Books and the Problem with their Future

The fall of old media and the maturing of new is a key aspect of network culture. Never before have the forms of media and the means by which they have been distributed and read changed so quickly.

But speaking as a historian, designer, and author (not to mention as media review editor of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians), I am concerned about the future of media. In particular, I worry about how the formats being developed in media are evolving.

Books and periodicals have proved robust over time. It's easy to pick up a book from the sixteenth century and read it. The publications of our day, on the other hand, are posing a problem to future readers.

On the one hand, we have PDFs. Nobody seems to like PDFs and their capabilities are rather limited. They are hard to protect and easy to disseminate, making publishers wary of them (the vast majority of book piracy is in PDF). PDFs maintain the format of the printed page, which is great when you need it, but also a limitation (for example, older readers can't make the text larger). eBooks such as found on the Kindle and on Apple's iBooks stores seem to have more robust digital rights management protection but can also be hacked and freely distributed (never underestimate the book pirates: they will win in the end just as they did with music). But these eBooks are even more limited than PDFs. Formatting is quite limited and adding rich media such videos as to the text hasn't proved possible yet. These eBooks are, if anything, a step back from the PDF and even the book, becoming nothing less than some kind of weird intermediary between the scroll and the codex. 

Then there are app books for the iPad, Android, and other tablet computers, such as Wolfram's the Elements or Phaidon's Design Classics. As librarian John Dupuis points out on his blog, these are visually compellling but an outright disaster for users in the long run. The model of book ownership that prevailed for so many years is now replaced by a model of licensing. Yes, it appears that you purchased Design Classics, but can you resell it? Can you give it to a friend for a birthday present? Can you take the pages in it and cut them up for an art project? Can you check it out from a library? Will you be able to take it with you if you tire of your iPad and want to move to an Android? Generally speaking, all of these are impossible.  

As Dupuis suggests, some kind of open access and standards based authoring environment needs to be developed for the book world. How long will this take to emerge? When I first saw Apple's Hypercard authoring environment in 1987, I was certain that the future of the book had arrived. But now, that future has gone into the past, almost irretrievably so (go ahead, just try to open a Hypercard stack from 1987 such as the incredible Zaum Gadget).   

Nor is the Web immune to these problems. HTML is limited so Web owners turn to authoring environments like Flash or content management systems like Drupal, (which serves this site). But if I stop updating this site, even if I continue to pay the bills for the hosting and the domain name servers, one day the PHP programming language or the MySQL database on which Drupal run will be updated to the point that an update to Drupal will be required. Drupal has this mantra called "the drop keeps moving" which basically means any module or extension involved in this site (and there are many) as well as the theme (or graphic layout) will break unless it is updated too. Even if someone was able to log into my site and update it, they would have to update the modules and the theme. Now, I am sure my readership would rather that I write more and update the architecture to my site less (unless that update is necessary for functionality) so I try to update as little as possible but when I do a major update, I generally devote two to three weeks to update all of my sites (,,, and so on). Now I could export everything to HTML and forget about updating the site ever again. That could last a long time (for example, my friend Derek Gross died in 1996 but his site is still up) but that conversion process too is likely to take at least a week and would require a Drupal developer. Is that going to happen? Probably not.

None of this is new. The Institute for the Future of the Book has been talking about this for years now. But this is a crisis of major proportions for anyone involved in thinking about human culture in the long term and we need to make all the noise about it we can.  


Get your facts straight!

Your statements about ebooks are outrageously wrong.

If you would have botherd to check the facts about your statements made, you whould know that an ebook is basically a outherwise packaged website. Wich supports video, full screen graphics, and like a webpage scripted interactions!

Due to your ignorance on the subject your paragaph in wich you state the web is totally void of relevant content. Because it is just the same, an ebook is a webpage and you can easally "export your html" to an ebook.

It is sad.

maybe we're not looking far

maybe we're not looking far enough ahead. we've sent messages to space aliens aboard vessels that will never reach anyone. is that how we should think of all rich communicative objects?

years ago i wanted to lift material from books like an enchanter. close hand over text to take away. open hand gently over cat purring in my lap to read while petting. the text would have to teach the cat's fur about legible display, annotation, cross-referencing.

the weight of a physical book is that of all three of its data, its method, and its transportation.

desire for crisis

I'm not so sure there is a "crisis". I think the comparison between printed material and digital books is misguided.

Printed material is fundamentally about permanence. Digital information is not. The physical implementation of digital information storage and presentation has never been aimed at creating long-lasting knowledge records. It is aimed at rapid dissemination and incessant mutation. It's designed to be regularly replaced by new incompatible revisions.

While digital books may resemble their printed counterpart in some ways, arguing that they should bear more of a resemblance is misunderstanding the nature of digital media. When individual characters -- the most basic units of language representation -- have changed encoding (from ASCII to Unicode), why should we expect something complex as Hypercard to last?

I completely agree that you should be able to gift digital media to friends, or check it out from a library. But not because I want digital media to act more like printed media, or because we should drop the licensing model for the old ownership one. But because digital media naturally has a minuscule transfer/duplication cost.

I expect we'll start losing access to a significant portion of early digital culture in only a few decades. Impermanence is just the nature of the media. Asking digital media to be more like printed material is like asking a storyteller to be more like an encyclopedia.

"Books and periodicals have

"Books and periodicals have proved robust over time." And following your argument about the content of today being difficult to consume in the future due to technical issues, aren't books and periodicals now more important than they've ever been before? The fact that only the best, or at least the most popular, gets published, should we be afraid that the content we produce digitally will go to dust? Shouldn't we strive to create content worthy of being printed and see that it does end up on something we can touch, stick on a shelf, and share with future generations?

Nouseforanul is just off the

Nouseforanul is just off the mark. XML is not the same thing as a Web page. Nor would a repackaged Web page be necessary either. Finally, none of this gets us out of our quandry, does it. 

Kyle McDonald's premise is based on a narrow misreading of media. Even if it were the case that digital books should be aimed at incessant mutation doesn't mean they need to be obsolete. It's the sort of essentializing argument that drives me crazy in the new media world. A while back, when AUDC produced a Wiki, we were told that it was not a Wiki because it was not open to everyone to edit even though it ran Mediawiki software, was produced collaboratively, and partook of large-scale internal hyperlinking. 

As for Stefan Constantinescu's comment. I don't think that books and periodicals are more important than ever, not by any means. There may be more of them than ever, but the economy of bookselling is a shambles. Old media are in crisis, both independent and chain bookstores are shuttering their doors constantly (New York City's most important academic bookstore, St. Mark's Books is passing the collection plate to stay open) and my many friends in publishing certainly are not sanguine about their futures (even their immediate futures). 

That said, for now we operate in this peculiar realm where the most important content stilll needs to be printed out, but not so much for posterity as out of reflex. Academic achievement, for example, is still based largely on printed material.  

misreading media

Thanks for the response!

Mutability of content may not imply obsolescence, but mutability of form certainly does. Formal mutability is a specialty of digital media.

And obsolescence is not confined to digital media.

Words vanish. When we speak, they dissipate into the air. When we write, the paper decays. When we record, the tape is demagnetized. Everything is continually transformed. Language itself changes over time, entire civilizations rise and fall. There are words in the past we have no record of. Some that were recorded have been lost. Others are untranslatable.

Printed material is a tangible manifestation of our battle against the inevitable. For words to survive, we will need to continually breath new life into them. This means physical preservation and cultural preservation.

Don't misunderstand me as an essentialist: the medium does not imply its use, but digital media was certainly created with mutability in mind. The only solution to preservation will address it on these terms. You won't find digital permanence by creating new standards or encouraging backwards compatibility. Just as "old" media has been preserved through the translation of content, "new" media will be preserved by translation of form, guiding the endless transformation that occurs naturally.