Via Siva, here is Ben Vershbow on the future of the book, as brought to you by Google and Amazon. First a long quotation, then a comment. More below the jump
Yes, they’ll give you the option of buying a book that lives its life on line, but like a chicken in a poultry plant, packed in a dark crate stuffed with feed tubes, it’s not much of a life. Or better, let’s evaluate it in the terms of a social space — say, a seminar room or book discussion group. In a Google/Amazon ebook you will not be allowed to:
– make notes
– make reference
– build upon
This is the book as antisocial software. Reading is done in solitary confinement, closely monitored by the network overseers. Google and Amazon’s ebooks are essentially, as David Rothman puts it on Teleread, “in a glass case in a museum.” Get too close to the art and motion sensors trigger the alarm.
So ultimately we can’t rely on the big technology companies to make the right decisions for our future. Google’s “fair use” claim for building its books database may be bold and progressive, but its idea of ebooks clearly is not. Even looking solely at the searchable database component of the project, let’s not forget that Google’s ranking system (as Siva Vaidhyanathan has repeatedly reminded us) is non-transparent. In other words, when we do a search on Google Books, we don’t know why the results come up in the order that they do. It’s non-transparent librarianship. Information mystery rather than information science. What secret algorithmic processes are reordering our knowledge and, over time, reordering our minds? And are they immune to commercial interests? And shouldn’t this be of concern to the libraries who have so blithely outsourced the task of digitization? I repeat: Google will make the right choices only when it is in its interest to do so. Its recent actions in China should leave no doubt.
Perhaps someday soon they’ll ease up a bit and let you download a copy, but that would only be because the hardware we are using at that point will be fitted with a “trusted computing” module, which which will monitor what media you use on your machine and how you use it. At that point, copyright will quite literally be the system. Enforcement will be unnecessary since every potential transgression will be preempted through hardwired code. Surveillance will be complete. Control total. Your rights surrendered simply by logging on.
I’m struck by the staggering passivity of Vershbow’s implicit model of the reader/user/consumer. Certainly, Google (in all its manifestations) is a form of social software, but it’s far from the only social software out there, or the only social software yet to be. I’ve blogged about this before; maybe the problem with Google Book Search isn’t so much that it’s internal working aren’t transparent, but instead that it doesn’t go far enough in creating interfaces to the rest of the world, interfaces that emerging reader and user communities can use to build new communities and conversations.
Certainly publishers are gripped by the cognitive limitations of the physical book, and they’re reluctant to let that go because, as Vershbow writes, “publishers want electronic books to behave like physical objects because physical objects can be controlled. Sales can be recorded, money counted.” But people like physical objects. We like the tangibility of books. The tangibility of books, their linearity, their relative fragility and durability, all are good things. Suppose, then, that the failure of the ebook market to take off isn’t about consumers’ unwillingness to read on a screen, and it’s not about DRM built into ebook readers, and it’s not about publishers hesistant to release titles in electronic form. Suppose that the failure of the ebook market is an affirmative signal from all of us that we really, affirmatively, like books the way that they are. If that’s right, then Google’s and Amazon’s electronic replication of the analog book in their digital plans means that my internet is half full, not half empty. The question isn’t really which baseline is the right one. Preferences are heterogeneous in lots of ways. The question is how to account for that heterogeneity in making policy prescriptions.
An update: Before posting the above, I might have read further into the future of the book blog, and I would have encountered Dan Visel’s post about object nostalgia, in which he blends arguments about originality and authenticity, on the one hand, and tangibility, on the other.
Update #2: Ben Vershbow replies with an excellent Comment. Thanks, Ben.