The Future of Libraries, Part 1: The Technology of the Book

August 6, 2001 by Ray Kurzweil

The future of book technology, written for “The Futurecast,” a monthly column in the Library Journal

Originally published January 1992. Published on August 6, 2001.

I always keep a stack of books on my desk that I leaf through when I run out of ideas, feel restless, or otherwise need a shot of inspiration. Picking up a fat volume that I recently acquired, I consider the bookmaker’s craft: 470 finely printed pages organized into 16-page signatures, each of which is sewn together with white thread and glued onto a gray canvas cord. The hard linen-bound covers, stamped with gold letters, are connected to the signature block by delicately embossed end sheets. This is a technology that was perfected many decades ago. Books constitute such an integral element of our society – both reflecting and shaping its culture – that it is hard to imagine life without them. But the printed book, like any other technology, will not live forever.

The life cycle of a technology

We can identify seven distinct stages in the life cycle of a technology. During the precursor stage, the prerequisites of a technology exist, and dreamers may contemplate these elements coming together. We do not, however, regard dreaming to be the same as inventing even if the dreams are written down. Leonardo da Vinci drew convincing pictures of airplanes and automobiles, but he is not considered to have invented either.

The next stage, one highly celebrated in our culture, is invention, a very brief stage, not dissimilar in some respects to the process of birth after an extended period of labor. Here the inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination, and usually a measure of showmanship to combine methods in a new way and brings a new technology to life.

The next stage is development during which the invention is protected and supported by doting guardians (which may include the original inventor). Often this stage is more crucial than invention and may involve additional creation that can have greater significance than the original invention. Many tinkerers had constructed finely hand-tuned horseless carriages, but it was Henry Ford’s innovation of mass production that enabled the automobile to take root and flourish.

The fourth stage is maturity. Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an independent and established part of the community. It may become so interwoven in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the false pretenders. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be missing some key element of functionality or quality. When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever.

This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology into the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor. This stage, which may comprise five to ten percent of the life cycle, finally yields to antiquity (e.g., today the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, and the manual typewriter).

In the mid-19th century, there were several precursors to the phonograph, including de Martinville’s phonautograph, a device that recorded sound vibrations as a printed pattern. It was Thomas Edison, however who brought all of the elements together and invented the first device that could both record and reproduce sound in 1877. Further refinements were necessary for the phonograph to become commercially viable. It became a fully mature technology in 1948 when Columbia introduced the 33rpm long-playing record (LP) and RCA Victor introduced the 45rpm small disc. The false pretender was the cassette tape, introduced in the 1960s and popularized during the 1970s. Early enthusiasts predicted that its small size and ability to be rerecorded would make the relatively bulky and scratchable record obsolete.

Despite these obvious benefits cassettes lack random access (the ability to play selections randomly) and are prone to their own forms of distortion and lack of fidelity. More recently, however, the compact disc (CD) has delivered the mortal blow. With the CD providing both random access and a level of quality close to the limits of the human auditory system, the phonograph record has quickly entered the stage of obsolescence. Although still produced, the technology that Edison gave birth to 114 years ago will reach antiquity by the end of the decade.

Roll over Beethoven

Consider the piano, an area of technology that I am personally familiar with. In the early 18th century, Bartolommeo Cristofori was seeking a way to provide a touch response to the then-popular harpsichord so that the volume of the notes would vary with the intensity of the touch of the performer. Called gravicembalo col piano e forte (“harpsichord with soft and loud”), his invention was not an immediate success. Further refinements, including Stein’s Viennese action and Zumpe’s English action, helped to establish the “piano” as the preeminent keyboard instrument. It reached maturity with the development of the complete cast-iron frame, patented in 1825 by Alpheus Babcock, and has seen only subtle refinements since then. The false pretender was the electric piano of the early 1980s. It offered substantially greater functionality. Compared to the single (piano) sound of the acoustic piano, the electronic variant offered dozens of instrument sounds, sequencers that allowed the user to play an entire orchestra at once, automated accompaniment, educational programs to teach keyboard skills, and many other features. The only feature it was missing was a good quality piano sound.

This crucial flaw and the resulting failure of the first generation of electronic pianos to take root led many observers to remark that the piano would never be replaced by electronics. But the “victory” of the acoustic piano was short lived. It is entering obsolescence as we speak. Already the upright piano has been largely superseded by the latest wave of digital pianos. Many observers feel that the sound quality of the “piano” sound on digital pianos now equals or exceeds that of the upright acoustic piano, and the far greater range of features and price performance of digital pianos has enabled them to dominate the market. All piano manufacturers I have spoken with report that with the sole exception of the concert grand (a very small part of the market), the sale of acoustic pianos is in rapid decline. The piano should hit antiquity by the turn of the century.

From goat skins to CD-ROM

So where in the technology life cycle is the book? Among its precursors were the Mesopotamian clay tablets and the Egyptian papyrus scrolls. In the second century B.C., the Ptolemies of Egypt had created a great library of scrolls at Alexandria and outlawed the export of papyrus to discourage competition.

What were perhaps the first books were created by Eumenes II, ruler of ancient Greek Pergamum, using pages of vellum made from the skins of goats and sheep, which were sewn together between wooden covers. This technique enabled Eumenes to compile a library equal to that of Alexandria. Around the same time, the Chinese had also developed a crude form of book made from bamboo strips.

The development and maturation of books has seen three great advances. Printing, first experimented with by the Chinese in the eighth century A.D. using raised wood blocks, allowed books to be reproduced in much larger quantities, expanding their audience beyond government and religious leaders. Of even greater significance was the advent of movable type, which was experimented with by the Chinese and Koreans in the 11th century, but the complexity of Asian characters prevented these early attempts from being fully successful. Johannes Gutenberg, working in the 15th century, benefited from the relative simplicity of the Roman character set. He produced his Bible, the first large-scale work printed entirely with movable type, in 1455.

While there has been a continual stream of evolutionary improvements in the mechanical and electromechanical process of printing, the technology of bookmaking did not see another qualitative leap until the availability of computer typesetting, which has now largely done away with movable type. Typography is now regarded as a part of digital image processing.

With books now a fully mature technology, the false pretenders have arrived with the first wave of “electronic books.” As is usually the case, these false pretenders offer dramatic qualitative and quantitative benefits. CD-ROM-based electronic books recently introduced by Sony and others (as well as CD-ROM-based software for personal computers) can provide the equivalent of thousands of books on a single diskette with powerful computer-based search and knowledge navigation features. With my CD-ROM-based encyclopedia, I can perform rapid word searches using extensive logic rules, something that is just not possible with the 33-volume “book” version I possess. Other CD-ROMs I have can provide pictures that are animated or that respond to my input. Pages are not necessarily ordered sequentially, but can be explored along more intuitive connections.

The eye of the beholder

So what’s the problem? As with the phonograph record and the piano, this first generation of false pretenders is missing an essential quality of the original, which in this case is the superb characteristics of paper and ink. First of all, paper does not flicker, whereas the typical computer screen is displaying 60 to 72 interlaced frames per second. This is a problem because of an evolutionary adaption of the primate visual system. We are only able to see a very small portion of the visual field with high resolution. This portion, imaged by the fovea portion of the retina, is focused on an area about the size of a single word at 22 inches away. Outside of the fovea, we have very little resolution but exquisite sensitivity to brightness changes. This allowed our primitive forebears to quickly detect a predator that might be attacking. The constant flicker of a color/graphics adapter (CGA) or video graphics array (VGA) computer screen is detected by our eyes as motion ! and ca uses constant movement of the fovea. This substantially slows down reading speeds, which is one reason that reading on a screen is less pleasant than reading a printed book.

Another issue is contrast. A good quality book has an ink-to-paper contrast of about 120:1. Typical screens are perhaps half of that.

A crucial issue is resolution . Print and illustrations in a print book represent a resolution of about 600 to 1000 dots per inch (dpi). Typical computer screens are about one-tenth of that with the new CD-ROM-based electronic tronic books providing even less.

Some computer screens provide color, but the portable ones usually do not. The size, weight, and cost of notebook computers and electronic books are impressive, but still not competitive with the good old print version.

Finally, there is the issue of the available software, by which I mean the enormous installed base of print books. There are 50,000 new print books published each year in the United States and millions of books in circulation. There are major efforts underway to scan and digitize print materials, but it will be a long time before the electronic databases have a comparable wealth of material.

So, will the book last forever? If today’s electronic book is a false pretender, what sort of technology will it take to send the book into obsolescence? When will that happen? What will be the impact on society of the virtual book? Tune in next month.

Reprinted with permission from Library Journal, January 1992. Copyright © 1992, Reed Elsevier, USA

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