The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016)
In ancient times culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation, and rhetoric instilled in oral societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate, and the subjective. We were People of the Word. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg’s 1450 invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, printed text became the engine of change and the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science, libraries, and law. Printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a string of sentences), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact), and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book.
Mass-produced books changed the way people thought. The technology of printing expanded the number of words available, from about 50,000 words in Old English to a million today. More word choices enlarged what could be communicated. More media choices broadened what was written about. Authors did not have to compose scholarly tomes only, but could “waste” inexpensively printed books on heartrending love stories (the romance novel was invented in 1740), or publish memoirs even if they were not kings. People could write tracts to oppose the prevailing consensus, and with cheap printing an unorthodox idea might gain enough influence to topple a king or the pope. In time, the power of authors birthed the reverence for authors, and of authority, and bred a culture of expertise. Perfection was achieved “by the book.” Laws were compiled into official tomes, contracts were written down, and nothing was valid unless put into words onto pages. Painting, music, architecture, dance were all important, but the heartbeat of Western culture was the turning pages of a book. By 1910 three quarters of the towns in the United States with more than 2,500 residents had a public library. America’s roots spring from documents—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and, indirectly, the Bible. The country’s success depended on high levels of literacy, a robust free press, allegiance to the rule of law (found in books), and a common language across a continent. American prosperity and liberty grew out of a culture of reading and writing. We became People of the Book.
But today more than 5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives. Digital display manufacturers will crank out 3.8 billion new additional screens per year. That’s nearly one new screen each year for every human on earth. We will start putting watchable screens on any flat surface. Words have migrated from wood pulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, game consoles, televisions, billboards, and tablets. Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper, but flitter on a glass surface in a rainbow of colors as fast as our eyes can blink. Screens fill our pockets, briefcases, dashboards, living room walls, and the sides of buildings. They sit in front of us when we work—regardless of what we do. We are now People of the Screen.
This has set up the current culture clash between People of the Book and People of the Screen. The People of the Book today are the good hardworking people who make newspapers, magazines, the doctrines of law, the offices of regulation, and the rules of finance. They live by the book, by the authority derived from authors. The foundation of this culture is ultimately housed in texts. They are all on the same page, so to speak.
The immense cultural power of books emanated from the machinery of reproduction. Printing presses duplicated books quickly, cheaply, and faithfully. Even a butcher might own a copy of Euclid’s Elements, or the Bible, and so printed copies illuminated the minds of citizens beyond the gentry. This same transformative machinery of reproduction was applied to art and music, with equivalent excitation. Printed copies of etchings and woodcuts brought the genius of visual art to the masses. Cheaply copied diagrams and graphs accelerated science. Eventually, inexpensive copies of photography and recorded music spread the reproductive imperative of the book even wider. We could churn out cheap art and music as fast as books.
This reproductive culture has, in the last century or so, produced the greatest flowering of human achievement the world has ever seen, a magnificent golden age of creative works. Cheap physical copies have enabled millions of people to earn a living directly from the sale of their art to the audience, without the weird dynamics of having to rely only on patronage. Not only did authors and artists benefit from this model, but the audience did too. For the first time, billions of ordinary people were able to come in regular contact with a great work. In Beethoven’s day, few people ever heard one of his symphonies more than once. With the advent of cheap audio recordings, a barber in Bombay could listen to them all day long.
• • •
But today most of us have become People of the Screen. People of the Screen tend to ignore the classic logic of books or the reverence for copies; they prefer the dynamic flux of pixels. They gravitate toward movie screens, TV screens, computer screens, iPhone screens, VR goggle screens, tablet screens, and in the near future massive Day-Glo megapixel screens plastered on every surface. Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts, and half-baked ideas. It is a flow of tweets, headlines, instagrams, casual texts, and floating first impressions. Notions don’t stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled in real time piece by piece by the audience themselves. People of the Screen make their own content and construct their own truth. Fixed copies don’t matter as much as flowing access. Screen culture is fast, like a 30-second movie trailer, and as liquid and open-ended as a Wikipedia page.
On a screen, words move, meld into pictures, change color, and perhaps even change meaning. Sometimes there are no words at all, only pictures or diagrams or glyphs that may be deciphered into multiple meanings. This liquidity is terribly unnerving to any civilization based on text logic. In this new world, fast-moving code—as in updated versions of computer code—is more important than law, which is fixed. Code displayed on a screen is endlessly tweakable by users, while law embossed into books is not. Yet code can shape behavior as much as, if not more than, law. If you want to change how people act online, on the screen, you simply alter the algorithms that govern the place, which in effect polices the collective behavior or nudges people in preferred directions.
People of the Book favor solutions by laws, while People of the Screen favor technology as a solution to all problems. Truth is, we are in transition, and the clash between the cultures of books and screens occurs within us as individuals as well. If you are an educated modern person, you are conflicted by these two modes. This tension is the new norm. It all started with the first screens that invaded our living rooms 50 years ago: the big, fat, warm tubes of television. These glowing altars reduced the time we spent reading to such an extent that in the following decades it seemed as if reading and writing were over. Educators, intellectuals, politicians, and parents in the last half of the last century worried deeply that the TV generation would be unable to write. Screens were blamed for an amazing list of societal ills. But of course we all kept watching. And for a while it did seem as if nobody wrote, or could write, and reading scores trended down for decades. But to everyone’s surprise, the cool, interconnected, ultrathin screens on monitors, the new TVs, and tablets at the beginning of the 21st century launched an epidemic of writing that continues to swell. The amount of time people spend reading has almost tripled since 1980. By 2015 more than 60 trillion pages have been added to the World Wide Web, and that total grows by several billion a day. Each of these pages was written by somebody. Right now ordinary citizens compose 80 million blog posts per day. Using their thumbs instead of pens, young people around the world collectively write 500 million quips per day from their phones. More screens continue to expand the volume of reading and writing. The literacy rate in the U.S. has remained unchanged in the last 20 years, but those who can read are reading and writing more. If we count the creation of all words on all screens, you are writing far more per week than your grandmother, no matter where you live.
In addition to reading words on a page, we now read words floating nonlinearly in the lyrics of a music video or scrolling up in the closing credits of a movie. We might read dialog balloons spoken by an avatar in a virtual reality, or click through the labels of objects in a video game, or decipher the words on a diagram online. We should properly call this new activity “screening” rather than reading. Screening includes reading words, but also watching words and reading images. This new activity has new characteristics. Screens are always on; we never stop staring at them, unlike with books. This new platform is very visual and it gradually merges words with moving images. On the screen words zip around and float over images, serving as footnotes or annotations, linking to other words or images. You might think of this new medium as books we watch or television we read.
Despite this resurgence of words, People of the Book reasonably fear that books—and therefore classical reading and writing—will soon die as a cultural norm. If that happens, who will adhere to the linear rationality encouraged by book reading? Who will obey rules if the respect for books of laws is diminished, to be replaced by lines of code that try to control our behavior? Who will pay authors to write when almost everything is available for free on flickering screens? They fear that perhaps only the rich will read books on paper. Perhaps only a few will pay attention to the wisdom on their pages. Perhaps fewer will pay for them. What can replace a book’s steadfastness in our culture? Will we simply abandon this vast textual foundation that underlies our current civilization? The old way of reading—not this new way—had an essential hand in creating most of what we cherish about a modern society: literacy, rational thinking, science, fairness, rule of law. Where does that all go with screening? What happens to books?
The fate of books is worth investigating in detail because books are simply the first of many media that screening will transform. First screening will change books, then it will alter libraries of books, then it will modify movies and video, then it will disrupt games and education, and finally screening will change everything else.
• • •
People of the Book think they know what a book is: It is a sheaf of pages with a spine you can grab. In the past almost anything printed between two covers would count as a book. A list of telephone numbers was called a book, even though it had no logical beginning, middle, or end. A pile of bound blank pages was called a sketchbook; it was unabashedly empty, but it did have two covers and was thus called a book. A gallery of photographs on a stack of pages was a coffee table book even though it contained no words at all.
Today the paper sheets of a book are disappearing. What is left in their place is the conceptual structure of a book—a bunch of symbols united by a theme into an experience that takes a while to complete.
Since the traditional shell of the book is vanishing, it’s fair to wonder whether its organization is merely a fossil. Does the intangible container of a book offer any advantages over the many other forms of text available now?
Some scholars of literature claim that a book is really that virtual place your mind goes to when you are reading. It is a conceptual state of imagination that one might call “literature space.” According to these scholars, when you are engaged in this reading space, your brain works differently than when you are screening. Neurological studies show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. Instead of skipping around distractedly gathering bits, when you read you are transported, focused, immersed.
One can spend hours reading on the web and never encounter this literature space. One gets fragments, threads, glimpses. That is the web’s great attraction: miscellaneous pieces loosely joined. But without some kind of containment, these loosely joined pieces spin away, nudging a reader’s attention outward, wandering from the central narrative or argument.
A separate reading device seems to help. So far we have tablets, pads, Kindles, and phones. The phone is the most surprising. Commentators had long held that no one would want to read a book on a tiny few-inch-wide glowing screen, but they were wrong. By miles. I and many others happily read books that way. In fact, we don’t know yet how small a book-reading screen can go. There is an experimental type of reading called rapid serial visual presentation, which uses a screen only one word wide. As small as a postage stamp. Your eye remains stationary, fixed on one word, which replaces itself with the next word in the text, and then the one after that. So your eye reads a sequence of words “behind” one another rather than in a long string next to one another. A small screen only one word wide can squeeze in almost anywhere, expanding the territory of where we can read.
Over 36 million Kindles and ebook readers with e-ink have been sold. An ebook is a plank that holds a single page. The single page is “turned” by clicking the plank, so that one page dissolves into another page. The reflective e-ink in the later generations of Kindles is as sharp and readable as traditional ink on paper. Yet unlike printed words, with these ebooks you can cut and paste text from the page, follow up hyperlinks, and interact with illustrations.
But there is no reason an ebook has to be a plank. E-ink paper can be manufactured in inexpensive flexible sheets as thin and supple and cheap as paper. A hundred or so sheets can be bound into a sheaf, given a spine, and wrapped between two handsome covers. Now the ebook looks very much like a paper book of old, thick with pages, but it can change its content. One minute the page has a poem on it; the next it has a recipe. Yet you still turn its thin pages (a way to navigate through text that is hard to improve). When you are finished reading the book, you slap the spine. Now the same pages show a different tome. It is no longer a bestselling mystery, but a how-to guide to raising jellyfish. The whole artifact is superbly crafted and satisfying to hold. A well-designed ebook shell may be so sensual it might be worth purchasing a very fine one covered in soft well-worn Moroccan leather, molded to your hand, sporting the most satiny, thinnest sheets. You’ll probably have several ebook readers of different sizes and shapes optimized for different content.
Personally, I like large pages in my books. I want an ebook reader that unfolds, origami-like, into a sheet at least as big as a newspaper today. Maybe with as many pages. I don’t mind taking a few minutes to fold it back into a pocket-size packet when I am done. I love being able to scan multiple long columns and jump between headlines on one plane. A number of research labs are experimenting with prototypes of books that are projected wide and big via lasers from a pocket device onto a nearby flat surface. A table or a wall becomes the pages of these books, which you turn with hand gestures. The oversize pages provide the old-timey thrill of your eye roaming across multiple columns and many juxtapositions.
The immediate effect of books born digital is that they can flow onto any screen, anytime. A book will appear when summoned. The need to purchase or stockpile a book before you read it is gone. A book is less an artifact and more a stream that flows into your view.
This liquidity is just as true for the creation of books as for consumption. Think of a book in all its stages as a process rather than artifact. Not a noun, but a verb. A book is more “booking” than paper or text. It is a becoming. It is a continuous flow of thinking, writing, researching, editing, rewriting, sharing, socializing, cognifying, unbundling, marketing, more sharing, and screening—a flow that generates a book along the way. Books, especially ebooks, are by-products of the booking process. Displayed on a screen, a book becomes a web of relationships generated by booking words and ideas. It connects readers, authors, characters, ideas, facts, notions, and stories. These relationships are amplified, enhanced, widened, accelerated, leveraged, and redefined by new ways of screening.
Yet the tension between the book and the screen is still being played out. The current custodians of ebooks—screen companies such as Amazon and Google, under orders from the book publishers in New York and with the approval of some bestselling authors—have agreed to cripple the extreme liquidity of ebooks by currently preventing readers from cutting and pasting text easily, or from copying large sections of a book, or from otherwise seriously manipulating the text. Ebooks today lack the fungibility of the ur-text of screening: Wikipedia. But eventually the text of ebooks will be liberated in the near future, and the true nature of books will blossom. We will find out that books never really wanted to be printed telephone directories, or hardware catalogs on paper, or paperback how-to books. These are jobs that screens and bits are much superior at—all that updating and searching—tasks that neither paper nor narratives are suited for. What those kinds of books have always wanted was to be annotated, marked up, underlined, bookmarked, summarized, cross-referenced, hyperlinked, shared, and talked to. Being digital allows them to do all that and more.
We can see the very first glimpses of books’ newfound freedom in the Kindles and Fires. As I read a book I can (with some trouble) highlight a passage I would like to remember. I can extract those highlights (with some effort today) and reread my selection of the most important or memorable parts. More important, with my permission, my highlights can be shared with other readers, and I can read the highlights of a particular friend, scholar, or critic. We can even filter the most popular highlights of all readers, and in this manner begin to read a book in a new way. This gives a larger audience access to the precious marginalia of another author’s close reading of a book (with their permission), a boon that previously only rare-book collectors witnessed.
Reading becomes social. With screens we can share not just the titles of books we are reading, but our reactions and notes as we read them. Today, we can highlight a passage. Tomorrow, we will be able to link passages. We can add a link from a phrase in the book we are reading to a contrasting phrase in another book we’ve read, from a word in a passage to an obscure dictionary, from a scene in a book to a similar scene in a movie. (All these tricks will require tools for finding relevant passages.) We might subscribe to the marginalia feed from someone we respect, so we get not only their reading list but their marginalia—highlights, notes, questions, musings.
The kind of intelligent book club discussion as now happens on the book sharing site Goodreads might follow the book itself and become more deeply embedded into the book via hyperlinks. So when a person cites a particular passage, a two-way link connects the comment to the passage and the passage to the comment. Even a minor good work could accumulate a wiki-like set of critical comments tightly bound to the actual text.
Indeed, dense hyperlinking among books would make every book a networked event. The conventional vision of the book’s future assumes that books will remain isolated items, independent from one another, just as they are on the shelves in your public library. There, each book is pretty much unaware of the ones next to it. When an author completes a work, it is fixed and finished. Its only movement comes when a reader picks it up to enliven it with his or her imagination. In this conventional vision, the main advantage of the coming digital library is portability—the nifty translation of a book’s full text into bits, which permits it to be read on a screen anywhere. But this vision misses the chief revolution birthed by scanning books: In the universal library, no book will be an island. It’s all connected.
Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of ebooks and etexts, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.
Right now the best we can do in terms of interconnection is to link some text to its source’s title in a bibliography or in a footnote. Much better would be a link to a specific passage in another passage in a work, a technical feat not yet possible. But when we can link deeply into documents at the resolution of a sentence, and have those links go two ways, we’ll have networked books.
You can get a sense of what this might be like by visiting Wikipedia. Think of Wikipedia as one very large book—a single encyclopedia—which of course it is. Most of its 34 million pages are crammed with words underlined in blue, indicating those words are hyperlinked to concepts elsewhere in the encyclopedia. This tangle of relationships is precisely what gives Wikipedia—and the web—its immense force. Wikipedia is the first networked book. In the goodness of time, each Wikipedia page will become saturated with blue links as every statement is cross-referenced. In the goodness of time, as all books become fully digital, every one of them will accumulate the equivalent of blue underlined passages as each literary reference is networked within that book out to all other books. Each page in a book will discover other pages and other books. Thus books will seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together into one large metabook, the universal library. The resulting collective intelligence of this synaptically connected library allows us to see things we can’t see in a single isolated book.
• • •
The dream of a universal library is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages—all connected. It is a familiar hope, in part because long ago we briefly built such a library. The great library at Alexandria, constructed around 300 BC, was designed to hold all the scrolls circulating in the known world. At one time or another, the library held about half a million scrolls, estimated to have been between 30 percent and 70 percent of all books in existence back then. But even before this great library was lost, the moment when all knowledge could be housed in a single building had passed. Since then, the constant expansion of information has overwhelmed our capacity to contain it. For 2,000 years, the universal library, together with other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes, and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that keeps receding further into the infinite future. But might the long-heralded great library of all knowledge really be within our grasp?
Brewster Kahle, an archivist who is backing up the entire internet, says that the universal library is now within reach. “This is our chance to one-up the Greeks!” he chants. “It is really possible with the technology of today, not tomorrow. We can provide all the works of humankind to all the people of the world. It will be an achievement remembered for all time, like putting a man on the moon.” And unlike the libraries of old, which were restricted to the elite, this library would be truly democratic, offering every book in every language to every person alive on the planet.
Ideally, in such a complete library we should be able to read any article ever written in any newspaper, magazine, or journal. The universal library should also include a copy of every painting, photograph, film, and piece of music produced by all artists, present and past. Still more, it should include all radio and television broadcasts. Commercials too. Of course, the grand library naturally needs a copy of the billions of dead web pages no longer online and the tens of millions of blog posts now gone—the ephemeral literature of our time. In short, the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.
This is a very big library. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets until now, humans have “published” at least 310 million books, 1.4 billion articles and essays, 180 million songs, 3.5 trillion images, 330,000 movies, 1 billion hours of videos, TV shows, and short films, and 60 trillion public web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50-petabyte hard disks. Ten years ago you needed a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. Today the universal library would fill your bedroom. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your phone. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet—if it doesn’t plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what’s taking so long.
But the technologies that will bring us a planetary source of all written material will also, in the same gesture, transform the nature of what we now call the book and the libraries that hold them. The universal library and its “books” will be unlike any library or books we have known because, rather than read them, we will screen them. Buoyed by the success of massive interlinking in Wikipedia, many nerds believe that a billion human readers can reliably weave together the pages of old books, one hyperlink at a time. Those with a passion for a special subject, obscure author, or favorite book will, over time, link up its important parts. Multiply that simple generous act by millions of readers, and the universal library can be integrated in full, by fans, for fans.
In addition to a link, which explicitly connects one word or sentence or book to another, readers will also be able to add tags. Smart AI-based search technology overcomes the need for overeducated classification systems so user-generated tags are enough to find things. Indeed, the sleepless smartness in AI will tag text and images automatically in the millions, so that the entire universal library will yield its wisdom to any who seek it.
The link and the tag may be two of the most important inventions of the last 50 years. You are anonymously marking up the web, making it smarter, when you link or tag something. These bits of interest are gathered and analyzed by search engines and AIs in order to strengthen the relationship between the end points of every link and the connections suggested by each tag. This type of intelligence has been indigenous to the web since its birth, but was previously foreign to the world of books. The link and the tag now make screening the universal library possible, and powerful.
We see this effect most clearly in science. Science is on a long-term campaign to bring all knowledge in the world into one vast, interconnected, footnoted, peer-reviewed web of facts. Independent facts, even those that make sense in their own world, are of little value to science. (The pseudo- and parasciences are nothing less, in fact, than small pools of knowledge that are not connected to the large network of science. They are valid only in their own network.) In this way, every new observation or bit of data brought into the web of science enhances the value of all other data points.
Once a book has been integrated into the newly expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books. For instance, today a serious nonfiction book will usually have a bibliography and some kind of footnotes. When books are deeply linked, you’ll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book’s bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.
Next come the words. Just as a web article on, say, coral reefs can have some of its words linked to definitions of fish terms, any and all words in a digitized book can be hyperlinked to other parts of other books. Books, including fiction, will become a web of names and a community of ideas. (You can, of course, suppress links—and their connections—if you don’t want to see them, as you might while reading a novel. But novels are a tiny subset of everything that is written.)
Over the next three decades, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea, or a timeline of a concept, or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea stands alone, but that all good, true, and beautiful things are ecosystems of intertwined parts and related entities, past and present.
Even when the central core of a text is authored by a lone author (as is likely for many fictional books), the auxiliary networked references, discussions, critiques, bibliography, and hyperlinks surrounding a book will probably be a collaboration. Books without this network will feel naked.
At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums or playlists, the universal networked library will encourage the creation of virtual “bookshelves”—a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books—that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these “bookshelves” or playlists for books will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages. The ability to purchase, read, and manipulate individual pages or sections is surely what will drive reference books (cookbooks, how-to manuals, travel guides) in the future. You might concoct your own “cookbook shelf” or scrapbook of Cajun recipes compiled from many different sources; it would include web pages, magazine clippings, and entire Cajun cookbooks. This is already starting to happen. The boards of the online site Pinterest allow folks to quickly create scrapbooks of quotes, images, quips, and photos. Amazon currently offers you a chance to publish your own bookshelves (“Listmanias”) as annotated lists of books you want to recommend on a particular esoteric subject. And readers are already using Google Books to round up mini libraries on a certain topic—all the books about Swedish saunas, for instance, or the best books on clocks. Once snippets, articles, and pages of books become ubiquitous, shuffleable, and transferable, users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection.
Libraries (as well as many individuals) aren’t eager to relinquish old-fashioned ink-on-paper editions, because the printed book is by far the most durable and reliable long-term storage technology we have. Printed books require no mediating device to read and thus are immune to technological obsolescence. Paper is also extremely stable, compared with, say, hard drives or even CDs. The unchanging edition that anchors an author’s original vision without the interference of mashups and remixes will often remain the most valuable edition. In this way, the stability and fixity of a bound book is a blessing. It sits constant, true to its original creation. But it sits alone.
So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas? Four things:
First, works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near zero audience they usually have now. It becomes easier to discover that labor-of-love masterpiece on the vegan diets of southern Indian priests. Far out in the long tail of the distribution curve—that extended place of low to no sales where most of the books in the world live—digital interlinking will lift the readership of almost any title, no matter how esoteric.
Second, the universal library will deepen our grasp of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked. That includes all the yellowing newspapers, unused telephone books, dusty county files, and old ledgers now moldering in basements. More of the past will be linked to today, increasing understanding today and appreciation of the past.
Third, the universal networked library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts—past and present in all languages—on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do and don’t know. The empty white spaces of our collective ignorance are highlighted, while the golden peaks of our knowledge are drawn with completeness. This degree of authority is only rarely achieved in scholarship today, but it will become routine.
Fourth and finally, the full, complete universal library of all works becomes more than just a better searchable library. It becomes a platform for cultural life, in some ways returning book knowledge to the core. Right now, if you mash up Google Maps and monster.com, you get maps of where jobs are located by salary. In the same way, it is easy to see that, in the great networked library, everything that has ever been written about, for example, Trafalgar Square in London could be visible while one stands in Trafalgar Square via a wearable screen like Google Glass. In the same way, every object, event, or location on earth would “know” everything that has ever been written about it in any book, in any language, at any time. From this deep structuring of knowledge comes a new culture of participation. You would be interacting—with your whole body—with the universal book.
Soon a book outside the universal Library of All will be like a web page outside the web, gasping for air. Indeed, the only way for the essence of books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire their texts into the universal library. Most new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the universal library as you might add more words to a long story. The great continent of analog books in the public domain, and the 25 million orphan works (neither in print nor in the public domain), will eventually be scanned and connected. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.
One quirk of networked books is that they are never done, or rather that they become streams of words rather than monuments. Wikipedia is a stream of edits, as anyone who has tried to make a citation to it realizes. A book will be networked in time as well as space.
But why bother calling these things books? A networked book, by definition, has no center and is all edges. Might the unit of the universal library be the sentence, paragraph, or chapter article instead of a book? It might. But there is a power in the long form. A self-contained story, unified narrative, and closed argument has a strong attraction for us. There is a natural resonance that draws a network around it. We’ll unbundle books into their constituent bits and pieces and knit those into the web, but the higher-level organization of the book will be the focus for our attention—that remaining scarcity in our economy. A book is an attention unit. A fact is interesting, an idea is important, but only a story, a good argument, a well-crafted narrative is amazing, never to be forgotten. As Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Those stories will play across screens. Everywhere we look, we see screens. The other day I watched clips from a movie as I pumped gas into my car. The other night I saw a movie on the seatback of a plane. Earlier this evening I watched a movie on my phone. We will watch anywhere. Everywhere. Screens playing video pop up in the most unexpected places—like ATM machines and supermarket checkout lines. These ever present screens have created an audience for very short moving pictures, as brief as three minutes, while cheap digital creation tools have empowered a new generation of filmmakers, who are rapidly filling up those screens. We are headed toward screen ubiquity.
The screen demands more than our eyes. The most physically active we get while reading a book is to flip the pages or dog-ear a corner. But screens engage our bodies. Touch screens respond to the ceaseless caress of our fingers. Sensors in game consoles such as the Nintendo Wii track our hands and arms. The controller for a video game screen rewards fast twitching. The newest screens—the ones we view within virtual reality headsets and goggles—elicit whole-body movements. They trigger interaction. Some of the newest screens (such as those on the Samsung Galaxy phone) can follow our eyes to perceive where we gaze. A screen will know what we are paying attention to and for how long. Smart software can now read our emotions as we read the screen and can alter what we see next in response to our emotions. Reading becomes almost athletic. Just as it seemed weird five centuries ago to see someone read silently (literacy was so rare most texts were read aloud for the benefit of all), in the future it will seem weird to watch a screen without some part of our body responding to the content.
Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact uncovered while screening will provoke our reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screening encourages rapid pattern making, associating one idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. Screening nurtures thinking in real time. We review a movie while we watch it, or we come up with an obscure fact in the middle of an argument, or we read the owner’s manual of a gadget before we purchase it rather than after we get home and discover that it can’t do what we need it to do. Screens are instruments of the now.
Screens provoke action instead of persuasion. Propaganda is less effective in a world of screens, because while misinformation travels as fast as electrons, corrections do too. Wikipedia works so well because it removes an error in a single click, making it easier to eliminate a falsehood than to post a falsehood in the first place. In books we find a revealed truth; on the screen we assemble our own myths from pieces. On networked screens everything is linked to everything else. The status of a new creation is determined not by the rating given to it by critics but by the degree to which it is linked to the rest of the world. A person, artifact, or fact does not “exist” until it is linked.
A screen can reveal the inner nature of things. Waving the camera eye of a smartphone over a manufactured product can reveal its price, place of origin, ingredients, and even relevant comments by other owners. With the right app, like Google Translate, a phone’s screen can instantly translate the words on a menu or a sign in a foreign country into your home language, in the same font. Or another phone app can augment a stuffed children’s toy with additional behaviors and interactions that show up only on the screen. It is as if the screen displays the object’s intangible essence.
As portable screens become more powerful, lighter, and larger, they will be used to view more of this inner world. Hold an electronic tablet up as you walk along a street—or wear a pair of magic spectacles or contact lenses—and it will show you an annotated overlay of the real street ahead: where the clean restrooms are, which stores sell your favorite items, where your friends are hanging out. Computer chips are becoming so small, and screens so thin and cheap, that in the next 30 years semitransparent eyeglasses will apply an informational layer to reality. If you pick up an object while peering through these spectacles, the object’s (or place’s) essential information will appear in overlay text. In this way screens will enable us to “read” everything, not just text.
Yes, these glasses look dorky, as Google Glass proved. It will take a while before their form factor is worked out and they look fashionable and feel comfortable. But last year alone, five quintillion (10 to the power of 18) transistors were embedded into objects other than computers. Very soon most manufactured items, from shoes to cans of soup, will contain a small sliver of dim intelligence, and screens will be the tool we use to interact with this ubiquitous cognification. We will want to watch them.
More important, our screens will also watch us. They will be our mirrors, the wells into which we look to find out about ourselves. Not to see our faces, but our selves. Already millions of people use pocketable screens to input their location, what they eat, how much they weigh, their mood, their sleep patterns, and what they see. A few pioneers have begun lifelogging: recording every single detail, conversation, picture, and activity. A screen both records and displays this database of activities. The result of this constant self-tracking is an impeccable “memory” of their lives and an unexpectedly objective and quantifiable view of themselves, one that no book can provide. The screen becomes part of our identity.
We are screening at all scales and sizes—from the IMAX to the Apple Watch. In the near future we will never be far from a screen of some sort. Screens will be the first place we’ll look for answers, for friends, for news, for meaning, for our sense of who we are and who we can be.
• • •
Someday in the near future my day will be like this:
In the morning I begin my screening while still in bed. I check the screen on my wrist for the time, my wake-up alarm, and also to see what urgent news and weather scrolls by. I screen the tiny panel near the bed that shows messages from my friends. I wipe the messages away with my thumb. I walk to the bathroom. I screen my new artworks—cool photos taken by friends—on the wall; these are more cheerful and sunny than the ones yesterday. I get dressed and screen my outfit in the closet. It shows me that the red socks would look better with my shirt.
In the kitchen I screen the full news. I like the display lying flat, horizontal on the table. I wave my arms over the table to direct the stream of text. I turn to the screens on my cabinets, searching for my favorite cereal; the door screens reveal what is behind them. A screen floating above the refrigerator indicates fresh milk inside. I reach inside and take out the milk. The screen on the side of the milk carton tries to get me to play a game, but I quiet it. I screen the bowl to be sure it is approved clean from the dishwasher. As I eat my cereal, I query the screen on the box to see if it is still fresh and whether the cereal has the genetic markers a friend said it did. I nod toward the table and the news stories advance. When I pay close attention, the screen notices and the news gets more detailed. As I screen deeper, the text generates more links, denser illustrations. I begin screening a very long investigative piece on the local mayor, but I need to take my son to school.
I dash to the car. In the car, my story continues where I left off in the kitchen. My car screens the story for me, reading it aloud as I ride. The buildings we pass along the highway are screens themselves. They usually show advertisements that are aimed at only me, since they recognize my car. These are laser-projected screens, which means they can custom focus images that only I see; other commuters see different images on the same screen. I usually ignore them, except when they show an illustration or diagram from the story I am screening in the car. I screen the traffic to see what route is least jammed this morning. Since the car’s navigation learns from other drivers’ routes, it mostly chooses the best route, but it is not foolproof yet, so I like to screen where the traffic flows.
At my son’s school, I check one of the public wall displays in the side hallway. I raise my palm, say my name, and the screen recognizes me from my face, eyes, fingerprints, and voice. It switches to my personal interface. I can screen my messages if I don’t mind the lack of privacy in the hall. I can also use the tiny screen on my wrist. I glance at the messages I want to screen in detail and it expands those. I wave some forward and others I swoosh to the archives. One is urgent. I pinch the air and I am screening a virtual conference. My partner in India is speaking to me. She is screening me in Bangalore. She feels pretty real.
I finally make it to the office. When I touch my chair, my room knows me, and all the screens in the room and on the table are ready for me, picking up from where I left off. The eyes of the screens follow me closely as I conduct my day. The screens watch my hands and eyes a lot. I’ve become very good in using the new hand-sign commands in addition to typing. After 16 years of watching me work, they can anticipate a lot of what I do. The sequence of symbols on the screens makes no sense to anyone else, just as my colleagues’ sequence baffles me. When we are working together, we screen in an entirely different environment. We gaze and grab different tools as we hop and dance around the room. I am a bit old-fashioned and still like to hold smaller screens in my hands. My favorite one is the same leather-cased screen I had in college (the screen is new; just the case is old). It is the same screen I used to create the documentary I did after graduation about the migrants sleeping in the mall. My hands are used to it and it is used to my gestures.
After work I put on augmentation glasses while I jog outside. My running route is clearly in front of me. Overlaid on it I also see all my exercise metrics such as my heart rate and metabolism stats displayed in real time, and I can also screen the latest annotation notes posted virtually on the places I pass. I see the virtual notes in my glasses about an alternative detour left by one of my friends when he jogged this same route an hour earlier, and I see some historical notes stuck to a couple of familiar landmarks left by my local history club (I am a member). One day I may try out the bird identification app that pins bird names on the birds in my glasses when I run through the park.
At home during dinner, we don’t allow personal screens at our table, though we screen ambient mood colors in the room. After our meal I will screen to relax. I’ll put a VR headset on and explore a new alien city created by an amazing world builder I follow. Or I’ll jump into a 3-D movie, or join a realie. Like most students, my son screens his homework, especially the tutorials. Although he likes to screen adventure games, we limit it to one hour during the school week. He can screen a realie in about an hour, speed-screening the whole way, while also scanning messages and photos on three other screens at the same time. On the other hand, I try to slow down. Sometimes I’ll screen a book on my lap pad while slow, affirming vistas generated from my archives screen on the walls. My spouse likes nothing better than to lie in bed and screen a favorite story on the ceiling till sleep. As I lay down, I set the screen on my wrist for 6 a.m. For eight hours I stop screening.