Will books be replaced (or even substantially substituted) by ebooks and hand-held readers? Robert McCrumb in The Observer thinks so. Maybe he’s right. A better question – do they need to replaced – is rarely asked. Instead, we line up around our entrenched positions – apocalyptic-Luddite or euphoric-futurist – both conveniently informed by the same brittle, reductive view of technology that says: “It is possible therefore it will happen”.
Arguing from the potential of a new technology is almost always a mug’s game. A technology’s potential – positive, negative or indifferent – is always and necessarily hedged around by its alarmingly complicated context: social, economic, political.
This context invariably derails new technologies, sending them down various dead-ends or permanently mitigating their scary/exciting (delete where applicable) potential.
A crass but real example: nuclear weapons. Arguing solely from the death-dealing potential of the hydrogen bomb would leave one wondering what the hell we’re still doing here. The planet should, by now, have been laid waste a thousand times over.
We’re still here not because the bombs are crap but because the context – the whole, spinning galaxy of stuff that provides friction for events – didn’t let it. Likewise, books will persist and they’ll do so mostly because the massive economic friction provided by the culture and the market will hold back the alternatives. Books have five hundred years of resistance to annihilation to call on. They’re tough. They’ll survive.