A “book” is just the endpoint of a latticework of complex infrastructure
December 21, 2018 5:02 PM   Subscribe

The ‘Future Book’ is here, but it’s not what we expected.
Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.
(Via Wired)
posted by Elementary Penguin (8 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
And, yet, books from 1000 years ago are still readable, where “future books” from 10 years ago are... well, maybe.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:09 PM on December 21, 2018 [14 favorites]

This is more about the delivery system than the technology. There's nothing to prevent a book published electronically from also being available in a form that can be accessed a thousand years from now.

One might also ask, will we want to access much of the stuff published today a thousand, or even hundred years from now? How many Victorian bestsellers are well-known today? Will future readers find it worthwhile to delve into one of E. L. James' "provocative romances" or the science fiction of Hugh Howey in a couple hundred years? People are buying their books and ebooks now, and as authors they are making good money from them, but does their longevity as literature beyond the next hundred years matter? Maybe, maybe not. I doubt Jane Austen's family is making any money off of her books, and people are still eating them up 200 years after her death. There were plenty of writers from her era we rarely, if ever, pay any attention to today.

We simply don't know what people will be reading in the future, or how we'll be reading it. So maybe it's best to concentrate on what and how they're reading now, and how authors can try to make a living at it.
posted by lhauser at 5:54 PM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hardly any books from 1000 years ago are still readable; the ones that are still available are survivors. Many more were lost than were preserved. Probably a higher percentage than today as individual books were much more valuable and people therefore were more likely to care for and protect them, but then again there are about a bazillion times as many books out there today as there were back then, so I think it's safe to say that in terms of absolute numbers, many will survive. And of course, there are many more organized efforts to preserve and archive books now than there used to be—as a civilization, we have a much better library system and are just much more systematic about preserving stuff. Not very systematic on the whole, but more than we were a thousand years ago.

Most things don't survive the passage of time for long. Nothing survives forever. Digital media can at least be copied and transported with almost no effort (setting aside DRM) and digital books can be printed and archived physically where it's deemed necessary. Not much of of today's writing will last, but there's also just so much more writing.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:12 PM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

this article was really well written and insightful. I just read "Snowcrash"; a future book plays a central role in the story. Where is my future book? Ah, I see. People are still people and we still have a place for written narratives.

I also quite agreed with the author's point about email. I'm so frustrated with facebook messages, instagram DMs, text messages, wechat slack skype walled gardens that will disappear some day as soon as a service loses funding. I need to unsubscribe from all my spam providers and start sending emails again.
posted by rebent at 7:57 PM on December 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the early days of excitement about 'future books' there was one simple question that would pop the bubble of giddy optimism about 'multimedia enhanced digital yada yada...' namely "How much do you think it costs to produce even 60 seconds of publication-quality video material?"
posted by PhineasGage at 8:18 PM on December 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

From the article: "Brown University professor Robert Coover, in a 1992 New York Times op-ed ... wrote of the future of writing: 'Fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, discontinuity are the hypertext buzzwords of the day'"

This reminded me of a nice, straightforward study from 1987 by anthropologist Bill Beeman, et al., also at Brown at the time, examining the impact of hypertext (Victorian Web) in a class taught by George Landow, yet another professor at Brown and someone particularly well-known as an advocate of hypermedia in education. Here are some quotes:
The students didn't utilize the system as much as the professors and teaching assistants, or use it in the same way. They were not forced to make their own links; they followed those laid out by the instructors. Nor did they make additions of their own to the corpus. Their use of the Intermedia system was passive ... Intermedia forced the instructors and the teaching assistants who prepared the material to clarify their thinking about the ways in which the various materials with which they were working together as an interrelated whole ... In sum, for those people (especially the teaching assistants) who used the system extensively, in the way that it was intended to be used, real pluralistic learning occurred.
Unsurprisingly, if you spend a ton of time writing HyperCard stacks or web pages or wiki pages (or, in all probability, a heavily footnoted/cross-referenced traditional text) on some topic, you make your own connections and become a better teacher, but students just clicking around probably aren't absorbing more than they would some other way. Maybe it's an obvious result from a 2018 perspective, but it's similar in my mind to the article's conclusion: "It’s exciting. It’s boring ... temper some of those flight-of-fancy expectations," etc.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:40 PM on December 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

this article was really well written and insightful

It was written by Craig Mod, who is always insightful. He's written some excellent books and hosts the terrific, but infrequent podcast, On Margins, which should be of interest to any book or design lover.
posted by dobbs at 9:54 PM on December 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

The students didn't utilize the system as much as the professors and teaching assistants, or use it in the same way.

I just finished 12 years working with students at a small Midwestern public university, and this seemed to be the case with almost every piece of educational technology introduced while I was there.
posted by mattwan at 7:48 AM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

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