George Dyson on the future of books

George Dyson:

The bound universe has been divided, in recent discussions over the digitization of books, into works in the public domain on one side, works under active copyright on the other, and a vast sea of inactive titles drifting in between. For those who dream of a Universal Library, however, any such classification is deficient, because it neglects the most important sector of the literary universe – books that have not been written yet.The books that have been written are easy. They represent the collective memory and imagination of mankind, and the technical resources now exist to deliver The Complete Works of Homo Sapiens, Unabridged. Who can argue against this? It is the realization of every librarian’s dream – unless you harbor suspicions about who is going to need librarians once the Universal Library has digested all the books.

Digital coding is the universal language allowing free translation between abstract information and physical books. Once upon a time, if you wanted the information, you had to physically possess (or borrow) the book. If you wanted to purchase a new copy of the book, the title had to be “in print.” This is no longer true. Scan the text once, digitally, and the information becomes permanently available, anywhere, no matter what happens to physical copies of the book. Search for an out-of-print title and you will now find bookshops (and libraries) who have copies available; soon enough the options will include bookshops offering to print a copy, just for you. Google Library and Google Print have been renamed Google Book Search – not because Google is shying away from building the Universal Library (with links to the Universal Bookstore) but because search comes first. To paraphrase Tolkien: “One ring to find them, one ring to bind them, one ring to rule them all.”

(Quote from

Google’s plans to make available on line a large number of books in searchable digital form has started a furious debate. It is beyond my abilities to try to encompass all sides of this debate here, if only because I do not have the time to follow it all. But as a lover of books (and, of course, a library employee and aspiring author) this is a subject close to my heart. All in all, Dyson seems to be pointing to the sort of future scenario often portrayed in Science Fiction, where replicators can produce any desired object instantly (or near enough) from a stored digital template. In the case of books, in the long run I believe this can only be a good thing. Most of the current wrangling seems to be over who’s going to get the money…no surprises there then. But this mirrors the debate over music and video filesharing that is currently raging across the world. The big businesses who make millions from the distribution and repackaging of product that they themselves do not create are understandably worried that their lucrative business may take a considerable blow…hence attempts by Sony (and others) to restrict what is done with this content once purchased.

It seems to me however, that eventually the ‘middle-men’ of record companies and publishers could be cut out of the creative loop entirely. This, I believe, will empower both creators and consumers in a way that seems improbable under the current system. It is already possible for musicians and film makers to market direct to the consumer via the net; as this becomes more popular, the average consumer will start to question the nescessity of money-grabbing distributors. Why pay a middle man a huge mark-up for a phsical container of the content you want, when you can just get the content direct from the artist, and pay them a mutually agreeable fee? Lots of young artists here in Velcro City and elsewhere are already wise to this, and regularly post up freely available tracks on various sites, and authors are starting to do the same (Charles Stross being one vocal proponent of this process that leaps to mind). And contrary to what the middlemen claim, this free availablity of content seems to do little to damage sales of the real thing; after all, we are still at a stage where owning an ‘original’ or ‘genuine’ article has a certain cultural kudos.

But imagine, if you will, a (not too distant) future such as Dyson proposes in his essay, one where any article you want can be reproduced instantly for you. Once you’ve searched for a book that contains exactly what you want, you could either pay for digital access rights (a fee direct to the author), or purchase a copy printed just for your use (should you be archaic enough to insist on having a physical version to possess!). This empowers not only consumers (who would be able to obtain *any book at all from the entire history of mankind*), but authors as well (who would be able to sell their work directly, with much less interference from people whose only concern is their profit margin). This scenario as applied to literature may be a decade or so away, but in the here and now if musicians and film-makers were to realise that the only things holding them back are the very distributors they are so desparate to court the attentions of, a revolution in the art world would be quick to follow. With the mass-marketers removed from the circuit, word-of-mouth (or rather, advertising based on a person’s actual perception of the content rather than glitzy hype and media overkill) would become not just the most effective, but the most honest form of advertising. All of a sudden, the success or failure of a piece of art would be based on the content of that piece of art, and not how much money was invested in its promotion by the middle men. Imagine a world where a bedroom producer or a small band who play local venues being able to compete on an equal footing with vapid and shallow ‘products’ like Girls Aloud. All of a sudden, what someone can actually *do* would be a lot more important than what a man in a suit *says* they can do. And that, to me, can only be a better world for true artists everywhere.

Leave a Reply