Dancing By Fire Light: The Battle Has Begun In Earnest

Beneath the surface of the world you occupy is a secret cabal pulling the strings to create a new future. I’m not talking about the Illuminati, though these individuals can be called illuminated. I’m talking about bibliophiles. Nearly two thousand years ago, the forerunner of paper was invented but just over five centuries ago, the printing press was born, and knowledge has never been the same since.

The printing press marks the birth of the information age. It was the moment when ideas first developed legs of their own and could move faster than their carriers. It was imperfect, subversive, and feared by every authority. It represented a situation that was impossible to control without directly clothing the common people in ignorance. Therein lay its greatest weakness. Too few were literate or wealthy enough to utilize this powerful new weapon against the dark.

The world over, the reaction to this subversive new element was surprising similar, perhaps exposing a primal psychic complex in all human beings. Figures of authority began to turn their backs on knowledge. Despite what you might have heard about the dark ages, it was in fact a period of immense artistic and even scientific productivity. The magisterium was the primary source of funding for scientific exploration. But it was at the dawn of the printing press that the church brought its anti-science, anti-knowledge stance to its apex.

The same game played itself out in governments and armies. A dumb populace was a docile populace. It’s no coincidence that revolutionaries have always been cut from the intellectual classes. Whether their revolutions were for good or ill is irrelevant. The founding of the United States was by intellectuals with the backing of brutes to pull the trigger. The French revolution was sparked by the written word. Even the original and now very dead founders of the Illuminati were a circle of “enlightened” scholars. During the apex of the Muslim empires, when the greatest sciences and order came from them, the Islamic world was also said to have had almost complete literacy. It was even said that in Moorish Spain, littered with libraries, one could walk into one to find tens of thousands of books, if not hundreds of thousands, but over in Paris which was then the enlightened intellectual capital of Europe, only one library existed. That library was in the Kings primary palace and possessed only 900 books.

The written word accelerated the spread of knowledge in previously unseen ways. With other revolutions like the maritime revolution and later things like telegraph, the written word would begin to change our very evolution. However, it all started happening too fast and once again, the old forces and the old methods were reborn. For the first time in a century, we started celebrating ignorance. The mark of a wealthy society was one where its citizens didn’t need to be literate in order to be wealthy. Centuries earlier we’d begun limiting the access women had to knowledge, afraid of their growing capabilities. However, side by side with the human tendency to keep those it fears ignorant, there is an uncontrollable urge to learn more. Few children left with access would not jump at the opportunity to learn to read. Increasingly, the divide between societies (on top of religion and politics) became access to information. The internet was supposed to change that.

In recent years a battle has been fought in secret between two opposing sides of the same coin: the battle between paper books and Ebooks. Let me be clear, this fight is stupid and pointless. What does it matter what the medium is as long as everyone is reading? That said, there is a more fundamental problem. I argued in an article a while back that the rhetoric uses nostalgia to derail the argument, but the argument is really about access. My argument was that the industrialized world has unprecedented access to knowledge but has somehow convinced itself that it is “cool” not to read. Once its greatest figures could have memorized entire books, now citizens of the industrial world only half pay attention to the spark notes in time for an exam. (Fun fact, Warren Buffett, the billionaire, got through school by memorizing entire textbooks before the first day of classes. He coasted the rest of the way). They celebrate this in-between bragging about how drunk they got a few nights earlier and how little sleep they’ve gotten.

Elsewhere there are populations of people starved for knowledge who devour anything their young minds can get a hold of. They have a joy for knowledge, for the written word, and for its possibilities. To them, the world is full of possibilities. One little problem though. In the earlier article I explain that books are not scalable. With books, the cost of getting to remote areas only increases with the more knowledge you want to pack into them. If you need to get one more book to people, you need to pay just a bit more. What’s more, the knowledge it communicates remains static.

The internet and the proliferation of cellphones offers up an exciting possibility: unlike traditional books, electronic data is in fact scalable. It doesn’t cost more to send more, and the information sent is dynamic. In simple terms, you’re talking about the difference between each yearly re-print of the Encyclopedia Britannica vs. Wikipedia.com. Decades ago, we began trying to digitize more books because it was vital that more people be given access to them. Visionaries began to notice that the electronic version of books could be replicated quickly, stored in redundant systems, updated and iterated over time, and potentially made available to more people than ever.

It took decades, but the internet finally made it all seem possible. Fast forward to today and there be more people with access to cellphones than books. The technology (due to its scalability) keeps becoming cheaper and more capable, while paper remains static. The cellphones that proliferate are not anything special, but they represent a device in every village and every pocket capable of displaying the written word. But back to the secret cabal of bibliophiles I was talking about earlier. We love to read and we love allowing others to read, but the purists among us don’t give a damn what the medium actually is. Message is the motive. So we push from the shadows for a paperless future because it is the future with the vastest and cheapest reach. It’s not that we think paper and eBook can’t coexist. Quite the contrary: the problem is that the defenders of paper books, few as they are (since reading is so passé these days), control the conversation and stand in the way of us reaching out to those un-illuminated.

We want to destroy paper books not because we hate them. That would be silly. We no more hate paper books than we hate a red vs a blue plate that you serve our dinner on. We don’t care as long as we get to eat. We want to kill the paper book because it’s a necessity. As long as those expensive, cumbersome, and profitable abominations exist, the money behind them will not allow the more scalable option to emerge. Meanwhile the “traditionalists,” many of whom haven’t actually read a book in ages are duped into defending the people who force them to pay $30 for a $5 book of which an author only sees pennies. This drives them into used bookstores where authors get nothing. The paper book needs to die because 500 years is enough and there are far too many people who want and need to read, and reaching them is far too important.

We’re here doing our part. Whether we’re sparring on Twitter, or reading to children from an iPad, or making a show of reading our kindles in public, or founding mega-conglomerates and upending paper, our objective is the same: We want to save reading, by killing books. The tide is changing. From the Kindle Fire breaking that important $200 price point, to the OLPC movement, the $35 tablet for the poor of India, to Nokia creating a more smartphone like OS for the entry level dumb phones, to Amazon driving the increase from 90,000 eBooks available to over a million now, to the original spark and increased success of Project Gutenberg, the pieces are in play. Soon the tide will change and nothing short of the end of days will stop us.

So sit there and stroke and sniff your books. Cackle into the night at your snide remarks and snobbish jokes. Revel in the world your book has built while denying it to those who can benefit the most. Be selfish, but you won’t stop us from bringing light to the darkest corners of the world. We’ll give those people the ability to expand their minds if they want to, then we’ll turn around and save your precious paper… for museums of course.

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  1. Pingback: Noisecast Roundup 9-29-2011: Firelight Edition | The Noisecast

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