Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Merging of Books and the Internet: Go Hard or Go Home

We live in a time when only the largest assertions get any attention. Go hard or go home. It may be silly, but it’s true. And you can make those big assertions and they can be empty because, a year from now? Pretty much no one besides Jon Stewart will remember what you said. So when Hugh McGuire of Pressbooks released the part of an upcoming book that says that books and the Internet will merge, he got a fair amount of attention. Even The Guardian sat up and quoted which is always a big, hairy deal.

McGuire’s rationale is not imperfect, but it is fatally flawed (sez me). It all began with a tweet McGuire made a year ago: “The distinction between ‘the internet’ & ‘books’ is totally totally arbitrary, and will disappear in 5 years. Start adjusting now.”

In Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, to be published by O’Reilly (print) and Pressbooks (electronic) on March 22, McGuire explains further:
If you think about “books”—which are, more or less, collections of words, sentences, and images arranged in a particular way—and compare them to, say, websites—which are, more or less, collections of words, sentences, images, audio, and video, arranged in a particular way—there is a jarring distinction that presents itself. We have decided, for mostly historical reasons, that collections of words and sentences of one kind go into a “book” and collections of words and sentences of another kind go onto the “Internet.”
And while I get what he’s saying here, it isn’t quite as true as he makes it sound. Think, for instance, of people tooling around Stuttgart in Daimlers in the late 1800s. And someone says, “the ‘car’ and the ‘bicycle’ are the exact same thing: mark my words. The distinction between them will soon disappear.”

On one level, all of that is true. Both cars and bicycles have wheels. And you use both of them to get from one place to another. An argument could even be made for the mechanical skill involved in creating/building/maintaining them. And in both cases, you have to know what you’re doing, at least a little bit: you can’t just hop on.

But see, here we are, more than a century later and though there have been times when the technology has blended, we still have cars. We still have bikes. They are distinct. Unique. Separately important. And you can store them in the same place and think about them in the same way but they’re not ever going to be the same thing. And some of us? We need them both. ◊

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.

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