Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Second Gutenberg revolution

Anyone who reads Victor Hugo's the Hunchback of Notre Dame will be surprised to learn that the major theme of the story was the rivalry between the book and the building as the major medium of communication. The Cathedral of Notre Dame itself symbolized the old way in which men came to knowledge in a preliterate age. One reviewer at Amazon highlights this. He quotes Hugo waxing eloquent on the subject of form, function and time:

"...human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper"

Fast forward to 2006. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Dale Hoiberg, senior vice president and editor in chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc are debating on the subject of whether "Wikipedia Will Mean the End Of Traditional Encyclopedias" at the WSJ online. I am not without sympathy for the book, which once displaced the Cathedral and is now under attack by an ethereal web more abstract than itself. When will the time come when traditional readers mount the spire of the highest paper library to rage out to the crowds, his muse in his arms, as Quasimodo once did, in both defiance and despair: "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"?


Blogger Kinuachdrach said...

James Fallows, in a recent Atlantic Monthly, pointed out that (to paraphrase) Sumerian clay tablets can still be read today, whereas word processing files for the recently popular Wang word processor are effectively sealed forever.

We have different needs -- for rapid communication, and for permanent records. We may be premature in pronouncing the book to be dead.

9/12/2006 08:20:00 PM  
Blogger Woman Catholic said...

kinuachdrach said:

Sumerian clay tablets can still be read today, whereas word processing files for the recently popular Wang word processor are effectively sealed forever.

That's why there's a big move (Massechussettes leading the way, Microsoft opposing) to the Open Document Format

9/12/2006 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger Quasi said...

Precisely. That has always worried me about the web, who's going to store this mass of information for future generations? It's far too large to print out hard copies, and it's even far too large to keep accessable on-demand as the information pool grows. Offline storage isn't much of an answer. Anyone that has worked with tape backups, write-able CD's, or any of the other odd-ball media types for any legnth of time will realize that these aren't all that reliable after just a few years.

I remember a big story about some Mil-blogs a few years back that were archived, collected, and stored with the Library of Congress. Those might last for future generations. The rest of us are on our own.

It's a real shame we don't write books on stone anymore. We know what some guy wrote in Sumeria thousands of years ago but we'll never know what was stored on that stack of ZIP disks in the corner from 5 years ago.

9/12/2006 08:57:00 PM  
Blogger Woman Catholic said...

quasi said:

We know what some guy wrote in Sumeria thousands of years ago but we'll never know what was stored on that stack of ZIP disks in the corner from 5 years ago.

Up until 1997 I did a lot of work with DOS-based Wordstar and a lot of art, and saved it all on 5 1/4 inch floppy disks, but after storing them for only about five years I had a heck of a time getting that data back out into a format I could use on a modern computer. Eventually we might drop local storage altogether and keep everything on the internet, at least until the EMP weapon detonated 70 miles over Kansas City takes our whole connected civilization out for good in about 35 microseconds.

9/12/2006 09:47:00 PM  
Blogger pauldanish said...

Somehow I think the archeologists of the future will have little trouble devising wayss to read ancient computer disks, if for no other reason that they will have so much more computing and sensing power available to them. The real question is whether magnetic or optical media is robust enough to last a few centuries or millenia.

I agree that it is a shame we don't write on stone anymore. In fact, I think it would be an interesting project to record some of the more important information of today on stone tablets or on the wall of a cave or mine. It could be done easily enough; I believe tombstones are carved by computer controlled water-jets these days. It shouldn't be that hard or expensive to carve in stone a few documents, literary works, and scientific findings that are too important to leave on etherial media.

9/12/2006 10:25:00 PM  
Blogger j willie said...

No need to worry about books as containers for human thought/history. Given the continually accelerating and exponentially declining cost of digital storage, I-Pods and similar devices with terabyte and petabyte storage capabilities are just around the corner. Consequently, it will soon be as easy for people to carry the Library of Congress plus the entire historical catalog of recorded music as it is to carry one's cell phone. The Library of Congress would require approximately 80 terabytes of storage capacity, which at today's cost of approximately $.40/GB, would cost about $30,000. Continued progression down this cost curve is certain, short of nuclear war, which means that the price/GB for data storage in 5 years will be under $.02/GB, at which point the Library could be stored for $1600. Another five years and the cost will be $1/TB (terabyte), or $80. Remember, an I-Pod is essentially a hard drive with earphones, and now a small video monitor, attached. Over 2 billion people currently own cell phones, and assuming trends for the last five years continue, that number will exceed 3 billion by 2010. The rate of decline in storage costs blows away the rate of decline in either cell phone costs or cost/minute of call time, so you can see where its all headed (eg, Apple's announcement yesterday re: movie downloads). If your find these figures hard to fathom, remember that the first IBM PC included 64 MB of RAM; the current PC standard is 1 GB. Future archaelogists should not have to look too hard to find these devices. Furthermore, Google has already scanned all non-copyright protected books into its database, and others will follow suit. Finally, for those who don't know about it, the Internet Archives (aka Wayback Machine) already contains an impressive database of historical Internet pageviews, music and other digital information (including most of the live performances of the Grateful Dead in high quality audio format). Check it out!

9/13/2006 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

Thanks, J Willie, for a reality check on those worried that all info may be lost (or more deliciously "Wang'd" away). And talk of the need to put our stuff on stone tablets. IT professionals have worried about format obsolescence, but the data is still there and retrievable on those old fat discs if we had to. We would just reestablish the technology to get it.

As Willie writes, the cost of information storage is ripping down. Vital records and information of companies, government agencies, and yes, now universities and libraries "crown jewels of published works" are now duplicated, triplicated, and stored in EMP-proof and all but direct nuke-bomb proof underground locations. Survival of info at the Library of Alexandra would have been assured if it all was located at 10-15 duplicate facilities instead of all at one place the Muslims could burn.

One reassuring thing is that scientists have determined that - for now - people learn and get the information they need far more completely and effeciently from a book or a newspaper than a computer screen.

9/13/2006 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Ardsgaine said...

Ceci tuera cela

Dogmas carved in stone by an elite established authority are overthrown by the wider dissemination of ideas enabled by a revolution in media technology.

Sound familiar?

9/13/2006 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Annoy Mouse said...

I am content to write my musings on the sand of a rising tide and am reminded of the Tibetan sand mandalas that are blown away upon completion. Expression is the transient effect of temperal beingness. Few profound thoughts will survive this deluge.

9/13/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger putnam said...

I have one solution:

Use ascii and vi!

9/13/2006 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Ari Tai said...

Re: learning from a cathedral as interpreted by the priest v. a book interpreted by the author and the reader.

Also "open" standards v. ad-hoc market driven (MS or not)

(aka slow to adapt v. fast to evolve and meet more needs :-)

Paul has it right. There are "stones" written that we still can't read for any amount of money, and recovering text from shards of pottery is far more expensive than recovering old computer media. Then again, if you haven't migrated your legacy computer storage and formats forward for a decade, you've clearly set a value if you decide it's not worth the, say, $1000 it would take to recover it and translate it into today's formats (and haven't been willing to invest the hundreds of dollars of your own time over the years migrating the data from system to system every few years when you yourself could have done). Data needs a curator, someone that cares about it enough to keep it from rusting. Ditto for every other form of captured human expression that has come before (writes someone who still is angry at the loss of several hundred of his classic sci-fi books due to acidic paper turning to dust).

Given disk media continues to improve at Moore's law rates (we'll see a 3.5" terabyte disk this year), if you have a five year old system and buy its replacement, it'll be 10 times bigger in every dimension. So all the storage you have will fit in a 10th the (physical, power, etc.) space that it used to. That's far faster than business and individuals accumulate real-world things, and is not a bad match for the worst of the pack-rat set. All people have to do is keep current and be sure to play curator (i.e. open every document and resave it in the now current format - most tools have support lifecycles of 10 years, so customers will find legacy support for formats two or three generations back. And the better vendors provide automatic migration tools.

The good news is tape is dead, as is everything but the latest optical media for backup. Disks are just too cheap and reliable (USB and FireWire backup disks that aren't connected or powered-up at the time when lightening hits (or other EMP) will survive. Put it in a box designed for storing important-papers at home and it'll also survive the resulting fire. Better yet, use one of the file-replication web services (e.g. Foldershare) that sets up a peer-to-peer replication of important folds with friends and family, and the your bits (squirreled away in < 10% of your friends machine) will survive Katrina (which made my friend's Gulfport condo disappear - she got out with her car and the clothes she was wearing, but never thought about those years' of religiously made system backups on CDs in her bedroom closet).

Mr. Database (IBM and Tandem) from the 80s, Mr. Gray at Microsoft, shares a lot of his and others research and insights about databases, services, storage and evolving technologies that solve these legacy migration and related problems. See: http://research.microsoft.com/~gray.

Fyi, it is a little unsettling to see how these supposed open standards often leave the least of us unserved and are usually the vehicle for establishing winners outside of a market process. Be it the ITU or ISO or whatever guild-as-standards-group, their motivations are far as far removed from looking out after the least of us as is, say, socialism from free-enterprise practiced by a free-people. These processes resemble democracy - which has its place, but consensus ("slicing the pie"), compromise, and measuring process seldom achieve the same results of markets that reward intellect, judgment and merit.

In this case of document formats it's curious that the big bad free-enterprise company(s) soundly beat the standards-promoting pie-slicers when it comes to making computing personal for the least of us - including those of us who benefit from the ADA, or are competing with big companies and don't have the staff necessary to manually maintain data in linked documents. I'm reminded that the Mayflower Pilgrims began with a commune/kibbutz and after a time of near-starvation changed their minds about the desirability (and absolute morality) of property-rights and free-enterprise. Open-standards, Open Source Software are "just" another market and guild. To give them standing beyond any other competitor in their space because their heart is in the right place is to commit the same sin of crediting the communists (or even Mr. Clinton :-) for their good intentions, irrespective of the result. Call it an act of faith, not something grounded in observation, empirics or science.

9/13/2006 06:56:00 PM  

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