Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Book Always Works

Last night while I was coming home on the streetcar, I saw a man reading off a Kindle. Ereaders aren't exactly common in my life, so I took the opportunity for a glance or two at it before my stop. While I freely admit that I'm interested by the whole science-fiction aspect of them - these are devices that have been included as "window dressing of the future" time and again for decades, and they're finally here - I take a somewhat dim view of the implications they carry. One of my first substantive posts on this weblog, back in March 2009, dealt with my misgivings and I haven't changed my mind on the subject since.

Also last night, because I am a creature of habit and schedule, I didn't stay awake long enough or wake up early enough to see the aurora borealis. I understand it was visible at least as far south as Lake Simcoe, thanks to a powerful coronal mass ejection that heralds Sol's upswing into a new solar maximum phase.

We're accustomed to thinking of the sun as a friendly presence in the sky, a life-giving source of heat and light that will burn like a nice, reliable campfire for a long time to come. This isn't an accurate assessment of the situation. For one, the sun doesn't burn - it's a natural nuclear fusion reactor. Beyond that, the sun does have spots of bad weather. The coronal mass ejection that caused last night's aurorae is a reminder of that. This time it wasn't very powerful, but there have been worse. Significantly worse. In 1859, the world was hit by a powerful coronal mass ejection that brought the Northern Lights as far south as the Caribbean, and created a geomagnetic storm caused chaos in the telegraph network across two continents.

Fortunately, events such as these are rare - on the scale of multiple centuries, by the numbers. But modern civilization is far more dependent on electronics than it was a century and a half ago, and unless we're headed for a precipitous and calamitous collapse of civilization in the next few decades, I don't see that state of affairs changing much. A sufficiently powerful geomagnetic storm could knock out our electrical infrastructure and leave us scrambling.

The saving grace is that I haven't found any evidence to suggest that such a storm would also create an electromagnetic pulse - that would be even more fun to deal with. But powerful geomagnetic storms can induce ground currents that melt copper wiring. This could be a problem. Particularly if, by the time such a storm hits, technology has "progressed" to the point that electronic books are dominant.

These books may be musty, and some of them may not have been signed out since the 1970s, but if everything falls apart you'll still be able to read them so long as the simplifiers don't burn the building down.

Ereaders are a sterling example of our willingness, our eagerness even, to replace a reliable medium with a more delicate one because it is convenient. That's practically what Western civilization is based on - with innovations like just-in-time strategies having spread throughout the business world, we sacrifice resiliency for immediate gains. In the same way, you might have five hundred books on your reader, but if the electrical infrastructure's gone and you don't have a solar panel with which to charge it, it's worthless once its onboard power dies. Ereaders assume, presume, and require the existence of a functioning technological civilization to support and maintain them.

Books, on the other hand, presume that someone has a bunch of stuff to write on, something to write with, and something with which to hold it all together.

I know how alluring the convenience aspect of an ereader is. I'm looking at a move very soon in my future, and I'm not looking forward to boxing up my bookshelves. Still, I'm not willing to trade the security and ruggedness of something physical for a more functional, but far more delicate, electronic version. A book always works. They're rather like knives, in that respect.

No comments:

Post a Comment