The Future of Books in the Age of the Internet

When I was in high school, our English teacher had us read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. For those of you not familiar with the book, it is about a dystopian future world in which books are considered subversive and are burned. In place of books is television, radio and other forms of electronic entertainment, which lull the general public into a false sense of happiness as the world around them descends into nuclear war.

The book was the best expression of the sentiment that new forms of entertainment developed during the modern age (namely radio, movies, television, and more recently video games and the Internet) are somehow dangerous. Ray Bradbury was not the first one who had this sentiment, in fact it goes all the way back to the early 20th century when movies were the newest form of entertainment. Back then many intelligent people considered movies to be either lacking in artistic merit, appealing to the dumbest demographic, containing too much sex and violence, or all of the above. Every new innovation in entertainment seemed to bring a new wave of criticism along similar lines, be it television, video games or the Internet.

Throughout the 20th century, the response to each new form of entertainment had always been the same: encourage people to read books. This is the basic idea behind Fahrenheit 451, a Gnostic vision where we are constantly trapped and deceived by all these new forms of entertainment and only literature can liberate us and make us see the truth. I still remember during my childhood our teachers constantly encouraged us to read novels. Even though I didn’t enjoy it, it felt like a duty I had to obey, like eating all my vegetables. (This is ironic, because I actually like eating vegetables.) Looking back on it I now understand why teachers placed such an emphasis on reading books, it was a bulwark against the “bad influence” of “New Media” which supposedly degraded us morally and intellectually. (From now on I will use “New Media” to refer to radio, television, movies, video games and the Internet. It will be more convenient because I don’t want to say those same five words over and over again.)

Unfortunately there is a problem with this approach: it is fundamentally wrong. Books aren’t inherently good, it is the content in them which make them good or bad. I have read way too many terrible books and have seen way too many good television shows to know that it’s true. (Reading the Wikipedia article on Fahrenheit 451, even Ray Bradbury realized this fact.) I think the result of all this fetishization of books throughout the 20th century was to implant a sense of guilt that we haven’t read enough books instead of developing our taste for good content no matter the technology delivering it.

The truth is there was never a time in the past where everyone was reading Jane Austen novels and were inspired to cultivate refined manners, speak elegant English and dance in fancy balls. People in the past did read novels that are now considered classics, but they were almost always a small elite. Part of the reason was that throughout most of history literacy rate was low. Even when the vast majority of people became literate during the 19th century, most of them did not read “serious” literature (like Jane Austen) most of the time. Instead they read “dime novels”, which were usually sensationalized stories of crime and adventure, filled with so much gratuitous violence, scandalous behavior and sometimes sex that they wouldn’t be out of place on today’s television, movies or comic books.

The reactionary response of privileging books over the “New Media” may seem misguided, but it is understandable if you know the history behind it. It is not unusual for a society to take a long time to adapt to innovation, especially information technologies. Believe it or not, after writing was invented there were many people who were against this practice. The famous philosopher Socrates refused to write down anything, and thought spoken language was superior to written language in many ways. This distrust of writing existed in other cultures as well. In Hinduism, the Vedas were transmitted orally for thousands of years before being written down, despite the fact they had a written language. There was something similar in Judaism with the Talmud and Mishnah.

However, people eventually came to trust writing more and more and their memories less and less, and eventually we come to the point where writing is seem as more dependable than memory, and writing became privileged, at least in the West. (Amazingly some cultures today still privilege the oral tradition to writing. I went to elementary school in China for a few years, and studying Chinese literature meant memorizing long passages from the textbook. This seems strange to someone who received a Western education, but it makes perfect sense to a culture who believes the spoken word is more powerful than the written word.)

But the transition between an oral culture and a written culture took hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years. The transition from a written culture to the “New Media” happened much more abruptly and unexpectedly. From the middle of the 19th to the late 20th century there were a multitude of different information technologies. First it was the telegraph, followed by the telephone, phonograph, radio, cinema, television, video games, virtual reality and finally the Internet.

We did not have the privilege of hundreds of years to adjust to the new technologies, so our society panicked. (Our society did not actually panic. The vast majority of people welcomed the new information technologies, only curmudgeons and some intellectuals were bothered by it. But because many of them are influential people, they greatly affected the way we think about the subject.) Its reaction was to retreat and go back to what it knows best, the ancient technology of the printing press. They exalted books and encouraged young people to read more, as though they need encouragement. (Ironically young people are reading more, it’s just that most of it is Facebook or Buzzfeed instead of Jane Austen. Excuse me for constantly picking on Jane Austen, but she is the epitome of writers I don’t like.)

Knowing all this, what is the future of books? There is bad news, but also good news. The bad news is that I believe it will be more and more difficult for books as a stand-alone product to earn a profit. The main reason will be that it would be increasingly difficult to compete with television, movies, video games and the Internet. But there is a silver lining, namely that at least with the case of television and movies, many are dependent on books as their source material. The truth is writing talent is required to create good content in the “New Media”, except for video games. The problem then lies in how to harness talent of book writers in this new technological environment.

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