The disembodied book

The disembodied book by Jürgen Neffe

Ouch! (Impressively lucid though).

[T]he era of the printed book will come to a close. Dissolved digitally like sound and image beforehand, limitlessly copyable, globally downloadable by the million with the click of a mouse, the book is entering the world of multimedia like its disembodied cousins from film, photography and music. This is the disintegration of the oldest serially produced data carrier in terms of form and content.

The medium of enlightenment is losing its message and probably some sense and sensibility along the way. Sooner or later bound piles of printed paper will be available only as luxury items in specialist shops, like vinyl records today. Even the most iron-willed bibliophiles won’t be able to get their hands on Gutenberg’s legacy in its current from.

The newfangled reading devices seem rather clueless about this future. Their strengths – print quality monitors and long battery-life – only veil their greatest weakness: they offer the old world in new garb. In their current form they do little else than allow us to read books as we know them – only on an electronic screen instead of actual paper, and in giant type for the near-blind. It won’t come as a surprise to many that you can now download whole books, even whole libraries, read them in an orderly fashion and search for key words. But in times when every mobile phone has enough memory to store and allow you to read a thousand weighty tomes, the hard drives on these new book-substitute machines seem prehistorically minute. Relics on release.

These contraptions are also headed for the museum, because books and other printed works can basically be viewed on anything with a screen – especially the sort of inexpensive multimedia gadgets that are cropping up everywhere now in jacket pocket to briefcase format.

Never was the authorial spirit of innovation more in demand, that in times when the book, as a set of data in the same technical format as image and audio, has to compete with all the other media for the attention and chunks of the temporal budget.

To sum up the future relationship between author and book, you could say that a book needs an author but an author doesn’t need a book. At least not that weighs anything, that has to be printed, packaged, posted and sold. Paper is neither necessary for writing nor reading. Billions of sent and received text messages can’t be wrong. In the post-Gutenberg age, authors no longer require the classical bookshops, distributors or publishers to bring their labours to potential fruition – publication in other words. For them, content has triumphed over container, whose production, distribution and trade sustains vast numbers of jobs and guzzles huge amounts of energy and raw materials.


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