If The Book Were Invented Today, Would It Be Revolutionary?

from the change-of-perspective dept

Why do some technologies perpetually getting touted as the “next big thing” fail to ever make a dent in the marketplace? Perhaps part of the answer is that often they’re not nearly as disruptive as their advocates make them out to be. To help think about this question, Vinnie Marchandani points to an interesting mental exercise proposed by Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee which he calls the “flip test”:

Let’s say the world has only e-books, then someone introduces this technology called ‘paper.’ It’s cheap, portable, lasts essentially forever, and requires no batteries. You can’t write over it once it’s been written on, but you buy more very cheaply. Wouldn’t that technology come to dominate the market?

Thinking about it that way, it’s really not that surprising that e-books have yet to take off, despite all of the hype surrounding them. If you didn’t know which one came first, paper might look revolutionary and disruptive. Similar tests could probably be constructed for other next big things, like videophones or even alternative fuels (“Imagine a world where we recharge our cars and only get 6 hours of drive time, and then someone invents petroleum-based gasoline…”). This kind of test isn’t meant to answer these questions, or end all discussions, but it’s worthy to think about when evaluating the prospects of a new technology.

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “If The Book Were Invented Today, Would It Be Revolutionary?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Danno says:

Yeah, but the thing with that is that people are going to initially selling us paper as a way of conveniently keeping copies of temporary documents that we’ll want to modify quickly. Or petroleum fuels as a way of powering our laptops.

And they will fail miserably and people will say “Oh yeah, paper’s a great idea, but it just doesn’t seem to work right.”

Jerry Kew says:

Paperspace vs Cyberspace

I once gave a paper on this comparison, and it was interesting to see which features, such as paperspace references were reliable, ie if a paperspace object (a book paper etc) cited a previous source in paperspace, it would not be changed/removed, unlike cyberspace references.

Multiple copies delivering security, less traceability allowing the spread of censorable ideas, etc etc


Panaqqa says:

If paper were invented now...

Then there would be an immediate flurry of lawsuits over patent infringement. Trolls would sue for violating #1234567: Method Of Storing Data On Organic Material, #9876543: Non-Volatile Information Storage Method With Zero Power Requirement, and #3141593: User Interface For Paging Through Text Data Using Transverse Motion Of Right Hand. None of these patents would contain any reference to anything resembling paper.

Eventually, a Republican controlled government would reform the patent system in order to prevent the supression of this new technology, noting that widespread adoption would require mass removal of trees, freeing up land for strip mining by campaign contributors.

Karl says:

If the conventional phone were invented now...

…how would it compare to VoIP? More reliable, wide range of possible handsets including some that require no batteries or power, zero setup — truly plug and play, works in an emergency when the power is out, and uses a dedicated network so you don’t have to worry about sharing bandwidth with internet usage. Hmmm…

misanthropic humanist says:

Books are dangerous

If paper were invented today it would be banned. Ostensibly for environmental reasons, but that would not be the motive.

Paper books create a permenant product. If you buy a book and look after it you can still own the same book in 100 years if you live that long.

The entire rationale of our corporations in the 21st century are to eliminate ownership. If they had their way everything you can hold, use, consume, read, listen to, watch… would be supplied on a limited contract which severely curtailed your rights to do with it as like.

That’s why I’m becoming curiously interested in “Antiques” as I get older. The only things that will still be here in another 50-100 years are the things that were already here more than 40 years ago. More or less everything built since the 1970s was never designed to last.

I dare you to create a graph of the “average product lifetime” for manufactured goods from 1900 to the present day. You will be shocked. I estimate the expected durability of any modern product is 1/100 of its equivilent from the start of the last century. It’s decreasing fast too, possibly inverse square. In another 10-15 years we will “hire ” disposable technology for a day at a time. Phones, cameras, displays and so on will be made out of something not unlike paper with the circuits printed on them. They will, by design, last no more than a few hundred hours of use, and will be programmed to cease working after a fixed time limit anyway. They will be non-transferrable and only work for you.

Books enable information to be passed down from generation to generation. That is not what the Order needs. Those who said Orwell would be proved right were laughed at, and now they have been vindicated. Bradbury will be proved right too if things carry on the way they are going. Maybe not for another 20 or 30 years, but he will. Books are too dangerous for a system that requires information to be impermenant.

Shaun says:

Benifits vs Barrier of Entry

On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that it’s because that we are used to a thing that we stay with it, there is an possibly even an obvious benefit but it’s too hard to change – the new technology has too high a “barrier of entry”.

One example could be conventional power generation. Say currently we all used solar panels, wind farms and other renewable sources for power generation with some of the more advanced energy storage systems that are currently being developed to overcome current limitations in battery storage. Then someone comes along and says hey I’ve made a steam engine like they used to use in trains, except it makes electricity. Of course we would need a huge distribution and production network for the coal to power them, with huge pit mines, it takes several days to power it up compared to near instantaneous access to batteries etc and is very smelly and dirty, why don’t we all switch to it now?

Clearly with the renewable sources implemented now no-one in their right mind would think of switching to dirty old steam engines to generate power but people are only now finding the benefits starting to outweigh the costs in term of switching to renewable energy.

The same principle is also often applied to operating systems such as Macs an Linux though not necessarily phrased this way. For example some governments companies etc have switched to Linux from Windows, some have considered it but haven’t because there is so much readily available software for windows and other issues. If Linux was the standard and Windows was only just fairly recent on the desktop Windows would be a niche market, confined mainly to enthusiasts much as desktop Linux is now and Microsoft would have a hard time convincing people to switch, as is the problem for Linux vendors now. Not because one is inherently better than the other but because of the difficulty in changing.

As you can see it can be the high barrier of entry that prevents the usage of some of the “revolutionary” technologies rather than because they aren’t better than the current technology. By all means use the “flip test” it is obviously a very beneficial tool but be ready for it to show that something is actually beneficial. You also might want to look at if the barrier to entry of moving away from this revolutionary technology would be higher than moving to it then maybe there is a point to it after all. The technology might actually be revolutionary if you have spent the cost of implementing it, the only question might be are you prepared to take the risk that is revolutionary enough to make your money back in a sufficient time period and with some of these technologies people have obviously decided they are not.

Matt (profile) says:


I’ve been saying for a while that ebooks are targeting the wrong audience. People who purchase large amounts of books tend to like books. They like to hold them and curl up in a chair with them and display them on shelves. To these people, an ebook holds no value.

However, people who purchase large amounts of periodicals are a completely different segment. They like to read them and be through with them. They don’t want to have stacks of magazines and newspapers stacking up in the corner. An ebook targeted at these people would have significant value.

Publishers of magazines and newspapers have been losing market to the internet for years now because by the time they publish their content, it’s out of date. I think an ebook format would easily support reasonably priced subscriptions to magazine and newspaper content that would download as the articles became available. This content would have the benefit of timeliness and lack of space over traditional periodical content and it would have the benefit of portability over free internet sites, making it an attractive purchase to someone who consumes this kind of media frequently.

John (user link) says:

Re: Periodicals

Ebook version of magazines can be found at http://www.zinio.com

I never took this site seriously till I got a Tablet PC. The main problem is they are still scanning a portrait document, so it looks odd on a normal screen (unless you have a Tablet.)

Comic books have a popular format based on zip and rar using a program called CDisplay.

“The Future Is Now”

Dillenger69 (user link) says:

ebooks ...

eBooks, like any tool, have places they are useful and places they aren’t.
Paper, as a competing tool, is more versatile and less volatile.
As long as we have the ability to make inexpensive paper, paper will come out over ebooks.
However, eBooks will prevail where their functionality makes them more useful than paper for the time being.

For day to day recreational reading, ebooks are impractical. A mono-tasking reader costs too much and the ebooks themselves are dripping with DRM and cost too much as well.
The one beacon of commercial hope in the ebook market is Baen books who’s ebooks are reasonably priced and DRM free.

Dan says:


Ebooks haven’t taken off because of DRM. Why would I buy any hobbled content? The way to read books electronically is a flat, plain vanilla text file. I’ve got the complete works of Shakespeare on a 3.5″ floppy as a plain text file in a zip file. Uncompressed, it is 2 MB, slightly too large for a floppy.

Every Ebook ever create has added little benefit for the reader and much annoyance for the sake of the publisher. This is why Ebooks have failed.

R says:

biological basis of books

There is something to be said for the biological basis of paper and ink, as we are reaching a stage where mechanical processes are nearing limits and biological processes have yet to be fully exploited. But even books have evolved over time. The printing press of course eliminated the need for painstaking copying by hand. I think in time we will realize the potential of free flowing and easily copied ideas. As we’ve seen with the overall failure of DRM today, there will be no way to easily censor or regulate everyone, so I don’t completely buy the Orwell/Bradbury scenario. Will they really try ‘burning’ the encrypted files I have stashed on a thumb drive, I mean who really has the time, energy and motivation? Ownership is passé, access is paramount. The underinfomed masses are already here anyway… the question remains whether, long-term, volatility will increase of decrease as a result of technology.

Newob says:

What about all those trees?

Paper is more convenient than electronic media? Is that taking into account the cost of farming all those trees, turning them into wood pulp, turning the wood pulp into paper, printing words on the paper, binding the books, and distributing them all over the world?

I think that it will be less costly for my words here to reach an audience than it would be to distribute these words via paper.

If people are looking for a more permanent medium, electronic media permit easier copying. As long as a digital copy is in circulation, it is virtually immortal. Digital copies have all the advantages of mental images in that they can be reproduced freely, but none of the disadvantages of mental images, in that you can make exact copies of them without modifying them (with current technology).

We have the wrong idea about digital distribution today. If you make a single copy of something, that is not a robust system. *Distributed* electronic media alone will last as long as physical media like paper, and then, only as long as they are shared. P2P may replace paper, but single-copy media never will.

Copyright should not be applied to digital media. There’s no need. The cost of distribution of digital media is nil, and the more abundant the content is, the less possible it is to plagiarize or counterfeit because digital media can be searched and referenced so quickly.

I have a proposal. We, the cognoscenti, should petition the US government for a new Constitutional amendment. Copyright should not apply to digital content. Copyright should apply only to hard copies, and copyright ownership should not be transferable. It is the transfer of copyright that is piracy, because it leads to monopolization by whoever has the most money. Free digital distribution is not piracy, it is preservation of content and attribution, which is the antithesis of plagiarism.

I think this system is necessary to implement now, partially because future technology may actually permit the sharing of mental images digitally. If digital mental images are not free to share, then ideas will be controlled by whoever has the most money. Ideas should be free. But the physical products of ideas, what we create with our hands, should belong only to those who create them and ownership should not be transferable.

shagadelic says:

Paper DRM

if Paper books were now invented, the publishing companies would require that they come with DRM to prevent their business model – they would prevent (a) the ability for anyone other than the purchaser to read the book, (b) prevent the used book market, (c) prevent the purchaser from reading the book in more than one format, i.e. you can’t make a photocopy of one chapter and keep it in your toilet and keep the book itself next to your bed.

misanthropic humanist says:


so I don’t completely buy the Orwell/Bradbury scenario. Will they really try ‘burning’ the encrypted files I have stashed on a thumb drive, I mean who really has the time, energy and motivation?

🙂 Neither do I think there will be “book burnings”. I allude more to a steady disappearance as future generations come and go, albeit one as a matter of policy for the resasons I stated. Data stored electronically only has as much value as its persistence. That leaves a huge hole that the entire knowledge of mankind could vanish down, maybe because of a virus, or an electromagnetic anomoly.

Oddly enough, to refute my aluminium haberdashery theory, there are more paper books published today than at any other time in history.

Ownership is passé, access is paramount.

That’s a very interesting remark. Hmm.

Perhaps you’re right there.

Paul says:

still waiting

The only thing holding back ebooks and portable digital information distribution in general is the cost of the devices and their inability so far to duplicate the experience of the book. (Are you listening Google?) Once we have $100 readers that give the same experience as reading a trade paperback while storing whole libraries and providing a whole range of other features and functionality not available from the printed book, then the book as we know it today will die. Yes, a slow death, as nostalgia and aesthetics will provide support until the last generations that grew up with books pass away with them. (I’m so cheery today.)

But I mean really people, dead trees and PVA,does anyone think that is the future of distributing information?

|333173|3|_||3 says:

Text Archives

a solution to the problem of format changes would be to keep the text in TXT, RTF, TEX, or HTML. obviously TXT is best for the future, but HTML is here to stay, and RTF and TEX are also human readable (and TEX has the advantage that it can be easily converted to PDF). A WAV for sound is likely to be safe, albeit big, and a BMP for imahges for the same reason. BLoated, yes, but safe.

hannahlore says:

permanent digital? not yet...

Newob said:
If people are looking for a more permanent medium, electronic media permit easier copying. As long as a digital copy is in circulation, it is virtually immortal. Digital copies have all the advantages of mental images in that they can be reproduced freely, but none of the disadvantages of mental images, in that you can make exact copies of them without modifying them (with current technology).
Recently, the British Library discovered that the digitized version of Domesday Book they made back in the early 1980s or thereabouts was no longer accessible – the tech no longer existed to read the digital version. Fortunately, the original, dead-tree (actually, dead-sheep), written in 1086, version is still perfectly legible.
The current life-expectancy of a CD-ROM or DVD is maybe 25 years before the coating peels off, if you can find a computer 25 years from now that will still read it. Even the gold-plated ones aren’t going to last much longer, according to some studies.
As far as killing trees goes, what’s needed is improved paper-making tech. Did you know that ANY high-fiber plant will work, pretty much, to make paper? Rope-quality hemp plants, corn stalks, probably even celery (all those strings) would make pretty decent paper if produced in sufficient quantity. And come right down to it, trees grow back, especially when planted deliberately. Plastic CD/DVDs are really based on petroleum tech – non-renewable, as is the gold plate to make them last longer.
As for floating indefinitely in cyberspace, good luck! Only effective as long as the URL is known, any changes are also known, and nobody deletes the file because they can’t remember why it was put there in the first place. Long term is not very long yet, in digital terms.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...