There’s a slow but inexorable shift taking place in writing. Actually this shift encompasses more than just writing because it has to do with information in all its forms and configurations. I’m talking about the manner in which we store information.
It used to be that books were the main storage unit in keeping information from disappearing. When asked, why do we write, authors frequently answered, “to put the information I have to offer in a permanent form.” That applied mainly to nonfiction, but really applied to fiction as well. Libraries exist to store the information, to hold the books so that anyone can access all the facts, all the news and all the material they want. Books have been and still are the ultimate; the end of the information storage line. For a long time, that was all there was.
Before books, humans kept information in their brains. The elders of a group of early humans (a family or tribe or whatever) knew all there was to know, and they passed it on to their younger counterparts. Some concepts were put into stories and told and re-told within the group, and some of these became legends that survived for millenia. Eventually, when the ability to write developed, information such as stories and other necessities of the culture came to be written down, sometimes in stone, sometimes on papyrus, and many of these survived for years. Monks of the early Christian era copied the Bible by hand, and the development of the printing press made the expression of the written word much easier, though it didn’t alter the fact that information was still being written and stored on large pieces of paper.
Now we’re looking at a new development in the storage of information: the digital form. Whole books, the Bible included, can be stored on a small chip no larger than a pencil point. Books still exist, sure, and there are zillions out there, and we continue to produce them, but their days are numbered. The Library of Congress exists to keep a copy of every book published in its paper format, but that Library is doomed. Soon libraries will exist only in cyberspace and we will be able to access anything we want without having to visit the actual building.
Whether this is good or not, I cannot say. It is, however, inevitable. I can’t imagine that all books will be gone in a hundred years–even that seems much too short a time. But books as the main storage of all human knowledge will be phased out sooner or later. Right now, we can get a huge amount of information from the internet, but not everything is online. The library is still an important place for research. Much of the highly esoteric and abstruse information on many subjects is not online, and books are still required. For example, I wanted to research details of the humans that inhabited North America around 15,000 years ago for a novel I wrote, and though I looked seriously online, I still had to visit the library to pick out the tiny details I really needed. Those details were embedded in several large volumes, not available online.
What’s it going to be like living in a society without books? Books have been around for so long. Even the Romans had compilations of data that could be said to be the precursor of a “book.” Those of us who write (and hopefully publish) books would be really disconcerted to find a society without a book to be had. Yet it seems inevitable. Like it or not, we are at the beginning of the digital conversion. In fact, some books nowadays are published only digitally, and no physical “book” exists. No ink on paper, just pixels on a screen.