…a bright and streamlined future where everything has been reduced to the simplest and most elegant of all things; long strings of something or nothing, 1s and 0s arranged in serried ranks, carefully ordered to hold all meaning, all record of human endeavor. A future where the implacable machines remember everything, gathering huge libraries of information in tiny little spaces, indexing, quantifying, cataloging and then firing scintillating streams of laser light across the globe, transferring these vast stores of knowledge from continent to continent in the time it takes for a butterfly to beat its wings; and all of it available to all people all the time, everywhere. A time where technology reigns supreme and the old is to be left by the wayside.
Well, actually, mostly that *is* the world that we live in. Certainly the large majority of the words that I read, photos that I see, music that I listen to, movies that I watch are, indeed, very long strings of 1s and 0s artfully arranged by various insanely complex gizmos into the news headlines, a picture of my cat, a Kenny G solo or Episode III (well, ok, maybe not the Kenny G but you get the idea…). But there is a problem with all of this. All of these 1s and 0s, whilst irreducibly simple, demand massive complexity to give up their delights and are inherently ephemeral.
Allow me, if you will, to expand with a personal example.
I take a lot of photos. I used to take a fair number of photos with my film cameras in years gone by, just recording the mundane; nothing very artful in truth but I enjoyed having the record. I have a drawer completely full of photos of people and places from my life, from my teen years onwards (and that is quite an alarming number of years ago now). And yet the total number of photographs can only be in the high hundreds whilst covering a couple of decades. With the arrival of my first digital camera, the number of photos that I took started to pick up and with each new, shinier, slightly whizzier device that made its way into my home, the numbers have increased. I have nearly 10,000 photos sitting on the machine on which I type, stretching back over the last 6 years. And yet I could store all of those images on 5 DVDs or, when they hit the streets, one BluRay disk. Amazing, you say, that’s so cool and you don’t need a whole drawer for that. Yes, I reply, nifty, isn’t it, and yet what happens to them later? What do you mean, you ask? Well, I say, what happens when I want to show them to my Dad, and what about the future…?
You see, my Dad doesn’t have a computer (well, actually he does; I bought him one and, after I had spent a week teaching him how to use it, I believe he took it home, locked it in the basement and now fears to go down there lest it steal his credit card numbers or infect him with a virus. Or both). So quite how does he get to see all those photos of that trip to Japan, those amusing cats, that lovely wedding? Well, he can come round my house and I can fire up a gizmo and show them to him but that’s a bit inconvenient at the best of times. And given that he lives roughly five and a half thousand miles away, well, it makes it all a bit impractical. Then what of the future? Is anyone going to spend a nostalgic afternoon up in my attic having found “Grandpa’s old traveling trunk”, leafing through a binder of old DVD ROMs, faces aglow with innocent wonder at seeing the strangeness of Grandpa’s youth? Is anyone going to be rummaging in the back of an antique store and triumphantly discover a mint edition of one of my Seagate 300GB USB2.0 bus-powered drives and marvel at its unexpected and rich content? Um. No.
So what to do with the really good stuff? The things that you *really* want to share with people from all walks of life? The things that you really want to keep for the future? There must be some artful storage medium that could combine simplicity, durability with quick and easy data access. Some device that would continue to function in all sorts of environments, and will continue to offer up its content year after year, for decades, possibly for centuries?
You don’t mean…?
Not the planar reconstituted plant fiber and chemical pigments layer? Surely not in this digital age…?
Yep! That’s right. Books. They may just *be* the future.