Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Mixed Bag?

I got nothing. Okay, that's not true. I've always got something to write about.

Tomorrow I get to begin on my next project. I don't mind admitting that I'm terrified. The project is risky. At the same time, I think it's my most mainstream project yet. It's the kind of story that I have to knock out of the park or it'll be a failure. But, you know, no pressure.

I've been thinking a lot about news and social media and people-based knowledge sources like Wikipedia. I am not ashamed to say that Wikipedia is the first place I go when I need to know something. I AM ashamed to say that I rarely check the "facts" I get from there. I've come to rely on Wikipedia so heavily that I rarely stop to wonder about its validity. And I'm not the only one.

Such blind faith has spread to Twitter where fake death announcements have been made.

Events such as Amazon using its Skynet Whispernet online network to delete the illegal copies of 1984 (and some poor kid's homework), the constant pronouncements of the death of books, and even experiments like John Green's have made me wonder if the rise of the internet will actually cause the collapse of the physically written word or if it will give us a reason to keep physical books around forever.

How, you ask, will more digitization lead to a greater reliance on paper books? Here's how: Twitter and Wikipedia and John Green have shown us that information can be manipulated to such a degree that it can become nearly impossible to know what is true. Digital media can be manipulated by anyone at anytime. He who controls the media controls the world. Amazon has shown us that it has the capability to control what you read. Yes, I know that its purposes were not so nefarious, but their PR nightmare demonstrated that they COULD. And once something is done, it'll be done again.

Imagine a scenario where parents protest Catcher in the Rye. Bending under the pressure, an Amazon-like company replaces every instance of the word "goddamn" with "golly-gee." They then go to every Kindle-like device and swap out the digital copies. People who have never read the book won't know the difference. Eventually the Golly-Gee version of Catcher will be the only version and thus the REAL version.

Because what is real? The version that exists.

Wikipedia can be used to erase the sins of our past. Slavery? Never happened. Not if it's not in the Wikipedia entry. If a lie is propagated long enough it will become the gospel truth. People have known that for centuries. People have practiced that for a millennia. But hard copies of our information limit the damage. Sure, they can release a Golly-Gee print of Catcher in the Rye, but you'll always be able to find the unmolested version. You can burn the Library at Alexandria but books will always survive.

Not so in the digital age. Not so as we move toward a digital model that doesn't even give us ownership over our own property. We rent our books from a source that tells us how we can use them, what we can read them on, how long we can read them for, and eventually whether we can read them at all. In this digital age, knowledge is at the mercy of anyone with a login and password.

Which is why I believe that as we move forward, book will become an even greater treasure. Digital copies can't be trusted. If a new version of a book is printed, the two can be compared for differences, but if a company has the ability to change a book and replace...REPLACE...the digital copy they're letting your borrow, how will you ever know?

Books are more than just repositories of fun stories. They're who we are as a people. That kind of knowledge should not be mutable. Not easily anyway.

In a world where history and the vast sum of human experience can be altered with the click of a few keys, books will be king.

Happy Friday!!!


  1. It's more important than ever that the roles of Fact Keepers be supported and sustained. Does make you wonder if we're hurtling toward a world where the One True Print of any given book will be archived - a la the Mona Lisa - while every other version is some form of more convenient copy (with brushstrokes faithfully rendered or not).

    And, ack, the Library at Alexandria, and countless other destructions of art, science, and knowledge in general. Ack.

  2. Absolutely! People have always tried to control knowledge. China does it now by controlling the press, Hitler tried to do it in Nazi Germany by burning books and monitoring the flow of information out of Germany, but it becomes SO much easier in this digital age. Hitler couldn't burn EVERY book, but Amazon CAN delete every copy of a book off a Kindle if it wanted to.

    It scares the bejeezus out of me.

  3. ALA's Banned Books Week begins Sep 26 - I like to put the badge on my blog every year. Their map of challenges is an eye-opener.

  4. Having just read 1984, this whole concept is freakishly scary to me. I almost bought a Kindle, but after that whole ordeal, I thought twice. I want to own my books. They're MINE! And I don't want anyone sneaking in and "editing" them when I'm not looking. Great post!


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