cyberspace Destroying Society?" (May 1995)
The transcript of an Atlantic Monthly online conference with Sven Birkerts.

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Nuvomedia's Rocketbook

We can speed our way through the basic terms of the inevitable debate. Opponents (myself included) will inveigh against the loss of charm and physical variety -- the loss of the textures of difference. They will bemoan the disappearance of the hallowed tradition of paper, which can be seen to carry traces of the movement of history itself. Words, they will say, live as much in physical space as in the imagination -- they cannot be allowed to dwell mainly in the sphere of the digital.

Boosters will talk of trees saved and cumbersome manufacture and shipping processes circumvented: their bits surmount the tug of gravity, impart to words the glowing eternality of perpetual potentiality. Texts will become as permanent as need or desire make them; no work will ever be unavailable or out-of-print.

But, contend the countering voices, what will happen to intellectual property, the sanctity of copyright, once our words stream every which way through the ether, no longer lodging squarely and indelibly on the page? And kindly, well-meaning people will still be heard to say, "But you can't take a computer to bed with you." (Never mind that these are not really computers as we've come to know them, and never mind that you increasingly can take all manner of digital gizmos into the sheets with you.)

It's old world versus new, a dramatic and somewhat symbolic standoff. But it is not, media hype notwithstanding, as sudden as the arrival of the new devices makes it seem. For decades now the hold of the book -- the classic hardbound entity we still invoke in imagination when we speak of books -- has been loosening. Market forces -- the demands of bottom-line publishing -- have long since changed the book into "product" (for most readers certainly), so much so that most of the texts we encounter have for some time now been shiny, highly processed packages, with covers so bright and geared to the moment that it's almost a shock to find that inside are pages still thick with words to be gotten through. The transfer of those words to the screen, and the inevitable addition of various hypertext features, should go a long way toward offering friendly port of entry to the distracted and overstimulated postmodern consumer.

But we are still in the realm of the obvious, and I can't help thinking that there are larger and deeper implications to this development -- if it takes, that is. My thoughts run, as they do so often when I consider matters digital, toward the apocalyptic. Indulge me here. Think not of products now, nor of institutions with a vested interest in the survival of paper textuality. Think rather of words, of data, and of what might be suggested by the nature of the transformation. Conjure, if you will, a world in which the electronic reader -- sophisticated, broadly capable -- has moved in to occupy the place now still held by paper books. A world in which any text can be, figuratively speaking, inscribed onto the head of a pin and made as transportable, as accessible, as the pocket calculator.

I feature it thus: Before there was text, memory was all. Bards commonly held in mental suspension tens of thousands of lines of verse; sages were esteemed according to what they knew. Later, when text had arrived but not yet saturated the empire of possibility, an individual's knowledge -- what was stored at the beck of comprehending memory -- determined his or her standing and function in the society of the day. In Goethe's time -- the early nineteenth century -- a devoted person could still hope to know what was vital across the range of disciplines. So runs the cliché.

But after Goethe the sluices burst open. Nowadays no one person can hope to grasp more than a fraction of even a single topic area. The whole conception of what memory is, or could be, has been revolutionized, by which I mean to say exported. Human memory migrated into books and the classifying systems that gave a map for stored information. These paved the way for the database and the accessing tools of software. By degrees we have become comfortable with the idea that knowledge is less something had, or possessed, and more something available, to be gotten as needed. Our conception has changed, from internal to external. To be educated, increasingly, means to command the tools and principles of access. This is not to say that past a point one does not need to know what to do with the retrieved data. But still, effectively the paradigm has shifted.

Now the digital book, not only the apotheosis of transportable data -- bits in your backpack -- but also, at the projected prices, its democratization. The man in the street will soon be able, should he choose, to carry about with him the fruit, if not the sum, of all the world's knowledge -- at all times. We are now in the age of hypersaturation; we are, sure as can be, entrusting most of what we think we need to know to a memory prosthesis.

"Instruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages."
--Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think" (The Atlantic, July 1945).

Related link:

"Remembering the Memex" (FEED, September 1997)
"Fifty years ago, Vannevar Bush predicted the rise of the desktop PC. Are we living up to his vision?" A special FEED Document, featuring commentary by Michael Joyce, Esther Dyson, Wen Stephenson, and Steven Johnson.

This is the real point of the digital book -- its true revolutionary, or better, evolutionary, potential. What matters is not that some reader might carry Lord Jim around to read from his pocket screen, but that we will very soon begin to accept -- and then expect -- that we are not only never out of touch with people, at least potentially, but also that we are never apart from our information and ideas. The digital book points the way to the next step, storing a significant portion of our mental contents -- the data, or "intelligence" itself -- in an apparatus that is always ready at hand. We are putting a surprising new spin on what futurist Vannevar Bush (in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly) conjured up a half century ago with his "Memex," the mechanical device that would place all human knowledge within reach of the prompting finger.

Bush's vision still sounds farfetched, of course, but much less than it did in 1945. We should now at least allow the notion -- that we may contemplate and study -- that the old sort of thinking has had its day, has served its evolutionary purpose, part of which will be seen to have been thinking up a machine that would make the brain's dominant function -- storage -- inessential, delegatable. Species change may again be in the offing. When knowledge is still on paper, at a physical distance, we rely on memory as a bridge, a provisional structure. Much of what we consider our knowledge of the world is just this. But the immediacy of the new technology, once it has been expanded and refined, more or less obviates the need for that bridge. Confident that everything important is just a click away, we will be less apt to inscribe the neural memory trace; or if we do, we will do so more provisionally. The world-picture will change -- by degrees, it will change considerably.

This does not mean, I hasten to say, that our brains, those phenomenal networks, will stand idle. But it is worth pondering just what new uses they may be put to. In the meantime, take a flyer -- very soon, for a few hundred dollars, you will be able to get a machine that can bring the world of language and thought as close as possible to the cranium without actually putting it inside.

Join the discussion in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound

Sven Birkerts is the author of
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994), and will publish Readings, a book of essays, early next year. His reviews and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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