After eight years of writing about past visions of the future, I've learned to never make predictions of my own. But I'm about to break my own rule because I'm just so damn confident in my prediction: Paper books will never completely disappear.
Okay, I'm going to almost immediately hedge and say that I can't get behind the concept of "never." Never is a long time. So for lack of a better way to measure, how about we call it within your grandkids' lifetime? Because after your grandkids are dead nobody you know or care about will still be alive. That puts us at about a century out. And since I've got maybe 30 or 40 good years left on this planet if I'm lucky, a century is basically forever for me.
So how can I be confident that paper books are going to be with us for a long time to come? First of all, because they're lovely and I refuse to believe they'll ever disappear. But also because paper books are still a fantastic and irreplaceable piece of technology.
College students overwhelmingly prefer deadtrees to e-textbooks. In a recent survey, a whopping 92 percent said that paper books allowed them to concentrate better. And it's easy to see why! Your deadtree Chemistry book doesn't have the siren song of Twitter or Facebook calling you from the digital rocks.
Believe it or not, paper book sales have made a modest comeback in the past year. Ebooks are mainstream. But paper books have too many benefits to simply die out anytime soon.
Paper books aren't hindered by DRM or evolving media storage standards* or a need for electricity that'll turn your Kindle into a nice paperweight when that nuclear EMP blast finally hits and we're all bringing our kids to the burned out husk of a library to show them what the Before Times were like. Paper books sit on the shelf and mind their own fucking business like they should.
Even short of the more apocalyptic scenarios one can dream up, paper books still serve a purpose and will for the foreseeable future. And anyone who disagrees is almost certainly buying into myths about tech adoption that have poisoned the national discourse about progress for far too long.
It's so easy to think of technological media progress in linear terms. As I mentioned in my post earlier this week about the long forgotten experiments of radio faxpapers, the popular narrative goes something like this: First there were newspapers, then radio made them obsolete, then TV made radio obsolete, and then the web made TV obsolete. This is generally how we prefer to understand the evolution of mass media. But, of course, it's dead wrong.
We still have newspapers, radio, and TV. But with the emergence of each new technology, those older modes were forced to adapt—to refocus on the features that new technologies couldn't offer. It happened for newspapers, radio, and TV, and it's happening for books printed on paper and bound together. That's not to say that ebooks aren't superior in some ways. Rather, that one mode of technology has sharpened the utility of another.
"In the future no book will ever be out of circulation," Nathaniel Lande, a New York publishing consultant, told the New York Times in 1991. Which is a fantastic dream, and a great reason to embrace ebooks. The cost of distribution for electronic media borders on nothing. And digitization will certainly help preserve culture, save nuclear annihilation.
But the battle between paper books and ebooks isn't a zero sum game, even though we tend to imagine technological progress as an endless war between mediums that can only have one victor. In reality, it's more like a stew in which each ingredient is being constantly, subtly redefined by the others.
Paper books and ebooks are each distinct modes of technology, with distinct strengths and weaknesses. They can co-exist in harmony and almost certainly will forever. And rest assured that if they don't, some punk ass blogger will take great pleasure in telling me how wrong I am. Stupid punk ass bloggers.
*Remember all those firewire hard drives you bought that are now sitting in a drawer somewhere like a time capsule from 2002?
Image: Screenshot from the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last"