I tweeted a while back my sense that I should post something about this conversation about e-books and the future of reading, but all I have time for right now is a quote from David Gelernter’s contribution:
I assume that technology will soon start moving in the natural direction: integrating chips into books, not vice versa. I might like to make a book beep when I can’t find it, search its text online, download updates and keep an eye on reviews and discussion. This would all be easily handled by electronics worked into the binding. Such upgraded books acquire some of the bad traits of computer text — but at least, if the circuitry breaks or the battery runs out, I’ve still got a book.
Of course, onscreen text will change and improve. But the physical side of reading depends not on the bad aspects of computer screens but on the brilliance of the traditional book — sheets bound on end, the “codex” — which remains the most brilliant design of the last several thousand years. Technologists have (as usual) decreed its disappearance without bothering to understand it. They make the same mistake clever planners have made for half a century in forecasting the death of cars and their replacement by spiffier technology. The problem is, people like cars.
Gelernter is always interesting, even when he’s off-base — and about this I think he’s sort of off-base. He’s absolutely right that it would be really cool if codexes were augmented by electronic features rather than being replaced by electronic gadgets. But I think he probably wrong to “assume” that that’s what’ll happen. We’ll see, of course.
(As an aside, I remember reading about Gelernter’s Lifestreams project years ago — in this article, as it happens — and I wish it had panned out. At this point I fear it never will. Apple’s Time Machine software sort of looks like the Lifestreams model, and I suspect it’s a tip of the hat to Gelernter, but it has a very different function.)