Does the book still have a future?

The world of the most cerebral intellectuals may often be characterised by disagreement and heated debate, but they all agree on one thing – the power and significance of books. They help us ‘grow stronger’, Jeremy Collier promises; they are ‘uniquely portable magic’, Stephen King proclaims; they are essential for the ‘ideal life’, Mark Twain observes. Ask the glossy-eyed toddler tapping the large, colourful screen of an iPad, the schooling teen transfixed by his smartphone, or the busy office worker hunched over a laptop, however, and their responses could hardly be more different. As we look to the future, a world made great by ubiquitous internet access, never ending streams of television programs and exciting mobile games, the chapter on the future of the book is fast coming to an end.
 
In the fore, it may seem that books will still continue to retain their unique educational purposes, as they are reliable and well-checked sources of information. Published books are subject to rigorous editing and proof-reading, whereas Wikipedia entries often lack such academic rigour and veracity. However, it would be a false generalisation to say that all online sources of information are unreliable. The Internet does possess reliable and accurate sources of information which rival, and even overtake, books. In 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the world’s most respected fountains of knowledge, was fully digitised and made available online, providing netizens with an authoritative and reliable source of information. At first blush, the same may not be said of other online sources of information – a la Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers – as they are community driven, and not written by professional academics. However, the sheer number of online contributors to such portals of information helps ensure their reliability. The Internet is a self-regulating sphere, where unreasoned and unreasonable assertions are quickly drowned out by the far larger number of moderate and moderated views. In fact, the community driven nature of online sources of information is a strength rather than a weakness. Books are often only written by a singular author, or at best, by a team of researchers. This represents a limited viewpoint which may be clouded by individual bias and inaccuracies. In contrast, the Internet community is a microcosm of society, a confluence of diverse netizens and equally diverse views. This allows the Internet to present a representative version of the truth that accounts for all perspectives and considers the interests of every party. Additionally, the Internet allows for a more interdisciplinary study of the world around us. An academic researcher writing a book may only be well-learned in a few highly specialised fields of knowledge, and this often translates into a one-dimensional treatment of the topic at hand. Online sources of information avoid this pitfall, by harnessing the expertise of individual online contributors, and piecing them together to form a coherent picture. All Wikipedia pages are written collaboratively by an entire team of online contributors, each with their own area of specialisation. While each of these individual contributors may not be as well-learned as a professional academic, cumulatively, their wisdom far exceeds that of a single researcher. Furthermore, books are unable to keep pace with the fast-changing nature of the modern world. Each day, new scientific revelations are uncovered which render yesterday’s axioms of truth to be obsolete. For instance, scientists pushing the frontiers of String Theory at the Large Hadron Collider are on the verge of radically changing the way we understand our world. Printed books cannot evolve and adapt to include such new, important developments in knowledge, while online repositories of knowledge can be constantly updated to stay relevant. Hence, the dynamic Internet clearly triumphs the static book as a mode of sharing information.
 
Additionally, books may appear as better sources of entertainment. Instead of bluntly prescribing what people should see and hear, books give room for the imagination to take root, allowing people to construct their own unique realms of fantasy. However, while it is undeniable that books engage the human imagination in ways that multimedia entertainment cannot replicate, it seems that people today still prefer the latter’s bold, multisensory stimulation over the book’s quiet, muted engagement. The modern audience has a short attention span, and demands instant gratification. While introspective and thoughtful films like ‘Llo Llo’ may clinch awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for their artistic poetry, such films lack the rush of excitement needed to appeal to the sensibilities of movie-goers in Singapore. This same problem is amplified in the comparison of books to multimedia forms of entertainment. Books require much emotional investment before the rewards of entertainment can be reaped – it is common to hear that books only start being interesting after a few chapters, and that readers have to wade through hundreds of pages of ponderous reading before reaching ‘the good parts’. People today simply have no patience for such activities. We want entertainment in bite-size pieces, entertainment which can be had in the short windows of time between our hectic lifestyles. As Rousseu proclaimed, ‘man is everywhere in chains’, encumbered by onerous burdens imposed on us by family members, workplace superiors and bankers. Where then does entertainment factor into such a lifestyle? Entertainment has to come in the brief moments on the bus, waiting for meals in restaurants, or embarrassingly for some of us, in toilets. The book is ill-suited to provide such forms of entertainment. To savour the subtle nuances of books, we need to be in solitude – not cramped with dozens of commuters, not amidst the cacophony of noisy diners and waiters, and certainly not enveloped in the foul smells of the remnants of lunch. Multimedia forms of entertainment clearly triumph the book in this regard. Smartphone games like ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Candy Crush’ are divided into short levels which can be conveniently completed in a few minutes; modern pop songs mostly contain themselves in the span of three to five minutes; even television drama serials, which may span many seasons spread across many years, are broken into short episodes no longer than an hour. The fact that modern, multimedia entertainment can be enjoyed within such short spans of time appeals greatly to people today. Few people, save for the most passionate of literary enthusiasts, are willing to devote the many hours needed to conquer the colossal classic ‘Les Miserables’. Most people, however, are able to spend two hours watching the latest ‘Iron Man 3’. Hence, given modern perceptions and demands towards entertainment, it seems that book is increasingly overshadowed by other modes of entertainment.
Finally, books may seem to speak to a very fundamental human need – the need for self-expression, and the need to immortalise oneself via one’s written word. The existence of such a human need is irrefutable, and while the book has served this need for centuries, new modern technologies have shown themselves to fulfill this need far better than books. Books, in their first incarnation in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome and Egypt, were the luxury of the privileged, educated elite. Fittingly, these books were often only written by those of noble or divine status – the first books were religious texts and royal decrees from noblemen. Centuries later, this phenomenon persists. Writing and publishing a book is a great feat few people will ever accomplish in their lifetime. This act of expressing, and immortalising, oneself by publishing a book seems to be the exclusive domain of academics and gifted literary writers. In contrast, modern technologies such as Web 2.0 have democratised the process of self-expression and making one’s voice heard. Anyone today can voice an opinion through Facebook or through a personal blog, sidestepping the prohibitively selective and troublesome process of trying to get a book published. With the Internet, anyone can express themselves freely on a global scale, something previously unheard of in the era of books. The recent Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia has lent credence to the power of the Internet in allowing people to voice their opinions to galvanise major social movements. The ‘leader’ of the revolution in Egypt was not a powerful political figure with connections to major media outlets or publishing houses. He was a Google executive, no different from any of us. The fact that he, an ordinary citizen of Egypt, could rise to the forefront and express his discontent with the Mubarak regime to organise a social revolution, highlights the ability of modern technologies to engage the voices of each and every one of us. The book is highly selective in fulfilling this need, and thus, is quickly being eclipsed by other modes of communication and discussion.
Embroiled in this debate, it may be easy and convenient to paint modern technology as inimical to the traditional book. This, however, is hardly accurate. The most popular social networking site, Facebook, presents itself as a type of book, and modern e-book readers like the Kindle attempt to imitate key features of books, going as far as developing special screens that display text as if it was printed by ink, and replicating the animations of flipping a page. This speaks volumes about the positive feelings we associate with books – the feeling of escaping into a fantasy realm, the feeling of being at quiet with ourselves, and most poignantly, the feeling of nostalgia. It seems that as much as technology may overtake and triumph books in functionality, it, at best, can only attempt to replicate the more abstract, emotional appeal of books. Like candles, fireplaces and automatic watches, the book’s future may not be a physical one, but rather, one in our hearts. 

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