The Book is Dead - Long Live the Book Print E-mail
By Dr Sherman Young   
Nearly twenty years ago, Julian Barnes wrote a terrific book called A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters. Amongst other things, it included a revisionist view of Noah's Ark as told by the stowaway woodworm, an account of terrorists hijacking a cruise ship and a thoughtful meditation on the novelist's responsibility. It’s a great book. I’m not nearly as ambitious - nor as talented - as Mr Barnes, but I am cheeky enough to steal his conceit.
 
So I’d like to start this piece with A History of the World in four and a half slides . . . or paragraphs (with apologies to Julian Barnes).

A history of communication

In the beginning, there was talking. We had what many called an oral culture – one based on verbal story telling. Families and social groups gathered around campfires and regaled each other with stories, myths and legends. Information was passed on through time from storyteller to storyteller and shared by word of mouth. In the beginning, we talked – and it was good.
 
Then, writing was invented and with it came new ways to codify and organise societies and cultures. We began to form new relationships with information, creating and sharing it in ways that were previously impossible. Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought about by the invention of writing. Traditionalists complained and warned of its dangers – and suggested that it meant the end of many things; the loss of memory, and thus the passing of wisdom . . .. But the rest of us came to embrace writing and all of its joys and pleasures, and society moved on and learnt to live with a little forgetfulness, replaced by the ability to look up what we needed to know.
 
But it wasn’t until we discovered a way to easily replicate and distribute that writing – to publish – that even more incredible change occurred. Gutenberg’s contribution to printing and the creation of what we know as the book enabled the emergence of a literate – and eventually, an educated – population. Indeed, knowledge was disseminated more widely than at any earlier time in history, and the book, and its surrounding cultures, more or less created the modern world. The spread of words allowed the spread of ideas and emergence of what many consider civilised societies.
 
As Kevin Kelly (2008) suggested:
 
From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. . . . printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.
 
Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought about by the invention of the book. Traditionalists complained and warned of its dangers – and suggested that it meant the end of many things; the loss of authority, the rise of anarchy, the end of an unquestioned wisdom . . .
 
But the rest of us came to embrace books and all of their joys and pleasures, and a more democratic society moved on and learnt to live with the joys of reading.
 
However, all empires fade and the age of print was replaced by the broadcast era. The last half of the twentieth century saw the dominance of the book displaced by electronic media forms such as radio and television. In this world, people stopped reading books and began listening to boxes in the living room, then watching them, entranced by the moving image. In the West, and elsewhere, we became people of the screen.
 
Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought by the invention of radio and television. Traditionalists complained and warned of its dangers – the end of thinking; the emergence of a zombie population mesmerised by a flickering screen, hypnotised by moving images. But the rest of us came to embrace the electronic media form and all of its joys and pleasures, and society moved on and learnt to live with a little excitement on a Sunday evening :-)
 
What’s more, some of us began to understand that we could engage critically – even with the broadcast media – and were not mere putty in the hands of media moguls of mass destruction. We were able to discern the good from the bad and could watch a Bruce Willis movie without being hypnotised into becoming Bruce Willis. In short, as the broadcast age grew more mature, we realised that we had become adult media users, savvy enough to figure out the good bits from the bad;
 
This was why so many celebrated the emergence of the Internet Age – which seemed to represent a maturing mediascape. One in which the primitive electronic technologies of the twentieth century were displaced by more sophisticated and sensible mechanisms. No longer was the screen just a place for transient moving images – it became a place where new connections are formed, new media possibilities enabled and citizens empowered in ways that still cause breathless utopian utterings. Many of us came to celebrate the computer and its personal computer descendants as well as online services and their subsumation into that thing we call the internet in all its hyper-connected multimedia glory.
 

Once we turned to each other in a circle around the campfire, then to pen on paper, and then to the book, and then to radio and television. Where once we turned to a plethora of different objects, more and more we turn online to a single place which encompasses all our knowledge. 

Not only did the written word regain its place, but the technologies of production and distribution became cheap. The world became awash with words and images, sound and motion. In the West, we are still people of the screen, but the screen has been re-imagined. Indeed, some suggest that the new media forms encompassed the best of oral cultures, the best of print cultures, the best of electronic media cultures. Whereas 20th century media were expensive and complicated, the online world requires nothing more than a keyboard and a connection; whereas the whole business of radio and television demanded billions of dollars and political connections, the online world requires nothing more than desire.
 
Of course, not everyone was happy with the changes brought about by the invention of the internet. Traditionalists complained and warned of its dangers and suggested that it meant the end of many things; the loss of authority, the rise of anarchy, the end of an unquestioned wisdom . . .. But the rest of us came to embrace the internet and all of its joys and pleasures, and society moved on and learnt to live with a little active citizenship...
Which is where we are today. Once we turned to each other in a circle around the campfire, then to pen on paper, and then to the book, and then to radio and television. Where once we turned to a plethora of different objects, more and more we turn online to a single place which encompasses all our knowledge.
 
But this is the half-slide or half of the picture. And this is because the internet age has only just been born. We are still building it – arguing about what it should be, how it should work, what it should do and who should control it. And uniquely in the history of information technologies, the internet provides a platform that actually allows its users to engage in its ongoing creation, its development and shaping. We are in the middle of the half slide and we are the people who can complete it.