Beyond books and e-readers

I am an “early adopter” of the Amazon Kindle reading device. I love it. I am also a bibliophile. My personal collection includes among other volumes a 1764 copy of Hume’s Essays as well as an edition of Epictetus, His Morals, published in 1694. To me, beyond the value of their  content, these and  numerous others I have are treasures  – in a way, these books represent possessing the past, and handling them, carefully turning their aged pages, and reading from them gives me a sense of the time when they first appeared.

Stephen King, the well known horror and science fiction author, wrote an  article for Entertainment Weekly about his first experience reading with the Kindle in which he declared essentially that the Kindle will not supplant the book for the reason that books house the thoughts expressed in them in such a way that they give a permanency and stability to their works. Anyone who has watched a toddler walking about clutching his or her favorite storybook understands the significance of this attribute of books.

But while books may continue to co-exist with new technologies for the transmission of ideas, their raison d’etre may well change.

Eli M. Noam is Professor of Economics and Finance at Columbia University and Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI). The university-based research center focuses on strategy, management, and policy issues in telecommunications, computing, and electronic mass media. Professor Noam has devoted considerable attention to media, and books are by definition media, the means of communication.

In his article “Will Books Become the Dumb Medium?” published in 1998 in the Educom Review, Professor Noam prognosticates that books per se will ultimately have a secondary position to other information sources particularly, and will be used as an entertainment means primarily. While focusing on academia, his statements apply generally without doubt. Originally presented as the keynote address to the Annual Convention of Educom in 1997 (Educom, now Educause, is a noted non-profit organization dedicated to advancing higher education through information technology), it should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of books.

Advancing the transmission of thought and information through technological innovation is a constant human striving:  from cave paintings and oral lore to the invention of writing and alphabets, from stone tablets to papyrus and paper, from scribes to printing presses, from quill pens to typewriters, telegraph, telephones, televisions, computers, laptops, iPhones and Kindles and who knows what next?

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) I think would venture to speculate on this very question if he were alive today. Fortunately for posterity, his vision of the future is enunciated in the article “As We May Think” published in The Atlantic Monthly (now called simply The Atlantic) in 1945  and comes strikingly close to a 2009 reality.

Dr. Bush was a pioneering American engineer who had a hand in advancing the coming computer age, the atomic age, and was nominal first presidential science adviser. His idea of what he called the “memex” as described in “As We May Think” reads much like a description of how a 5th or 6th generation Kindle might function.

What is particularly fascinating, amidst all the fascinating prescience of Bush, is the incorporation of voice recognition and speech synthesis functionality for the “memex”. Why so?

Enter Dr. William Crossman, Founder and Director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures who predicts that “talking computers, VIVOs, will make text/written language obsolete, replace all writing and reading with speech and graphics, democratize information flow worldwide, and recreate an oral culture in the electronically-developed countries by 2050.” (from the online synopsis to the book, VIVO, Voice-In/Voice-Out, The Coming Age of Talking Computers).

Amazing supposition? Perhaps not so much. After thousands of years of technological progression a new oral culture is able to emerge. It may just turn out that what makes oral culture seemingly less advantageous to “literate” societies is not inherent  but rather relates more to the available means by which it is sustained. Move over books and e-readers, here come the VIVOs!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/07/beyond-books-and-e-readers/

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