Thursday, January 11, 2007

Future Thoughts (Part 3)

Print isn't dead yet; not by a long shot.

Certain aspects of print media are dying. Newspapers, for example, are heading for irrevocable diminution. In the Age of Blogs, the national and international news commentariat are just now discovering the horrible truth that fiction writers, actors, and high-priced hookers have long known: that there are plenty of other people out there who are almost as good as you are, and who are willing and able to do exactly what you do, only for free.

Unless the Internet chokes to death on its own excrement (always a possibility), certain types of books will soon join newspapers in being found only in the fossil record: dictionaries, encyclopedia, pharmaceutical references, most computer reference books, and all other compendia of the sorts of ephemeral information that can be useful in small, random-access doses, and may well become utterly irrelevant tomorrow.

But any information that has a long shelf-life and depends on a linear flow for meaning will remain in printed and bound books, for the foreseeable future. Historical narratives, poetry, any fiction longer than a Richard Brautigan piece — heck, even most cookbooks and how-to books. Would you really want to haul your laptop into the living room to have the ebook chapter on using rag-rollers handy while you were painting the walls?

Not only are printed books relatively portable and durable, they also have the remarkable virtue of remaining readable for decades, or even centuries. One of the reasons why most of my older stories have never been reprinted or posted online is because the original manuscript files reside on 5.25" Apple ][+ diskettes, in a proprietary binary format unique to a long-defunct program named WordHandler. And this is a scant 25 years into the personal computer age!

Some days I indulge in imagining what might happen if some E.T. race actually finds a Voyager and that gold-plated record of Earth sounds it carries. Lately, the story looks something like this:
"Quoxnarg, you mean to tell me that we've spent 30 zorgyears trying to decode that damned disk, only to find that the information it carries is embedded in the scratches on the surface? They don't even understand rudimentary quantum encoding?

"Screw this. Tell the Committee that there are primitive lifeforms there, but nothing that shows any promise of evolving into intelligent life in the next million zorgyears. They can launch the colonization fleet and begin zorgaforming the third planet immediately."