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Tuesday 28 February 2012

The End of Books

 The picture above, showing passengers on the Paris metro listening on earphones rather than engrossed in reading books, was drawn almost 120 years ago by a man named Albert Robida. It’s an illustration for Octave Uzanne’s short story “La Fin des Livres” (“The End of Books”), published in 1895 -- when the most advanced audio technology consisted of cumbersome Edison phonographs with wax cylinders, hand-cranks and brass horns.

As 19th century predictions of future technology go, I think this one is pretty impressive. The story is set in London, and concerns a group of Victorian gentlemen who discuss what the future might hold. When one of them is asked about the future of books, he says “If by books you speak of our countless collections of paper, printed, sewn and bound... I tell you frankly that I do not believe—and the progress of electricity and modern mechanics forbids me to believe—that Gutenberg's invention should not soon fall more or less into disuse as a medium for our intellectual products.”

“Gutenberg’s invention” refers to the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. Ironically, the text of Uzanne and Robida’s “La Fin des Livres” is now available in electronic form on a website called Project Gutenberg!

The picture of the metro passengers shows them plugged into communal devices built into the train, but Uzanne and Robida also predicted personal media players (as depicted on the left): “there will be recording cylinders as light as celluloid pens... devices for the pocket, around the neck or on a shoulder strap that will be held in a single tube like a case of spectacles.” This strikes me as particularly impressive, because miniaturization is one aspect of modern technology that most early science fiction failed to predict -- even into the 1930s and 40s.

So is the prophecy of “the end of books” coming true? In one sense it is, and in another it isn’t. Uzanne and Robida imagined that the printed word would die out, to be replaced by voice recordings. There is little sign of this happening -- there are such things as “audio books”, but only as a fringe interest. Most people use the written word as much as they ever did... if not more. But the “written word” appears increasingly on LCD screens rather than printed paper -- so in that sense this is one Victorian prediction that was spot on!


zoamchomsky said...

Robida goofing on Friedrich's "Wanderer ..." I've read he had a wicked sense of humor.

Andrew May said...

Thanks - I has to look up Friedrich's "Wanderer but I think you must be right.