I am often asked to comment on the Future of the Book. As someone who has just written a very large book that took a great deal of time to write and that I hope will be useful to many people, I sympathize with the impulse to equate knowledge-transmission-by-print-on-paper with KNOWLEDGE itself. But this is a mistake.
There is nothing sacred about print. What is sacred, in my view, is the exchange of focused attention by human beings, which allows us to establish systems of symbolic representation. Symbolic media, starting with language, allow us to enlarge the circle of shared attention and increase the complexity of what we can focus on together. When people worry about the future of the book they are usually worrying that there will be no place to sustain complex arguments or to create works of the imagination that expand our ability to understand one another’s experiences. The new eReaders have quelled that fear to some extent by showing that digital technologies can provide a faster, wider, cheaper channel for distributing book-length artifacts. But the transmission of books in digital form is a very small part of the potential of computers as a medium of representation.
The new digital medium also offers us an alternate mode of representation, which is not declaratory but procedural, the ability to represent what we want to share with one another not only as a fixed sequence of text pages (or moving images), but also as a dynamic, interactive system of behaviors. We have only begun to exploit this power for explaining the world and for sharing our understanding of experience by creating procedural artifacts. Computer games are among the first attempts to use this power. For now much of what computer games represent may be genre entertainment – which is not very different from what most mass market books, films, and TV shows represent – but some of it is much more complex and artistically ambitious, equivalent to the most ambitious creations of print, film or television. As these new procedural forms develop they will not replace books and movies, but they will change the ecology of media, inducing change in older forms, just as the growth of television formats and genres did not replace but changed the form and content of novels and theatrical movies.
It is now clear that books will not disappear with the advent of digital genres – they will receive ever wider distribution and broader availability as they are instantiated in networked bits as well as in ink on paper. But bringing traditional books into digital form makes us aware of how much more we want from them than the paper-based versions can offer. We want them to be more portable, annotatable, searchable, and more linked to the world of all the media artifacts they reference: to films, databases, maps, and to the afterthoughts of their authors and the citations of others. The future of books will likely involve the development of new, more dynamic formats and genres that will satisfy the desires awakened by seeing them as part of the digital domain. This will be disturbing to those who fetishize the traditional form of the book, but it will preserve and expand the core function of books – to create a focus for sustained shared attention that deepens our understanding of the world and of one another.
This post originally appeared as a position paper for the UNESCO Focus 2011 Symposium on The Book Tomorrow: The Future of the Written Word