E-readers Won't Survive an Apocalypse

The use of e-readers is growing like wildfire, and it's not surprising given their benefits. They make books easier to buy, easier to carry around, and in most cases, cheaper. It seems that everyone should get one.

Of course, as with every new technology, there are Luddites who resist change. These people put forward all types of arguments: That reading electronically is not as comfortable as the real thing, there is an aesthetic to the reading, storage, and care of books, and certain cultural forms will be lost if physical books become less common. An author in New York gives a provocative example of the latter, noting how e-readers have made her dating life more difficult because she can not see what other people are reading and use that to flirt.

I'm sympathetic to these types of arguments, but not overly so, since I think most technological change brings one new quirky social ritual for each one it destroys. A better question e-readers raise is about data preservation and the ability for society to store its accumulated stock of knowledge. We should keep our reading culture alive if only because our data is more durable in the form of books.

Books can survive for a long period of time. I don't have exact numbers, but a good portion of the Renaissance was based on rediscovering texts from hundreds of year prior, (Pentarch rediscovered letters from Cicero). Also, the famous Domesday book was printed around 1000 A.D., and it's still around today. Digital media aren't so lucky, as the earth's magnetic field will slowly erase an unused hard disk in about 15 years. What this means is that as our data is transferred to a digital format more aggressively, the intellectual and cultural heritage of society is made increasingly fragile. Of course, as long as a concerted effort is made to keep servers and hard disks humming, digital data will survive, but this is not guaranteed. Witness the effort made by government agencies just to keep data accessible (Lockheed Martin of all companies just received a huge grant to work on this).

Think about all the books that aren't popular or important enough to be transferred assiduously to the next generation. If we enter a time when most books run solely for an e-reader and only a sporadic few are printed in physical form, then books that aren't popular initially will become an endangered species.

There is a second problem too, which is that data in digital form is just that: 1s and 0s. It's uninterpretable without the right software, and some storage formats may quickly be rendered obsolete (think VI or WordStar or other ridiculously old programs). My grandpa could pass his books on to me with ease, but I may not be able to so easily transfer all my Kindle books to my grandchild. And once data is made subject to the popular tastes of the current culture, its longevity is put at risk.

This is not just idle concern on my part. Many foundations are hard at work on this exact issue. To name two, the Rosetta Project has the mission of preserving dying languages by including text from them in small metal balls with engraved metal text that can be viewed with magnification. Anyone can read this without a computer (though you need some optics technology), and it will likely last at least 1,000 years. Similarly, the Georgia Apocalypse Stones are designed to do the same thing: To keep knowledge in a readable and durable form that will survive the collapse of civilization.

Now, I don't think you should keep your books just in case civilization ends, but do keep in mind that “civilization” is ending, in little bits, all the time as data is lost or forgotten. If we all get e-readers, we are putting a vast amount of our cultural storehouse at risk of obsolescence or deletion when it's no longer popular. Keep your books alive.

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