Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Chip Off the Old Book

"Most importantly, putting many titles into a story makes it easier to find your place if you happen to use your book to smash an irksome buzzing fly, and you hit the fly so hard that pieces of metal and plastic go shooting out of the book mechanism, so then you are forced to put the story chip into a new reader and you cannot remember where you were.

"This happens more often than you might expect."
- James Alan Gardner, Ascending

Technological advance rarely goes in the directions it's expected to. It can be argued that today we live in a world of electronics, but fifty years ago electronics was something of an also-ran; in 1961, people looked ahead to a future of personal helicopters, space colonies, and too-cheap-to-meter nuclear power. By the same token, it's an assured bet that the future will not look like what we expect it to - while the tranformative technology that will throw our projections out of order may well exist already, it takes time for technology to mature to the point where it can really influence the world. Even when we're pretty sure what we can reasonably expect, the future has a tendency of buggering up all our neat estimations.

One significant example of this is the present-day ebook revolution. Now, the idea of an ebook was something simple, simple enough that it's been a fixture of science fiction for decades; it did not require much of a logical leap to assume that in the future, it would be easy and economical to read books on a computer rather than paper. Where those visions ended up conflicting with reality was in the details of how they worked. It's understandable, as these visions tended to emerge when the internet was less capable than it is now, and when "filesharing" was letting your colleague use the papers socked away in your cabinet.

The quote at the top, from James Alan Gardner's 2001 novel Ascending, marks one of the common ways to visualize how ebooks would be adopted into society: like books, but more advanced. Rather than going to the store to get a couple of hundred pages glued together and sandwiched between covers, you'd instead get a computer chip that contained the book, and which you'd need to insert into an ebook reader in order to use - now that I think about it, greatly similar to the way Nintendo DS games are packaged and used, though I always imagined those "book chips" as looking more like SD cards.

Heavy, ain't it?

Presuming that they come with "covers" sufficient to keep out dust and so on, a library of book chips would be substantially less bulky than actual, physical books, and far easier to move around - though considerably more vulnerable to being fried by electromagnetic pulses. A book chip-based model would also preserve the book market in the form that was familiar right up to the last couple of years. Sure, if you have a blank book chip you'd likely be able to download the public domain texts from Project Gutenberg or a Creative Commons-licensed work onto it, but digital restriction technologies may well have been in place to prevent you from downloading an ebook to one of your blank book chips. Why? Because it lessens their control.

The ebook model we've got, that of direct downloads to reader devices, has its advantages and its disadvantages. When it's working, it's efficient - you don't have to truck your butt down to the store to get the next book in the series, you can just order it online and zap it's there. That, incidentally, leads into one of the model's great disadvantages - if for some reason the company doesn't want you to have a book that you've previously bought, they can just sound the recall on their devices and zap, the book is gone. This is not just idle speculation; Amazon has already demonstrated it can do this, as demonstrated by its remote recall of Kindle-purchased copies of 1984 back in 2009. Afterward Amazon said it wouldn't do this again... but corporations say a lot of things, and Amazon is not the only ebook retailer out there. Whereas if I buy a book from Chapters, I can be reasonably confident that a couple of Customer Experience Representatives won't break into my apartment in the dead of night and return it to their shelves.

There's another thing that "book chip" ebooks gives us that actual ebooks don't - a used market. Whenever you've got any sort of physical media, you can be assured that someone out there will be in the business of buying and reselling it, sometimes to ridiculous extremes - the last time I was in the Salvation Army Thrift Store, they had for sale the CDs for Total Annihilation, a 1997 RTS computer game that would be hard-pressed to run under modern operating systems. I recognize the value of the used market; it was a used book store on Dunlop Street in downtown Barrie, a couple minutes away from my high school, that started me into things that I wasn't then able to find in the dedicated bookstores. For non-physical media like modern ebooks, though, there's no such thing. It puts a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the producer and the provider, and not of the buyer.

I think I prefer the older, speculative ebook model because of familiarity - it provides new opportunities within a framework that's already known.


  1. pfft, ta is one of the more robust games i'm sure it will run just fine on my computer.. let me find the cds...
    ok... well i can't find the cds.
    but that game was solid and ran in software. i'm sure it runs (blazingly fast) on current gen hardware.


  2. I guess it depends on how robustly Cavedog made it. Personally, I've had problems with 21st century games not running under Windows 7. It's irksome and galling.

  3. One of my favorite examples of how our vision of the future is bound to both disappoint and surprise is the movie 2001. In it, we have people in 2001 traveling in a scheduled spaceliner to a hotel in space, as a stopover to a mining base on the moon. Fantastical notions even now. But while in the space hotel, our hero had to sit in a cramped phone booth to contact his wife and children via a crappy CRT-display videophone.

    Here we are in 2011, disappointed in our lack of progress in space exploration as the United States has no capacity to put a single person in space, but remarkably unimpressed with the fact we can all carry a videophone in our pockets and can communicate instantly with almost any other person on earth…

  4. Confirmed, just played a skirmish game of ta vs ai on my w7x64 quad core :D things still satisfyingly go BOOM