Ramblings & ephemera

Luddites and e-books

From Clay Shirky’s “The Siren Song of Luddism” (Britannica Blog: 19 June 2007):

…any technology that fixes a problem … threatens the people who profit from the previous inefficiency. However, Gorman omits mentioning the Luddite response: an attempt to halt the spread of mechanical looms which, though beneficial to the general populace, threatened the livelihoods of King Ludd’s band.

… printing was itself enormously disruptive, and many people wanted veto power over its spread as well. Indeed, one of the great Luddites of history (if we can apply the label anachronistically) was Johannes Trithemius, who argued in the late 1400s that the printing revolution be contained, in order to shield scribes from adverse effects.

The uncomfortable fact is that the advantages of paper have become decoupled from the advantages of publishing; a big part of preference for reading on paper is expressed by hitting the print button. As we know from Lyman and Varian’s “How Much Information?” study, “the vast majority of original information on paper is produced by individuals in office documents and postal mail, not in formally published titles such as books, newspapers and journals.”

The problems with e-books are that they are not radical enough: they dispense with the best aspect of books (paper as a display medium) while simultaneously aiming to disable the best aspects of electronic data (sharability, copyability, searchability, editability.)

If we gathered every bit of output from traditional publishers, we could line them up in order of vulnerability to digital evanescence. Reference works were the first to go — phone books, dictionaries, and thesauri have largely gone digital; the encyclopedia is going, as are scholarly journals. Last to go will be novels — it will be some time before anyone reads One Hundred Years of Solitude in any format other than a traditionally printed book. Some time, however, is not forever. The old institutions, and especially publishers and libraries, have been forced to use paper not just for display, for which is it well suited, but also for storage, transport, and categorization, things for which paper is completely terrible. We are now able to recover from those disadvantages, though only by transforming the institutions organized around the older assumptions.

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