On Jason Epstein On Reading: The Digital Future (text-e.org)
harnad at cogprints.soton.ac.uk
Tue Jan 1 05:58:13 EST 2002
A new text is on line at http://www.text-e.org
Jason Epstein: "Reading: The Digital Future"
You can read and comment on it at that website.
"One of the most brilliant editors of the twentieth century, Jason
Epstein created Anchor Books in 1952, launching the 'revolution' of
paperbacks. He is one of the founders of the New York Review of
Books. In 1980, he founded the prestigious Library of America,
publishers of classics. The Reader's Catalog, which he created as
well, anticipated Internet bookshops. He has published a series of
articles in the New York Review of Books on the transformations of
publishing, and, recently, 'Book Business' (Norton, 2001). "
Below is my own commentary, with excerpts:
V-Book Reading: The Virtual Future (Volumes will go the way of Videos)
Jason Epstein's essay unfortunately shows some failure of imagination
regarding the future of reading. His viewpoint seems to be locked in
the eye/hand-unfriendly cross-hairs of today's paleolithic screens and
screen resolutions. But let's fast-forward our imaginations instead to
the inevitable virtual books (V-Books rather than mere E-Books): These
are virtual-world objects that mimic the look, touch, feel, smell,
taste and manipulability (for those who like to leaf with moistened
fingers) of books as closely as we like, right down to the last
sensorimotor "just-noticeable-difference" if need be. (Our senses are
at bottom digital too: we just have to approach the limits of their
This should not be hard to imagine, for all you have to do is to think
of a real physical book (P-Book), your favorite, and of being able to
do and feel with it every last one of the things you want to be able to
keep on doing and feeling: Leafing through it in bed, on the beach, in
the loo, even defacing it, if you like, with scribbles and turned-down
page corners. Virtual reality can duplicate all this for your senses as
faithfully as you like. The only difference will be that instead of
owning many books like this, you will own only one, your generic
V-Book, into which the digital contents of any item in your library can
be downloaded on demand, onto microthin generic V-pages (even sporting the
latest update of your own personally scribbled marginalia, if that's what
your papyrocentric nostalgia cleaves to).
But I rather doubt that we will cleave to much of it for long. Some
things about the Gutenberg way did approach the optimal, but many did
not, and were merely the decorative, incidental (and sometimes
dysfunctional) byproducts of paper-specific functionality and habit. I
suspect that we will want to relinquish some of the look/feel we have
gotten so used to when better possibilities present themselves, and get
tried out. I'm not sure, for example, how well hand-held manipulation
will compete with being able to see the text, in any size and grain of
resolution, on whatever wall surface we may find ourselves facing
as we keep readjusting our bones while we read, our gaze direction
faithfully tracked by an automatic "reading assistant." I'm not sure
that we will want to stick with moistened-digital navigation when a
head-nod will do the trick, voice can be even more specific ("go back
to the passage where...") and the possibility of affixing our own
marginalia is augmented into full-multimedia interactive capability
(including the quote/commenting we are doing with this text!).
But for present purposes, let us stick to the V-Book conceived simply
as a VR-simulation of everything we are fond of in our P-Books. It is
in this light that we need to reconsider Jason Epstein's predictions:
JASON EPSTEIN: "...it is widely assumed that digitized books and other
texts will be read mainly on computer screens... [M]ore likely... most
digital files will be printed... within minutes..."
What if they will be read neither way, but instead downloaded instantly
into our personal, generic V-Book template?
JASON EPSTEIN: "...readers nearly everywhere with access to a computer
screen may eventually search a practically limitless digital catalog
linked to innumerable databases..."
No doubt. But the downloaded text itself, and the V-Book in which it is
displayed, will likewise be linked to the global databases, with some
rather remarkable bonus capabilities as a consequence, including the
possibility of hypertext-hopping from text to text, instant searches
within or between texts, triggered by voice or digit, parallel texts,
annotations, animations, etc. As a special case, however, the V-Book
will also support the emulation of classical, Gutenberg-style eulexia.
JASON EPSTEIN: "From the time the reader makes a selection, the entire
transaction can be completed within minutes..."
Same with V-Books, and accelerated by short-circuiting the obsolete
print cycle (and at last delivering on the long-promised sparing of
those countless long-suffering trees...)
JASON EPSTEIN: "...readers may prefer - especially for books of
permanent value - a volume printed and bound on these machines to
transient images on an electronic screen. The exception will be
dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias, directories, and so on, which
must be continuously updated. Their current data will probably be read
on screens as needed..."
On the contrary: There will be no exceptions. No volume will benefit
from the absence of links to the global corpus, and the fetish for
local identity and distinctiveness will be fully satisfied virtually.
Collectors will still LOOK at P-Books, but they will no more eager
to read them that way than than writers are to thump out a text on a
mechanical typewriter. (Besides, the feel of an old P-Remington will
likewise be simulable by a V-Remington.)
By way of an exercise for those who are convinced this goes against
nature, and cannot, will not, and should not be so, ask yourselves why
we don't have the same specific-object fetish for personal copies of
movies that we have for personal copies of books: We are quite happy
with videos; but when they are replaced by downloads, no one will shed
a tear. Why? Because there was no interim Gutenberg phase of becoming
imprinted on the incidental accoutrements of movie-viewing: A movie
never needed to go through the phase of being a decorative personalized
object that we had become accustomed to hand-turning for ourselves,
I am not, by the way, belittling the sensitivities of bibliophiles. A
fondness for the look and feel of books and libraries betokens and
accompanies a far far finer and deeper aesthetic and cultural profile
than today's video, CD, DVD, and computer-game culture. It is merely
the kind of inadvertent brake on the optimal and inevitable that an
obsessive attachment to, say, illuminated manuscripts in the face of the
philistine Gutenberg technology would obviously have been (had it
happened -- fortunately it did not) that we also need to avoid today.
JASON EPSTEIN: "The convergence of the Internet with the instantaneous
transmission and retrieval of digital text is an epochal event,
comparable to the impact of movable type on European civilization half
a millennium ago, but with worldwide implications..."
Indeed. But the failure to distinguish what was truly functional from
what was merely decorative in Gutenberg-reading misses some of the
digital revolution's most powerful implications -- which have as
much to do with the on-line interconnectivity, navigability and
interactivity of PostGutenberg texts as they have with their off-line
means of storage, transmission and retrieval.
JASON EPSTEIN: "In the digital future groups of writers, editors,
publicists, and Web site managers anywhere in the world will combine to
form their own Web-based publishing companies and sell their books
directly to readers..."
No doubt. But the imprimatur will still matter; the medium is not the
message, and digital publishing is certainly not synonymous with vanity
publishing. (Here I sound a reactionary note, within this digital
JASON EPSTEIN: "Even in today's rudimentary digital marketplace some
authors have linked their Web sites to sites of related interest,
hoping to create their own expanding communities of loyal readers with
each new book they write..."
Yes. And this navigability and interactivity will not only be a
characteristic of such catalogue sites, but of the texts themselves,
and how they are read and used. Inert Gutenberg printouts would lack
all of this extra functionality, which will soon become as
second-nature to us as the older, impoverished P-Book functionality
JASON EPSTEIN: "...technological modifications will soon enable writers
to sell their books to readers throughout the world directly from these
Web networks, bypassing publishers who may have rejected their work..."
No doubt there will be more and more self-marketed texts whose quality
(or market-value -- not necessarily the same thing) are determined
a-posteriori, by how they catch on, on-line. But along with this
extended vanity press, I believe there will still be a need for
a-priori quality-control and its certification, by what (for want of a
better name) will continue to be the publisher's imprimatur. This will
be a tag promising a certain level of quality, one on which readers can
rely and one whose established quality standards authors will still
endeavour to earn the mark of having met in advance.
JASON EPSTEIN: "...the human capacity to discriminate what is readable
from what is not, and over time to discriminate what is truly valuable
from what is merely readable [will not] be overwhelmed in a marketplace
where anyone can claim to be a writer..."
I agree. But not just because all questions of value will eventually
sort themselves out a-posteriori. (Number of downloads, marketability,
is not -- and never will be -- synonymous with, nor even always
correlated with, quality.) There will still be a place for a-priori
quality-control and certification by qualified experts. In refereed
journal publication (my hobby-horse), this quality-control process is
called peer review. But in human endeavour in general, it is simply the
maintenance and certification of quality standards by those we trust to
do it on our behalf (and we are not expert in all things, including all
things literary, even when all things are accessible to us on-line!).
"Succes d'estime" will still count for something, alongside "succes
JASON EPSTEIN: "Because books published digitally involve no physical
inventory and will cost their publishers virtually nothing per unit to
produce and deliver, authors will contribute relatively more value to
the final product than publishers and can claim a larger share of
True. But there are also domains of publishing -- notably, the
publishing of peer-reviewed research -- where the authors do not seek,
and have never sought, any share of the proceeds. In that special
domain, the new technology will at last make it possible to give such
authors' final products away, as they have always wished to do!
JASON EPSTEIN: "...today's book publishers will... devolve over time
into decentralized teams of writers, editors, publicists, and Web site
managers or be replaced by such groups..."
Publishers will continue to perform their two traditional,
medium-invariant functions, namely, (1) controlling, certifying and
tagging quality level and (2) disseminating the product (the digital
text). In the special case of refereed journal publishing (in contrast
to book publishing), publishers will ONLY perform the first function
(1) -- and author/institution self-archiving will accomplish the second
(2). In the much larger and more representative case of
book-publishing, there will be a bifurcation: Vanity-press
self-publishing by authors will involve only (2). Traditional
publisher-imprimatur-based publishing will continue to involve (1) and
(2). (It is impossible to predict in advance the relative quantities
(in bits) of these two kinds of V-Books, but perhaps (perhaps) one can
predict the relative quality...)
JASON EPSTEIN: "But there is no wizard to create with a wave of the
hand this digital future. There are only mortals finding their way, by
the slow, indirect, and uncertain means by which human beings have
exploited previous paradigm shifts..."
Indeed, and it is already clear that a lot of what is obviously optimal
and inevitable is already attainable, indeed overdue, held back only by
our mortal sluggishness and entrenched habits (most of them fixated on
the decorative and incidental rather than the functional). It's easier
to shift technological paradigms than human practices...
JASON EPSTEIN: "Authors' royalties traditionally represent between 10
and 15 percent of retail prices, or between 20 and 30 percent of
publishers' net revenues. Another 40 percent or so of revenue is
absorbed by executive and other administrative costs and by the costs
of printing, selling, and distributing physical books, costs which are
irrelevant to digital publication. Therefore agents demanding 70
percent or more of digital revenues for their authors will open the
All very likely true -- for the non-giveaway world of V-books. But the
70/30 split has even more radical implications in the give-away world
of peer-reviewed research journal articles. See:
"Savings from Converting to On-Line-Only: 30%- or 70%+?"
JASON EPSTEIN: "...publishers have been slow to digitize their
backlists, and the reasons why are worth examining closely...."
It is evidently because neither the profits nor the rights for the legacy
literature and its older contracts are yet clear.
JASON EPSTEIN: "...the publishers' basic right to print, publish, and
sell in book form does not include the right to publish a digital
edition to be read on line..."
This is bad news for the non-give-away literature -- but not an
unsurmountable obstacle (because V-Publishers and V-Book authors share
a common interest in maximizing their proceeds from sales). (It is very
good news for the give-away literature, whose authors do not.)
JASON EPSTEIN: "Rosetta has disabled the printing function on its
e-book software, limiting its customers to reading books on screens...
[This is] being litigated [and] might... be debated instead by
philosophers arguing whether the weightlessness of books read on line
makes them contractually different..."
Again a (soluble) problem for digital rights legislators for the
non-give-away corpus (but music to the ears of the give-away
contingent)! (And no more a philosophical problem of weightlessness
than plagiarism is.)
JASON EPSTEIN: "...a caveat: Sumerian clay tablets can still be read
but the long-term survival of digital texts cannot be taken for
But should not be over-worried about by us slow mortals either: With
bits, where there's a will, there's a way.
"The 'Library of Alexandria' Non-Problem"
Harnad, S., Varian, H. & Parks, R. (2000) Academic publishing in the
online era: What Will Be For-Fee And What Will Be For-Free? Culture
Machine 2 (Online Journal)
Harnad, S. (1995) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of
Electronic Quote/Commenting. In: B. Gorayska & J. L. Mey (Eds.)
Cognitive Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier P.
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