Books vs computers on a desert island: let’s contemporize this stuff and get a move on already!

A few people have expressed discomfort at Umberto Eco’s “The Future of the Book” and I don’t blame them. One quote in particular that rubbed me the wrong way:

Electronic communication travels ahead of you, books travel with you and at your speed, but if you are shipwrecked on a desert island, a book can be useful, while a computer cannot — as Landow remarks, electronic texts need a reading station and a decoding device. Books are still the best companions for a shipwreck, or for the Day After.

Just from a realistic technological point of view, I think I would much rather have my cell phone on me on a desert island than either a computer or a book. But regardless, this rabid loyalty to the “old way” – regardless of how we mask it in rationality – is nothing more, I think, than sentimental drivel.

The End of Books does a good job of laying out some of the creative possibilities that lie in the mystical land of “The Internet.” But what neither of them acknowledge is that computers have the ability to hold thousands of books in the same physical space. Power source problems aside, computers are able to hold thousands of times more information than a book physically can.

Eco also says:

After having spent no more than twelve hours at a computer console, my eyes are like two tennis balls, and I feel the need to sit comfortably down in an armchair and read a newspaper, or maybe a good poem. It seems to me that computers are/diffusing a new form of literacy but are incapable of satisfying all the intellectual needs they are stimulating. In my periods of optimism I dream of a computer generation which, compelled to read a computer screen, gets acquainted with reading from a screen, but at a certain moment feels unsatisfied and looks for a different, more relaxed, and differently-committing form of reading.

But things like the Amazon Kindle are designed to work like mini-computers that allow all the same kinds of opportunities for hypertextual flexibility with the readability of a normal book (electronic paper is lit in a way that isn’t harsh on the eyes the way computer screens are).

This, of course, provides endless opportunities for hypertexts. If you’re designing a text for something like a kindle, you have something the size and shape of a book except with the versatility of a computer. This allows for any number of design and navigation possibilities, particularly ones that play with the traditional idea of a “book.” Imagine, for example, how The Jew’s Daughter would look on a Kindle.

Much of the literary community seems to be up in arms about the idea of a transition from traditional texts to electronic texts. I welcome the change; I think that being alarmist about it is, at this point, fairly useless. Clinging to traditional books, whether on a desert island or not, seems to be about as fruitful as rejecting electronic music for being inauthentic – or, two hundred years ago, rejecting the novel as a useless medium.

-Jocelyn Petyak

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~ by jocelynpetyak on February 28, 2010.

2 Responses to “Books vs computers on a desert island: let’s contemporize this stuff and get a move on already!”

  1. Indeed.
    I would add though that the computer isn’t the be all and end all of text. Is vinyl dead?

  2. Little fascists in their nests agree:

    http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/T4PM/futurist-manifesto.html

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