The end of paper? The end of books? As Leah Price discusses in this excerpt from her latest book, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books: The History and Future of Reading, it’s the same old story.
Books won’t die – The Paris Review
In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another: the rise of the podcast makes clear that video didn’t doom audio any more than radio ended reading. Yet in 1913, a journalist interviewing Thomas Edison on the future of motion pictures recounted the inventor declaring confidently that “books … will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” By 1927 a librarian could observe that “pessimistic defenders of the book … are wont to contrast the actual process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless, and to prophecy the death of the book.” And in 1966, Marshall McLuhan stuck books into a list of outdated antiques: “clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs—all are obsolete.”
Throughout the nineteenth century and again in the twentieth, every generation rewrote the book’s epitaph. All that changes is whodunnit.
And here’s a somewhat related article, asking us to see our current worries about technology ruining everything in a wider, historical context.
Pessimism v progress – The Economist
The New York Times sums up the encroaching gloom. “A mood of pessimism”, it writes, has displaced “the idea of inevitable progress born in the scientific and industrial revolutions.” Except those words are from an article published in 1979. Back then the paper fretted that the anxiety was “fed by growing doubts about society’s ability to rein in the seemingly runaway forces of technology”. …
The most important lesson is about technology itself. Any powerful technology can be used for good or ill. The internet spreads understanding, but it is also where videos of people being beheaded go viral. Biotechnology can raise crop yields and cure diseases—but it could equally lead to deadly weapons.
Technology itself has no agency: it is the choices people make about it that shape the world.
I do think these Economist illustrations are very clever, though, like that one of Johnson’s V for victory sign.