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Posterity: taking care of the past

It’s easy to get very excited about the potential of digital, but historian Ralph Harrington cautions that pursuing a future of exclusively disembodied text could come at a price.

Architectural conservation may seem a long way from publishing, but a very interesting review recently published in the New York Review of Books of a number of books on that topic provoked thoughts of the process of change currently being undergone by the publishing industry and its significance. The passage in the review that made me think this way is at the very end, where reviewer Martin Filler writes: ‘in a world of ever-diminishing resources, it seems unconscionably profligate not to allow future generations to decide for themselves which architectural works of the past they wish to enrich their own times. The choice should be theirs, not ours’.

The flaw in this assertion, of course, is that if every generation says it is for the next to decide what to destroy and what to keep, no-one would ever demolish, or indeed build, anything. Clearly, any decision put off in every generation to the generations to follow will simply never be made. A rather confused idea then, but one with some very important issues behind it – the durability of what we create; how we deal with what the past has left to us, and how we in turn pass that legacy to those who will follow us; in the largest sense, our duty to posterity. And it is that which made me think of books.

Books have various things in common with buildings. They are as important for what they contain as what they are, they have great symbolic value, we often value them as much aesthetically and emotionally as we do for their practical uses. They can have a long life, often passing through many hands and finding new value in those changes. They are also similar in representing, for some, an old and perhaps doomed way of doing things, with physical books facing the same challenge in the era of e-publishing as that faced by, for example, bricks-and-mortar shops in an e-retailing world. And it is indeed this physical existence, not only in the sense of immediate presence but also as a matter of duration, that is increasingly in question in an ever more digital culture. It is not clear, for example, who inherits your virtual libraries when you die, or for how much longer the preservation of physical copies of books will be a central defining function of libraries, or, if you borrow an e-book from a library, precisely what it is that you are borrowing. Meanwhile an important element of the physical infrastructure through which books find new owners, the second-hand bookshop, is in possibly terminal decline.

As with many aspects of digital culture, we should beware of taking the more extreme predictions of the death of the book at face value; certainly there is nothing inevitable about the end of print culture, as many digital theorists – who tend to be uncritically wedded to simplistic notions of technological determinism – would have us believe. Like the physical infrastructure of our towns and cities, the physical apparatus of print will experience sometimes dramatic and disruptive change, but it will endure because its value endures: continuity is as important as transformation, even if it sustains the careers of fewer conference-circuit cybergurus.

Take, for example, the issue of stability. A text contained within a physical book stays essentially unchanged: it can be referred to, cited, with confidence – whoever follows up your citation, goes to the title, edition and page detailed in your footnote, will see what you saw and read what you read, and will be able to check if you have got it right. Proper scholarly referencing of texts that only exist digitally is always likely to be a mess, except for those that stick with conservative formats such as PDF and produce reliable pagination. Even worse are cases, fortunately rare, when the footnotes for a physical book are made available not within the book itself but on the web: historian Brett Holman has detailed the unhappy (if hardly surprising) consequences.

To a far greater degree than perhaps we are willing to concede, ‘digital’ can often equal ‘vulnerable’ and ‘fragile’. Computers crash, websites disappear, the physical media upon which even ‘the cloud’ ultimately depends are corruptible and possess a limited lifespan. The books on your shelf belong to you: no-one logs when and how you use them, or remotely controls your access to them. You do not have to buy into the idea that there is something magical about ink on paper to accept that the traditional book has proved itself a robust means of safeguarding and disseminating opinion, information and knowledge. The digital and the physical need in the end to have a symbiotic, interdependent relationship: just as one of the most valuable uses of the internet is to guide us as we move around the physical world, so it can enhance our experience of literature by helping us to find and enjoy the treasures that books and libraries have kept safe for us through the generations.

Too many digital enthusiasts envisage the kind of all-encompassing cultural transformation that many architects and urban planners were keen on for the physical environment two or three generations ago. To create a world in which only one path is chosen is to sweep away choice altogether. The violence of such transformation is committed not only against the present generation but future generations as well. Nothing is more desolate, whether you are considering a city or a culture, than a year zero landscape.

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