Excellent article in the Guardian this week about the internet. It seems almost laughable that someone could write a four thousand word essay about the internet these days, so central is it to the way we live our lives. But John Naughton has, and it’s excellent. He makes an excellent point about disruption being an essential part of the internet – a feature, not a bug:
One of the things that most baffles (and troubles) people about the net is its capacity for disruption. One moment you’ve got a stable, profitable business – say, as the CEO of a music label; the next minute your industry is struggling for survival, and you’re paying a king’s ransom to intellectual property lawyers in a losing struggle to stem the tide. Or you’re a newspaper group, wondering how a solid revenue stream from classified ads could suddenly have vaporised; or a university librarian wondering why students use only Google nowadays. How can this stuff happen? And how does it happen so fast?
Naughton argues that we are currently in the midst of a revolution (an actual revolution, rather than an evolution) the outcome of which is not by any means clear. He says that in the future, it’s likely we will look back on the internet in the way we look back at the Gutenberg press – tracing a clear line of consequence between movable type and such massive cultural shifts as the rise of modern science, entirely new social classes and professions and the collapse of the universal power of the Catholic church.
Of course, without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to know whether the changes the internet and the age of digitisation will bring will be good or bad. It’s very likely they’ll be a combination of both. But nonetheless there is a certain inevitability about it – whether we want it to or not, change is coming.
What has this got to do with books and book technology? Quite a lot. Movable type and the Gutenberg press were at the centre of the communications revolution of the last millennium. The press allowed all sorts of new kinds of communication, and it allowed the rapid distribution and dissemination of books. Will the new communications revolution leave books behind altogether in its race to transfer information ever faster, or are books still a relevant means of communicating ideas in this new age? The answer, according to Naughton, will come to those who wait. In the meantime, of course, we can always speculate. What do you think? Will the book as a medium survive the next four hundred years? If so, why? What does it have to offer that no other medium has?