If there’s one thing worse than a Luddite, cringing in fear of technological advance, it’s a wide-eyed digital zealot, crowing at the supposed advent of a new paradigm.
Despite being delivered by the ragged, bloody edge of technology, the debate prompted by the arrival of electronic books isn’t nearly so advanced in tone and content as its subject. It’s entirely possible that the rise of ebooks will make traditional publishing more difficult and expensive, in the same way that artists now fight to preserve the one remaining commercial film laboratory that deals in 16mm film prints. But the fallacy is that ebook technology – in fact any digital technology – is immune to redundancy. The overthrow of traditional books is neither inevitable, desirable or even necessary. Why should a new technology automatically mean the death and erasure of the previous generation? Perhaps if the new device provided answers to all the downsides of paper books and greatly improved on their existing virtues, I could see how we could happily go Fahrenheit 451 without any lingering guilt. However the ‘year zero’ approach championed by early adopters never fails to crawl up a handy orifice.
Traditional printed media, we are told, is living on borrowed time. The advantages of the latest fondle slab – the IT evangelists have a good line in slang, I’ll admit – are portrayed as self-evident, whilst any defence of existing print media is the mark of self-deception and techno fear. But an ebook doesn’t make print immediately and self-evidently obsolete. Nor does it retrospectively degrade our experience of reading print since it was invented. The device served its purpose in its time and will continue to do so, if not, surely somebody would’ve offered an improvement before now? Walking around my home town, I can see buildings still in use dating from the late 15th Century right through to the present day. Their qualities as architecture and their efficiency of function varies, but they were not necessarily pulverised as soon as people knew how to build in new ways.
Ebooks are sold on their compactness, their connectivity with digital media, and the efficient delivery of information. There’s little to argue with there, if data retrieval is all reading is meant to be about. But the experience of reading and of books themselves is more than that, and harder to define in either technological, or commercial terms. Here is where the e-prophets begin to cast stones at unbelievers, making insulting comparisons with quill and parchment. But haven’t we been here many times before? As Victorian buildings still populate our town centres, so earlier technology survives, because it still does the job it was designed to do. Flashback to Judith Hann on Tomorrow’s World spreading jam over the playing surface of a compact disc. No matter how innovations are marketed when they first arrive, faults that we either failed to predict or were mysteriously left out of the sales brochure will surely emerge. If a technology actually works, it can be improved later, finessed and refined. But good design never goes out of fashion. At the heart of good design is simplicity: form follows function. The mug I’m drinking coffee out of hasn’t altered its basic shape for centuries. A paper book is still at heart a very simple and elegant machine to enable reading.
In the arena of music reproduction, digital downloads have compensated for the fall in sales of physical singles, but at the same time the death of the compact disc has been announced quite prematurely. Meanwhile, vinyl records are actually staging a comeback from their nadir in the mid nineties. Clearly there’s still a market who appreciates media with qualities that digital can’t supply. How can this be when there are cleaner, smaller, faster more efficient methods of delivery sound to your ears? Humans are strange like that. Elsewhere on the planet, in some African countries the preferred medium for music is still the tape cassette, already doubly ‘redundant’ in the northern hemisphere. It reminds us that we bathe in the luxury of planned obsolescence, a river whose current is not so strong however that we can’t swim back upstream if necessary or if it simply makes us happier.