The Perfect Technology
Here is a little riddle: ‘I speak in many tongues. I contain worlds. I am fixed in place, but my meaning shifts in time and culture. I grant a form of near immortality. I am a perfect technology. What am I?’
My personal answer is, ‘I am a book’. Most days, I consider it to be one of the world’s perfect technologies. Let me explain.
To understand the book, we have to start with writing, which in itself is an amazing technology, crucial for the creation of a book. The first alphabetical (as opposed to pictorial) writing system was developed around 1,200 BCE, with the Phoenicians. However, this new alphabet was expressed via clay or stone tablets, papyrus, hides or other simple mediums. These sorts of materials carry ideas forward in time, but they lack a printed book’s special characteristics.
Papyrus cracks when dry, so it is usually rolled for storage. From this we get a scroll. A scroll allows long sequences of text. So with the scroll, we start to see larger narratives. The scroll evolved into the codex, which is an earlier version of a book. A codex is a little like an accordion. A set of pages bound on their edges and collapsed between two boards. It again supported a much longer contiguous story. There is a legend that Julius Caeser folded long scrolls into little zig-zags, which may have inspired people to write across the sections this created.
The codex gave way to the more familiar, but hand-lettered version of the book we know today. A set of sheets, bound on one side, with covers both protecting and announcing the contents. Mass book printing, under the influence of Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the practical printing press, began in 1450. In the fifty years that followed Gutenberg’s death, nearly 8 million books were printed across Europe. That is a mind-blowing increase on the much fewer scrolls and codex produced in the thousand years that came before the printed book.
How does this make a book a perfect technology? Seeds of our answer have already appeared in our story of the book’s development. Because we have to wind/unwind a scroll, we are typically forced into a linear and slow reading sequence. We reduce our ability to ‘hop-and-skip’ across the ideas. Scrolls are also delicate and hard to store.
In contrast, a book is robust and easy to read, supporting both linear and non-linear ways of reading. We can carefully work our way from one end of a book to the other, experiencing the ideas in the order the author intended. Or, we can move around, leafing through a book with snatches of words leaping to our eyes, evoking ideas.
A book is markable. We can flag pages or write in the margins. We can lay the book among other books in a physical space around us and externalise our ideas into an array. This vastly increases our ability to organise our own developing thoughts.
Our fingers can touch the pages and hold the book itself, giving us a supremely tactical sense of how far we are through the material and therefore ‘where’ an interesting idea is located. Our journey through a book is as much a journey through physical space as it is through a mental one.
Written text is something that we are not born with the capacity to process. We have co-opted parts of the brain dedicated to object perception and blended it with our language capabilities. It taxes us to read. The very physical nature of a printed book and our easy navigation through it appears to reduce the cognitive load to processing the ideas and increases our memory for what we see.
In the Myth of the Paperless Office, Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper realised that office workers are still very much attached to the special affordances of paper; the ways in which they can use paper to be effective. Much like a bound book, people can interact with paper in a deeply embodied way. They can spread it around their physical space, rapidly scanning its contents, reordering the pages to give new patterns and marking it for later consideration. This type of embodied cognition is so powerful that it is a fundamental way-of-working in the world of design, which has long recognised its power to help people think.
A book has other benefits. It does not require a source of energy to operate (other then human energy required to turn pages). Crucially a book captures ideas and then passes the ideas down through time in a way that doesn’t rely on a digital technology. Its interface is near-universal. Once bought, a book almost becomes a part of the commons, in that it can be given to someone else and its ideas can spread.
The death of the book has long been predicted, especially with the rise of digital text and digital reading devices. In contradiction to this prediction, from 2013 to 2016, overall US book sales rose, though this includes a rise in things like printed colouring books, which have less of a cognitive impact.
Unfortunately, I don’t know if this heralds a new resurgence in physical books to their former glory. I think books face an uncertain future, with people experimenting with new ways to communicate and to read. I love many of the new technologies, but I’m very aware of just how crucial books are to the way we tell stories and the way we think. Other types of media are suited to different sorts of thinking.
For the way a printed book supports deep and reflective reading and thinking, I consider a printed book a nearly perfect technology. I love them and hope their demise has been overestimated.
Dowley, D. & Williamson, C. (2007) The World of the Book, The Miegunyah Press.
Sellen, Abigail J. and Harper, Richard H. R. (2001) The Myth of the Paperless Office, MIT Press.
Platt, R (2008) How They Made Things Work: The Romans, Franklin Watts.