Friday, January 18, 2013

Finding the Marble in the Oatmeal

Talking with Robin Hanson is a little like drinking from a fire hose. In my latest doorside chat, we discussed the role of books. Specifically, we discussed the role they would occupy in the future. Clearly, with the rise of cheap computing, the very large share of information won't be printed on pulped wood much longer. What purpose then books a score years hence? Two generations? A millennium?

Me being me, I pumped these thoughts into the hydrant of euvoluntary exchange. It strikes me that the decline of the bound volume bears only superficial similarities to other defunct technologies. The printed word, if you'll forgive a modicum of poetic earwax, permits communion with ancestors distant in ticks of the calendar and turns of the cartwheel. Books bend our mind's eye to the lyrics of ages long gone across hill and sea, through darkest jungle, into the beating heart of civilizations now in ash and dust, lending fleeting glimpses of hearts and minds long laid to their eternal rest. The buggy whip, the sextant, the flint axe and the oil lamp might occupy places of fondness in the cockles, but none of the day-to-day items that have fallen out of use boast the same civilization-forwarding characteristics as the printed volume.

Tomorrow's information abundance permits the reader, should she choose, to guzzle as much unfiltered knowledge as can fit through the hose-et-nozzle of her attention as she can handle, perhaps much much more. Quaint tomes harboring musky odors will sit unread on shelves as identity emblems signaling conformity with the rough grain of history. Knowledge is a super-euvoluntary commodity: without it, humanity snuffles the forest floor for edible roots, picking lice and constructing crude toys from the bones and feces of slain animals. Without the lights of generations past, there is no holly jolly Christmas.

The book is the earthly vessel of this intergenerational super-euvoluntary exchange. It has laid claim to totemic reverence in Western Civilization since before even the first movable type. Libraries are temples, are they not? Home libraries are shrines. People are unlikely to abandon their shrines, even if they are filled with trashy Harlequin Romances and 101 Tasteless Knock Knock Jokes anthologies. Their purpose is to spray their owner's guests with the essence of her intellectual and cultural identity. Unless a suitable substitute comes along, folks--ordinary folks--probably won't be queuing up to abandon this.

People who build steam locomotives in the backyard or raise horses have hobbies. People who will continue to collect books long after their instrumental use has waned are cultured. Maybe this is an important distinction, maybe not. Either way, I can't imagine the stock of books changing all that much over the next century, even if the flow dries up considerably.


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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?