Friday, May 26, 2006

Favourite things pt 2

This is a reply to my post below about media and context and books but I can't put links in the reply box and I wanted to attract your attention to these two pieces about the future of books.

Times Online


I had another thought on why the book can't be allowed to be replaced. One of the biggest problems facing computer scientists is the issue of data retrieval and obsolete hardware. Already, there are computers from the seventies that are unreadable because we have no way of accessing their hard drives through a computing language no one knows any more. (Who out there still uses Basic? Remember that?)

An allegory would be the Dead Sea Scrolls. These papyrus texts were lost for 1800 years. When discovered scholars instantly knew how to decipher them and we now have their knowledge. Imagine in a thousand years after the next ice age a shepherd boy discovers an imac in a cave (it could happen) Assuming the components hadn't rotted/oxidised/melted the people of the future now have access to the computers hard drive and its 40 gb of fabulous knowledge. However, having no way of actually reading whats on the hard drive the people of the future re-invent the frisbee.

The point is that in a thousand years they would have to re-invent the imac to be able to read it. We didn't have to re-invent paper to read the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is simply impossible to invent a computer and software language that will last for an eternity. So, if we want the sum of human knowledge to be passed down the generations then we simply have to keep the printed word. Full stop.


  1. Basic is alive and (unfortunately) well in Visual Basic. It's the B in those VBScript errors you see on useless websites.

  2. Back in the day I remember my dad programming a ZX81 to play Othello in Basic. Can't believe it's still around in a new form. But for how much longer??

  3. Eek - should we print out the blog for posterity?

    Another good example of the superiority of the printed word: the Domesday Book. The original Domesday Book is still going strong after 1000 years. The BBC-sponsored year 2000 edition is already obselete, after some bright spark decided to record the whole thing on laser disc.

  4. Oh, I don't know, Marie. I can't say the Domesday Book is a gripping read. Isn't it to do with property prices or something? :)

    As for something with more of a page turner quality, I'd point out that physical media didn't do us any favours at the Library of Alexandria. Too bad they couldn't have put all those Greek tragedies on the Internet while they had the chance.

    I note we still can't interpret stuff like Linear A, by the way. So, I don't suppose it matters whether it appears on papyrus found in caves, or in strange silvery artifacts with round buttons. Some level of intelligence is still required to extract meaning. It just technological in the case of Adam's iPod, rather than linguistic.

    And let's be fair... a society would have to be sufficiently advanced anyway, and well past the discovery of electricity, in order to survive the social upheavals caused by finding the Spice Girls on Adam's long lost iPod. :)

    But seriously, I can understand how you might be quite partial to books. And personally, the e-book hype is too much of a marketing orgy to take seriously.

    But if you put your head in the sand too much, you may end up going the way of photograph developers. Remember them?

    [Right, time to see if I can figure out the word verification thingy and get this posted. I used to think I could read before I came across these things.]

  5. We are not anti-technology, far from it. (This is a blog? We have two websites. Our business is totally reliant on the net.) All we are saying is that the book has a pretty good chance of survival even in our gadget obsessed era. Far from being "old" in the sense of past useful, books are "old" in the sense that they are highly successful and extremely good at what they do, thus esuring their survival for over a thousand years. I would bet money on the chances of books still being around long after computers have become ancient history...

    Computers are probably a passing fad. Some new technology will arrive that makes them pointless. (Wireless everywhere with a direct link into the human brain? Or something...) People will still love books for nostalgic, aesthetic and emotional reasons. After all Christianity, Islam and Judaism all have books at their source.

    Mind you I can see the people of the future bowing down before holy images of the ZX81...

  6. Gosh, I may have sounded rude earlier. Unintended. :)

    Anyways, I'm not sure I agree with you about assuming books have a pretty good chance of survival, is all. I mean, I can't see them being wiped out, just as the printing press didn't wipe out cathedrals, their one-time competitors in the information dissemination business.

    But I'm far from convinced they are the pinnacle in written entertainment delivery either.

    >People will still love books for nostalgic, aesthetic and emotional reasons.
    True, but sentimentality is no reason to expect books, in their paper and glue form, to endure as a primary medium.

    You might be surprised at how ruthless people can be, and how quickly this feeling might be

    >Mind you I can see the people of the future bowing down before holy images of the ZX81...
    Heavens forbid. But in fairness, I see them bowing down before Adam's iPod instead. They're in for a surprise when they find the Spice Girls. :)

  7. Hi Daithi - don't worry - I'm not p'd off at all! I think this is a very interesting area really...

    Just to add a couple of thoughts. If you have a look at some of the comments on the buzzmachine link adam posted there are many interesting points raised. There are various people who attack the printed word because of its "fixed" nature. IE Once information is printed in a book it cannot be updated or changed very easily (have to wait for a new edition for example).

    This can be seen as a flaw and I can see why textbooks for example are very suited to an electronic medium but there are many positive aspects to it as well. When information is published in a book it goes through an editorial process that checks fact for accuracy etc. Many people are involved and their collective input results in a book that is full of useful information.

    By contrast much of the "information" that is presented on the internet is a load of rubbish, factually wrong etc. It is almost too easy to publish on the net. What would stop hackers from adding misleading bits to electronic textbooks? Imagine opening an electronic history book where a hacker has changed the outcome of WWII for instance! For information to be useful it has to be filtered and the best bits picked out (this is what the brain does with sensory information)

    I think the nature of the book actually helps by "stopping" information and providing a fixed point that people can refer to. Without this sense of "stopping" we would quickly lose our sense of history and also any appreciation of the way ideas develop over time.

    Although technology appears to move very fast it is more amazing how people, in terms of their humanity, remain the same. (The Confessions of Marcus Aurelius for example still speak to people today. What do peolpe use the net for? Talking/arguing with each other, entertainment, shopping - all the things people have always done.)

    I would not underestimate the sentimentality of people and their need to feel a part of a narrative history either. Change is very upsetting to the majority of people. The internet and electronic media have interesting effects on human behaviour but I still think the book is particulrly resiliant and will survive.

    Only time will tell who is right or wrong!

  8. You can't beat a quote from Buffy:

    JENNY: Well, it was your book that started all the trouble, not a computer. Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?

    GILES: The smell.

    JENNY: Computer's don't smell, Rupert.

    GILES: I know! Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a, a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences... long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is, uh, it... it has no, no texture, no, no context. It's, it's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um... smelly.

    Here's to smelly knowledge (and books!)

  9. AnonymousMay 31, 2006

    Another thing to bear in mind is the changing nature of data storage. In the 1970's pretty much every computer system used a proprietary data format, as well as proprietary languages.

    Nowadays, most data is stored in relational databases which use a relatively standard querying language (SQL). Most data exchange is now done using some flavour of XML, EDI, etc.

    All of these are standardised, fully documented and have literally millions of people able to understand and use them. So the scenario of not being able to access old data is less and less likely.

    More likely is the risk of losing data due to poor backup regimes.

    Incidentally, there are many BASIC dialects in use today, from VB (already mentioned), to REALbasic, to all kinds of wierd and wonderful variations on mainframes etc. So anyone with ZX81 programming skills need not fret about being left behind the IT curve! ;)