29 November 2010

The Great Library in the Clouds

The near and far future of the book

I predict that in the year 2525 ('if man is still alive, if woman can survive') people will still have books in their homes, there may even be secondhand book shops and the publishing of books on paper (or what passes for paper in the 26th century) will not have entirely ceased. By then all the books in all the worlds libraries will probably fit on a pinhead and Wikipedia, fitting on the same pinhead, will have as many entries as there are things in the universe.

In the meantime everything is in flux - confused and litigious but full of hope and potential. At the vortex there is Google with its already enormous digitised library, their 'mind of God' visions and the money to achieve them - 'a universal library of all knowledge', Amazon brandishing their Kindle but also still eagerly selling books on paper, publishers and authors rowing with the digitisers over copyright issues and companies like Superstar in China busy getting on with the job - they have already digitised over 800,000 books published in China from the dawn of print to now. In the background is Apple who have a way of becoming indispensable and whose Itunes (soon to be cloud-based) could be a foretaste of the way books will be accessed in future. There is a potential for a coming clash of the titans but it is to be devoutly wished that none of these companies gain anything approaching to a monopoly of information, knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of the world.

Kevin Kelly's 2006 New York Times breakthrough article Scan this Book alerted all to the incredible growth in digitisation.. A highly intelligent and intelligible article rounding up current thinking on the future of the book, digitisation, the twilight of the 'reign of the copy', copyright squabbles etc., He quoted Brewster Kahle, digitiser, 'Silicon Valley Utopian' and founder of the Internet Archive -
'This is our chance to one-up the Greeks!...It is really possible with the technology of today, not tomorrow. We can provide all the works of humankind to all the people of the world. It will be an achievement remembered for all time, like putting a man on the moon.'
The title of KK's article 'Scan this Book' of course harks back 40 years to Abbie Hoffman's rant Steal this Book and there is more than a hint of Woodstock Nation in the drift of Kelly's arguments. He comes from the open access, free school of web thinkers - cash, if any, (monetisation) comes from spin-offs, ads, links etc., Four years later you still get a lot of stuff free but in 2010/11 people are becoming used to occasionally paying money for information, not much and if you are in the educational system even less - but it's happening without burning barricades or paving stones being thrown.

Reach for the Sky...Cloud Computing

In 2010 there was much emphasis on cloud computing. For digitised books it means that they would reside on remote servers; rather than permanently downloading the book, the user would read a book (or chapters) within his or her browser. If sufficiently interested the reader might check the book out of the library for good or buy a paper copy from a shop or web operator. Google is going in the cloud direction, Amazon are said to be 'big believers' and Apple and other tablet makers are known to be thinking on these lines. Their Ipad has relatively low storage capacity and is designed to read material rather than accumulate it. Usage fees , where demanded, would be paid by access counts and some of the monies would devolve back to publishers and authors in the same way that a rock album or song earns the record label, the band and the song- writer micro dollars each time it is accessed from Itunes (once they have registered proprietorship.) With a cloud library you can theoretically access tens of millions of books (not snippets) with a smartphone sitting on a rock in the Khyber Pass. You might still pack a few real books for the journey but have none of the usual fears that you might run out of something to read.

With digitised books already available from many providers, mega-portals will arrive to take you to the cheapest source and hopefully offering much free stuff including no charges on almost all books out of copyright (many, many millions of books.) Let's call such an aggregator Aleph after Borges's short story- the Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points -those who gaze into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion. Right now for buying real books we have established mega-malls like ViaLibri, Bookfinder, AddAll etc., There are aggregator sites for old and current TV shows, sometimes offering as many as 20 different holders of the same item rated for efficiency of streaming etc., If you want no ads and high definition quality or desire to own the show you have to pay $2.99 at Itunes. The Itunes financial model could be a good start in dealing with copyright issues, although a cheaper system like UK's Lovefilm would be preferable with friendly access rates as low as $5 a month. In the school and university system one would hope to see much free or sponsored access, likewise for institutions, social housing, hospitals and prisons etc.,

Real books printed on paper are, in my opinion, with us to stay. Ebook champion Bill Hill, late of Microsoft, would have us believe otherwise -he points out the energy-wasting, resource-draining process of how we make books now. 'We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world. Do you really believe that we'll be doing that in 50 years?' We will be doing it less but I feel sure we will still be doing it. Books are not going the way of 8-Track and BetaMax, sad remnants of a bozo era, they are at their best an unassailable and beautiful technology. He has a point, however, when one thinks of forests cut down for endless truckloads of books of total trash (often TV or celebrity related.)

Looking at the advantages of a cloud library, let us say I am deeply interested in the legend of the Holy Grail. In my quest I might accumulate 20 or 30 essential books on the Grail and Arthurian legend. I would of course have A.E. Waite's The Holy Grail. History, Legend and Symbolism. Further books may be difficult to find, expensive or only partly of use. There are well over 1000 books on the subject (I know this from a man who used to deal in Grail books.) Rather than pay someone $100 for Alfred Nutt's 1880 book Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail with Especial Reference to the Hypothesis of its Celtic Origin. I could check it out of of the great library in the sky, peruse it and if it is essential download or even buy it as a real book from a shop. Being out of copyright it would probably be free online.

As my knowledge of the Grail grows I may want to annotate the odd book up there. This would be an option that could be turned off by subsequent readers and, like Wikipedia, peer reviewed. In my quest I might find an important Grail book that belonged to an Arthurian scholar with notes and queries in the text - e.g. A.E. Waite's copy of Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance. Not quite as good as T.S. Eliot's copy but of huge interest to Grail scholars. Ordinarily such a book would be bought and sold without its content being recorded and would be lost forever to scholars, seekers of the Grail and the general reader. I could annotate the cloud copy with AE Waite's own comments, thus preserving a unique item for all who wish to study it. [ To be continued...]

A lengthy screed written in the evenings while clearing an interminable art book library in Santa Cruz California. More to follow. How are they ever going to replace art books? The look and feel of the pages, the different styles of paper, the very heft of the book? Even the most modest art book is impressive. The only problem is the weight! Back to looking at past and present books real soon - enough blue sky thinking.


Anonymous said...

Have you not considered that the ebook will evolve to resemble the feel and look of paper.
Perhaps,you will get a choice of what kind of hefty art volume you wish to display to the public - while of course reading some long forgotten celeb bio inside its pages.

Macy said...

What about the toxicity of old computers and tech stuff? Bill Hill is full of bull. Long live real book.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear Macy. Not to mention the ecological impact of server farms, which are poised to increase exponentially and will be major contributors to pollution and global warning.

Celtic Lyrics said...

~Interesting. I wonder what Eliot's copy of Ritual to Romance would be worth?

Edwin Moore said...

Another issue is the integrity of the device you use to store electronic text. Didn't ipad (or iphone) users wake up one morning to find that Apple had removed an app and content - user-annotated content! - from their devices because Apple disapproved of them?

Also, Jobs has described the ipad as a 'porn free' zone but of course one person's definition of porn is another's mild erotic content. With printed book, the Grundys can't reach in and pull out pages.

Bookride said...

Wise and watchful words Edwin, thanks. As for the value of Eliot's copy of Ritual to Romance --it would be worth a very good sum especially if heavily annotated. Possibly tens of thousands. The source book of the great poem of its century, we're talking Holinshed's Chronicles to Shakespeare's history plays!