It's a strange feeling, if you read a lot about the music industry and its impending death-by-downloads, to turn to this piece by Nicholson Baker and read about Jeff Bezos of Amazon and his determination to do the same for publishing.
Bezos and Amazon must believe that e-books, downloaded to a device like the Kindle, are inevitable and that they might as well get in first. They must believe that the earlier they're in, the better their chances of colonizing this new world, setting Amazon up to exploit the pilgrim hordes to come.
This depends on the assumption that technology will make the Kindle or similar e-reader so pleasurable and easy to use that it will supersede the book.
But the same assumption – that ingenuity will find a way – is surely what will prove fatal to them. The Kindle will only work if they can make its DRM work, and no DRM has ever remained uncracked once users reach a certain critical mass. Eventually, readers will have access to an infinite wealth of digital texts for free, and publishing will have exactly the same problem as the music industry: how do you make readers pay for something they can get for free?
Maybe there's a different psychological economy at work in the way people relate to and acquire books, and the way they relate to and acquire music. But it's quite a chance to take.
. . .
I sometimes try to imagine a culture without artefacts – the endpoint of digital in which no-one prints a book, buys a newspaper or magazine, presses a CD (let alone a record), and wonder when it will arrive. And how I will make a living.
Then I remember that in a hundred years' time, humanity will be reduced to small pockets of hunter-gatherer-fisher-farmers, scraping out an existence on small temperate islands, while the continents become uninhabitable scorched wastelands. Assuming the climate stabilizes and these surviving communities start to send out sorties to the old hubs of civilization (like Ballard's Drowned World), as they gather together relics from the old world there will presumably be a huge lacuna. The cultural fossil record will start to go blank from the turn of the century onwards, and with no internet, no electricity, the migration to digital will appear as a kind of universal amnesia. These survivor-explorer archaeologists from the future will find books, records, magazines, CDs, but they will be decreasing to a trickle as the years go by, while even they if manage to fire a computer up, there will be no distant Google server-farm to supply them.
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