If you have an ereader, and like to relax and read a little before going to sleep, you may not realize that what you’re doing not too long ago would’ve seemed like it was from Science Fiction. Many things we used to regard that way creep into our world, almost imperceptibly, and pretty soon we can’t imagine modern life without them. The world of books and publishing is one area where this has happened quite significantly.
At the big picture level, take the 1931 Herman Hesse novel The Glass Bead Game. This highly regarded Sci Fi story set hundreds of years from now involves an intellectual order of people who play an irreducibly complex game that many have said is analogous to our hyper-connected digital world. To quote Bruce Milligan, Director of New Media at the AOL subsidiary Redgate, the ‘game’ of this book’s title comes to his mind when he thinks about what the internet is now: ‘a realm of pure intellect, minds interacting with machines, constructs of information designed to facilitate the sometimes-ordered, sometimes-random and often serendipitous roamings of human inquisitiveness.’
How strange it might be for Hesse if he were alive today to see that something so close to what he imagined is one of the central parts of life in the developed world now. It reminds us all that to a complete outsider who would look on our internet now it would seem strangely abstract. So much of the web is only about ideas and information, humor or audio-visual experience. This is wonderful in some ways, but also odd in just how removed from actual experience so much of our online world is. The online world facilitates many real world things. I myself am in a relationship with a woman I met online. But on the web now we use terms like IRL (in real life) to refer to such things that actually exist outside of the internet. It’s often otherwise assumed that what we refer to online does not.
Now look at ereaders themselves. I remember watching the Star Trek series’ of the 1990s and marveling at how the characters could pick up a small digital device and use it to peruse a great deal of information. Say, as much or more information than could be packed into a standard sized book. ‘Just imagine that!’ I thought, how far off and distant from my time that must be! The original Star Trek series in the 1960s conveyed a similar technology, and at that time when computers were the size of buildings, and understood mostly by sophisticated academics, such an idea must have seemed utterly fantastical.
But when you really think about it ereaders actually aren’t that shocking, at least in a way. Not long into the history of the computer it was realized that the amount information that could be stored on them would become exponentially more efficient over time thanks to principles like Moore’s law. As decades have progressed it would only make sense that some threshold would be crossed where they could store as much information as books. That point was actually reached back in the 1990s. In the 90s Steve Jobs, and before him Nicholas Negroponte in the 80s, were actually predicting the rise of mobile tablet devices that you control with your fingers. Once there exists commercially feasible small computers and commercially feasible computer screens you can use your fingers to interface with, the combination of the two to create things like the Kindle and Ipad would inevitably catch on.
So if you followed these trends you actually could have foreseen the rise of eBooks. But eBooks are still a quantum leap in functional possibilities over ink and paper books. eBooks can be networked, the content hidden or displayed an infinite number of times. Vast amounts of new content can be brought to an ereader in minutes online. This raises, quite suddenly, many advantages and problems we didn’t have to think about a short while ago. While eBooks allow a lot of access to books, do they not also cheapen what a book is? How will anyone use a book to escape when the device you read it on is connected to so much of the world?
Focusing on the functional difference between traditional books and digital ones, you can see what a departure from the recent past they are. Herman Hesse may have foreseen that a world of deep informational interconnection was coming because radio and wire services were increasing the connectedness of people in his time, and the technology enabling that was already fast-evolving back then. But to many who hadn’t thought as much about those things, the idea that we can all maintain so many different connections to so many far flung people and institutions would seem like a quantum leap as well.
There’s good news here for people such as myself; I’m an aspiring Sci Fi author and blogger who wishes to put my content out into the world. Content creators are the winners in our brave new world; access to content may be cheap now and most reading done on networked devices, but that has fundamentally eroded barriers to content distribution, and made end runs around the content gatekeepers the new norm.
I’ve written one Sci Fi novel that I plan to release on Kindle soon where I touched on a new technology that could also change the world of writing and publishing; today when authors compose books we type the words, or maybe speak them to a voice recognition system. Pretty soon what if we think our words directly onto the digital page? But that’s so far off right? How can we imagine a computer that you can interact with using only your brain? I don’t know, but a brilliant woman named Tan Le has actually been working on it for years.