Since I wrote that post about enhanced eBooks last week, something has been seriously bothering me. To put it bluntly I’m concerned about the longevity of eBooks, and what that means for civilization.
Now I know that sounds lofty, and I will right now admit that it totally is. But hear me out on this one.
We know for a fact that this planet isn’t going to last forever. And eventually we’ll have to move on to the stars. The good folks who dream up the methods of how this will work have some pretty awesome ideas including things like generational star ships and plans for colonization of other planets.
But these plans for colonization are incomplete unless the folks who leave come prepared with the vast body of knowledge created by human society. Otherwise all of the work of science, technology, literature, religion, sociology, psychology, medicine. It will all be lost and humanity will have to start all over again, and relearn absolutely everything.
What a giant waste of time!
So, how could it be possible for our descendants to have access to the vast wealth of knowledge that we have created here on earth? Well, they would have to store it all somehow, most likely in a digital format with redundancy systems built in so that if part of it fails you don’t lose everything in one fell swoop. But they would also have to have the necessary software to unlock and read that data again as well.
And that’s what today’s competitive marketplace is not considering.
I know that was a leap, so let me fill in the gaps here.
When you purchase an app for the iPad, it is meant to run in the iOS environment. Sometimes it runs in its own application environment on the iOS and sometimes it runs within an additional environment that has its own formatting issues, e.g. Kindle. So, when you buy a Kindle book, you’re buying a version of the ebook in a .zpf format, which is Amazon’s proprietary book reader. Other vendors operate in the world of ePub editions, which is a free and open ebook standard making it a more universally accepted format.
Similarly, those apps that are built to access multimedia works, such as the very awesome TouchPress applications, are currently only accessible via iOS. Again, the problem is that these are operating in a closed system. They cannot be accessed on other types of devices, and thus render themselves useless for future access. This could have been avoided had these been designed as offline web apps using HTML5, thus making them completely accessible via any type of digital device. Of course any video or audio codecs used in the making of these would also have to be compliant and available in the hypothetical starship library.
The point is, that we can’t expect the future development of society to follow this current trajectory if we are to think about this with the long view. Programming device specific content is irrelevant in the long run. Devices last a few years. However, building something that operates within accepted standards could give you a much better shot at long term stability.
The elephant in the room here is that none of this is relevant with our current copyright restrictions. I’m sure that some kind of exception could be made for deep space adventuring, but the reality is that even digital duplication of the vast majority of the world’s knowledge is highly questionable under our patchwork global legal systems. Google Books has been in legal limbo over things that are even in a hazy unknown area, because someone, might, maybe still hold a copyright, somewhere… Useless.
I’m not even going to get started on how in the world you would be able to index everything that ever existed. I haven’t wrapped my brain around it myself.
If we are thinking about the future of culture, knowledge, and wisdom, then we need to think about its longevity now. We need to stop supporting things that are defective by design, promoting things that are available in open standards, and work toward the opening of unnecessary copyright restrictions. And we don’t need the excuse of a Starship to think about it either. Just the simple fact that people will probably still be living on this planet for a few more thousand years at least should be a reason to plan for the future.
But I still want a Starship library.