Take a look at your last 10 tweets. Any of them worth printing out? Are any of them of such value that you will want to save them forever? Run the same thought experiment on the last 10 emails you sent and maybe even the last few posts you published on your blog.
Chances are, all of it was the kind of content that you scroll past on your social media feeds all day long. A joke here, a half-written sentence there, a photo I took of my face because why on Earth would I not take a picture of my own face for the fourteen-thousandth time!
And here is the fun bit. All this content is meant to be exactly that — pointless. It is relevant to only this moment in time. Nobody will miss it one week from now. Because the internet offers us unlimited storage space, we do not discriminate between what deserves to be preserved and what is ephemeral garbage.
In the early 2000s, web-based email service providers competed with each other on the storage space front. Yahoo offered you a 6-MB mailbox, while Hotmail had a 2-MB offering. Various other services allowed members anything between 10 to 20 megabytes of storage for files and messages. Then came 2004 and Gmail blew everyone out of the water with a 1-GB mailbox. The game was changed forever.
The idea behind Gmail was that you should not have to worry about space. Instead of emphasising a folder-based system to organise your messages, Gmail offered the ‘Archive’ button. Now, users could stop worrying about what deserved their mailbox space and what did not. There was space for it all. Instead of opening topical folders to look for a message you had consciously placed there, you could now just run a search.
Of course, now it is 2018 and I am still using only 77 percent of my now 15-GB mailbox. When I search for a particular keyword, I get thousands of results that have accumulated over more than a decade. Most of these results are automated updates, receipts, reminders, newsletter issues etc. They are there because the limits that force me to make a distinction between what is important and what is not, no longer exist.
Off the top of my head, I can think of perhaps a few hundred messages and conversations to which I will ever want to return. These are letters of value that I might want to print out and preserve. Most of the 12 odd gigabytes of information in my mailbox is of little consequence. So much of it exists that even the thought of deleting it seems like too much work.
The Internet, digital optimism not withstanding, is not forever. A web page may live forever on a server, but you need hardware and a connection to access it. And once the server goes down without adequate back-up, the contents of that web page are gone forever as well. A book, on the other hand, is self-contained and will remain with you way longer. You need no hardware to access it — the book is the hardware as well as the software. And this applies to all that is static — text and pictures. Video and audio suffer from the same limitations as digital content does.
Vint Cerf, the man who invented the Internet, has expressed fears that the web may very well turn out to be a black hole into which all of our memories will disappear permanently because there are limits to how well we can keep up with evolving technology. Imagine a future where the JPEG is no longer a universally accepted file format. Think that is impossible? Remember what happened to floppy disks and the Sony Walkman? Now think about the enormous amounts of information we have assigned to the Internet. Granted, a lot of it exists off the web also, but by and large, the Internet is the exclusive home to most of human experience right now. The family photos, the videos, the correspondences between friends — almost all of it is now exclusively digital.
Books matter. And they have never really stopped mattering. They matter not only because they are free from the limitations I just mentioned, but because in them are thoughts and ideas that somebody consciously chose to preserve. Books did not simply happen because of the kind of urge that causes me to take a selfie. They are the result of a lot of deliberation — years of hard work, thinking, editing, and the scrutiny of people whose opinions we value.
Before I end this seemingly technophobic rant, I think it is only fair that I mention that often, it is not possible to tell if something will be worthy of being printed out in 100 years. The things I jotted down this morning on a post-it note might end up being historically significant because Earth gets blown to bits by an alien warship tomorrow morning and that scrap of paper is the only thing that survives as evidence that the human race ever existed.
Therefore, my argument is not that we should all only look at the big picture and seek to make our mark on history. But you know what I mean, don’t you? Keep a file and fill it with hard copies of what matters to you. We are past the point where the question was “what is the web going to do to books?” and we will soon return to the point where we ask “what will books do to the web?”.
I remember a time when blogs were seen as a medium that was free of formats — you didn’t have to write a full-blown article on your blog. You could just type a couple of lines and that was okay too. Bloggers loved this, snooty journalists looked down upon it. There was talk of whether this chaotic mode of expression will come to replace a journalistic landscape littered with articles, editorials, opinion pieces, and reportage — basically all that was long and/or in-depth.
But then Twitter happened and the microblogging revolution was on. Blogs were no longer the place for two-liners. And because two-liners are somewhat easier to make and post than thousand-word articles, a lot of bloggers moved full-time to the statusphere. The blogosphere got a clean-up and what remained in it was mostly longform content. Twitter ended up cleaning up the blogosphere and now, though much of what used to be known as the “blogosphere” has been replaced by the incessant noise of Twitter feeds, some of the blogs that survived have become media properties unto themselves that routinely get called “sites” and are accused of being “mainstream”.
I find, upon zooming out, that what Twitter did for blogs may very well end up being what the web does to books. It can take the noise away and leave the brick-and-mortar publishing machine in charge of what is worth preserving.
We are used to thinking of the web as a back-up for all human knowledge and experience that is offline. How about we consider the opposite? Maybe books (and hard copies in general) can be the place where we back up the important parts of the web.