The Kindle and the End of the End of History

This morning I was absentmindedly checking out the New York Times’ bits blog coverage of the Kindle 2 launch and saw this:

“Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.

It wasn’t the main story for sure. It was buried in the piece like an afterthought, but it was the big news to me. It certainly falls into the category of big hairy audacious goal, and I think it’s a lot more interesting than the device Bezos was there to launch (which still can’t flatten a colorful maple leaf). I mean, he didn’t say “every book in our inventory” or “every book in the catalogues of the major publishers that we work with.” Or even, “every book that has already been digitized.” He said “every book ever printed.

When I’m working I tend to write random notes to myself on 3×5 cards. Sometimes they get transcribed into Evernote, but all too often they just end up in piles. I read that quote and immediately started digging into the closest pile looking for a card I had just scribbled about an hour earlier.

I had been doing some research this morning and was reading a book published in 1915. It’s long out of print, and may have only had one printing, but I know from contemporary news clippings found tucked in its pages that the author had been well known and somewhat controversial back in his day. Yet, Google had barely a hint that he ever existed. I fared even worse looking for other people referenced in the text. Frustrated, I grabbed a 3×5 card and scribbled:

“Google and the end of history… History is no longer a continuum. The pre-digital past doesn’t exist, at least not unless I walk away from this computer, get all old school, and find an actual library.”

My house is filled with books, it’s ridiculous really. They are piled up everywhere. I buy a lot of old used books because I like to see how people lived and how they thought in other eras, and I guess I figure someday I’ll find time to read them all. For me, it’s often less about the facts they contain and more about peeking into alternative world views. Which is how I originally came upon the book I mentioned a moment ago.

The problem is that old books reference people and other stuff that a contemporary reader would have known immediately, but that are a mystery to me today – a mystery that needs solving if I want to understand what the author is trying to say, and to get that sense of how they saw the world. If you want to see what I mean, try reading Winston Churchill’s Second World War series.

Churchill speaks conversationally about people, events, and publications that a London resident in 1950 would have been familiar with. However, without a ready reference to all that minutiae you’ll have no idea what he’s talking about. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff he references is really obscure today and today’s search engines are hit and miss with it – they only know what a modern wikipedia editor or some other recent writer thinks is relevant today. Google is brilliant for things that have been invented or written about in the digital age, or that made enough of a splash in their day to still get digital now, but the rest of it just doesn’t exist. It’s B.G. (before Google) or P.D. (pre digital) or something like that.

To cut to the chase, if you read old books you get a sense for how thin the searchable veneer of the web is on our world. The web’s view of our world is temporally compressed, biased toward the recent, and even when it does look back through time to events memorable enough to have been digitally remembered, it sees them through our digital-age lens. They are being digitally remembered with our world view overlaid on top.

I posted some of these thoughts to the Radar backchannel list and Nat responded with his usual insight. He pointed out that cultural artifacts have always been divided into popular culture (on the tips of our tongues), cached culture (readily available in an encyclopedia or at the local library) and archived culture (gotta put on your researcher hat and dig, but you can find it in a research library somewhere). The implication is that it’s no worse now because of the web.

I like that trichotomy, and of course Nat’s right. It’s not like the web is burying the archive any deeper. It’s right there in the research library where it has always been. Besides, history never really operates as a continuum anyway. It’s always been lumpy for a bunch of reasons. But as habit and convenience make us more and more reliant on the web, the off-the-web archive doesn’t just seem hard to find, it becomes effectively invisible. In the A.G. era, the deep archive is looking more and more like those charts used by early explorers, with whole blank regions labeled “there be dragons”.

So, back to Bezo’s big goal… I’d love it to come true, because a comprehensive archive that is accessible in 60 seconds is an archive that is still part of history.

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  • Museums have long trumpeted their trustworthiness as a source of information (surveys show that people report museums and libraries at the top of their trust list). So why do they and their content seem so irrelevant to modern knowledge-seeking? For the same reason you describe about old books–visiting a museum or library just isn’t as convenient as the Web as an information source.

    Part of the trick is digitizing this historical knowledge (like the books) so that they can be as convenient as post-digital information. But we also need to keep loving (and sharing the love of) the inconvenient exploration that comes in the stacks and the galleries. A good treasure hunt never goes out of style.

  • Awesome article. Good work Stogdill and O’Reilly.

  • Chris Gomis

    Been thinking about Google’s big hair goal “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. And wondered if they were any good at it yet, why doesn’t Google have a consultancy division to rival all others.

    In my next line of thought, are Amazon and Google on a crash course into becoming an automated private(as in non-governmental) intelligence agency?

  • Unknown to all but a handful of people at Google Books and ebrary, an enterprise on the Big Island of Hawaii, Millisecond Publishing Company, Inc. has been digitizing and linking key historic and genealogic data from hundreds of books and periodicals that are hard to find, old, and out of print. This effort has been intelligently planned, and is being carried out with academic precision. The result is what is known as “Stage 3 Digital Content.” Which means not only is their digital information easily searched and linked to meta data including an extensive bibliography (and footnotes), it is capable today of producing the largest books of trans-generational history that the world has ever known. For more insights to the future of epublishing, search on “Family Forest Project”.

  • “every book ever printed”

    what a thought.

    i guess thats also what seperates the people who make the future versus those who just live in it.

  • Gustavo Carvalho

    I’ve been searching for obscure info on the net for about ten years now, but my observation-induced-gut-feel (I have no subjective data to back this up) is somewhat diferente from yours.

    I do think the veneer is somewhat shallow at the moment, but a lot deeper than it was. I find things online today with relative ease that I couldn’t find a hint of 4-6 years ago. There is a lack of historical persistence of some of that data, i.e. the death of sites and forums where some of that data could be found, but this happens in the real world as well (though not on such a quick pace maybe ).

    However, the online world has the added benefit of caching and replication and easy cros-referencing. The two problems you mentioned (single copy of a book from 1915 and lack of contextualization) would be minimized, as soon as the relevant data is added.

    So I feel that Bezo’s goal is not only very much achievable, but a valid goal. Maybe he’s being an optimist, and the fact that he’s profit-oriented probably curtails the “add everything, even the low-popularity stuff”, but who knows, they might get it right anyway…

  • Gustavo Carvalho

    In my comment above, subjective= objective, of course :P oops

  • I see two streams running to (or from) this.

    In the first, as it becomes easier to digitize books, more people will digitize one–maybe only one, or only a chapter, a favorite of theirs. Just like thousands of people make a single edit to a Wikipedia page. The knowledge is additive.

    The Library of Congress is trying to recreate the physical library that Thomas Jefferson sold to Congress to replace the one burnt in the War of 1812. Mostly that’s of historic interest, but a look at Jefferson’s notes shows the range (and present obscurity) of works he valued.

    The second stream is context. With physical books from times past, you need to read more widely to get a sense of what the author (and the intended audience) likely knew. (It’s the challenge, and the reward, of studying Shakespeare.) Digital books open the door to hyperlinks and to useful tagging/annotation.

    It’s not either/or; we can have both bits and atoms. A physical book is random access, highly portable, not subject to head crashes (its own head, anyway).

  • Kads

    In the end all that is known will be “live”. Just tune in whatever pleases you. (Except the Beatles and other artists who choose to become “effectively invisible”. Who were the Beatles?)

  • Mike Perry

    You’re right about the fact that books, particularly history books, are written for a particular audience with a unique knowledge of events. A broad understanding of WWII is disappearing as the generation that experienced it dies. WWI is almost completely down the memory hole.

    Churchill isn’t the only illustration of that. G. K. Chesterton was “Churchill before Churchill” in his warnings about the danger Germany posed to the peace of Europe. During WWI he warned that unless Germany was forced to change, within a generation Europe would see another war that would make the Great War look like nothing. In 1932, the year before Hitler took power, he warned that the next war would break out over a border dispute with Poland–precisely what happened in 1939.

    But when I edited a collection of his writings on that topic, Chesterton on War and Peace, I had to spend hundreds of hours researching and explaining the context in which he wrote. Like Churchill, Chesterton is an extremely talented writer, but half that 250,000-word book is notes and introductions to what Chesterton was saying, so modern readers can understand what his original readers understood.

    That’s one reason why I have less enthusiasm for Bezos “every book” remark than you. I see it as akin to Bill Gate’s remark during the 1990s about a computer running Windows on every desktop. We all know where that led.

    As Microsoft has discovered to its regret, quality matters. It’s the quality of the selection of books from the past that counts as well how well we can understand what they are saying. Far less important is their sheer quantity of the titles or their existence in historically incomprehensible (for most readers) facsimile as ebooks or POD titles at

    Most important of all, Amazon’s all too obvious zeal to squeeze every penny of profit out of the rest of the industry makes it less likely that quality will triumph over quantity. Most will look out over millions of back-in-print titles, conclude that it’s not worth the effort to weed the few good from the many bad, and read nothing but the latest bestsellers.

    Recall Oscar Wilde’s remark about, “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Some books have value, some don’t. And many older, excellent books will have even greater value if someone today can be given the time to explain to us modern ignorants what they mean.

    In short, all the books ever printed is the enemy of something that matters far more–those particular voices out of our past that we need to hear and understand.

  • The Kindle is great for convenience (although I still think a lot of the downloadable media is overpriced), but I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about the potential security/free speech implications of the digitization of books.

  • Jim Stogdill

    Mike said: “In short, all the books ever printed is the enemy of something that matters far more–those particular voices out of our past that we need to hear and understand.”

    I can’t really disagree with that, but the important stuff seems to find a way to bubble up one way or another. I don’t think scanning too much somehow obscures the good stuff if that’s what you’re saying.

    I guess what I was trying to say is that this sudden digital dislocation is making more pronounced that process of haphazard cultural curation and is sort of freezing it in our time. The accidents of history or effects of brilliance that mean one book (or set of thoughts) is remembered and others aren’t.

    Separate from the issues of Amazon’s (or Google’s) business models and intentions, it just seems to me that digitizing a wide range of content from previous eras opens up the possibility of redux curation – the cultural filtration process becomes continuous instead of one time – maybe even letting us change our minds every decade or so about what we collectively think should be curated up the stack based on our changing world views. Unfortunately, today when it comes to classics, we’re stuck with the curation decisions provided by previous generations of translators (or book burners) with all of the resultant period-specific biases.

  • Mike

    The point is, if every book ever printed, in any language, were available to and on the web, then all of Churchill’s references that are now obscure to us could either be researched “by hand” via the web in little time, or instantly using tools that will surely be created for this purpose. These tools could even annotate the text in real time. The information will not only be available “on” the web, but “to” the web, and any data available to the web can be processed and indexed. History will be much more available than ever before.

  • really great post —
    Notion of the Day:

    “…the end of history… History is no longer a continuum. The pre-digital past doesn’t exist, at least not unless I walk away from this computer, get all old school, and find an actual library.”

    love it

    had same thought about the Big Hairy Audacious Goal thing too during the kindle unveiling …

  • Great article. It resonates cleary with a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) we are working on, very similar to Amazon project but taking very different path for the solution. We need a solution more convenient for the modern people who don’t like to read anymore (Remember Steve Jobs saying People are not reading anymore.)
    Tagging, rating, commenting could a solution.
    What is the problem we are all trying to solve?
    THE PROBLEM is that Google and other search engines are all limited by/to the content available on the “open web.” You can have access to the most powerful search technology available, but if the content is not on the “open web,” the technology makes no difference. A huge amount of content/potential answer is unavailable to search engines, accessible only through specialized database, fee-based services, books, experience or conversation. People often waste time searching Google or other open web search engines for material that isn’t available via the web, or that could be accessed in less time using specialized database or resources, or connecting to knowledgeable people.
    3 things are missing in the Amazon project to be useful :
    – Context to understand (meta-information)
    – Relevance to a specific problem
    – who will deliver the context information (social and political biases of the meta-data)

  • How does Google Book Search fit into the trichotomy (pop culture and cached culture being A.G., archived culture being B.G.)? With public-domain GBS books, Google is moving into archived culture, aren’t they?

  • Jim Stogdill

    @ Eric – Same thing as Amazon’s goal, just backed by variants in business model. I guess I’d say it moves archive into readily accessible cache.

  • Ken

    I have a fourth cultural category to propose: oral tradition. It’s on the tips of *some* tongues, and would be written down except it’s (largely by tradition) never done.

    I don’t mean just modern techie things like “how to use design patterns effectively” that nobody’s written down yet. There are many arts that survive to this day almost entirely by personal instruction from master to apprentice, because there are subtleties that cannot be passed down by any book. (I’m studying such an ancient art, when I get home from class, just for fun I google terms I learned. Often they have zero hits.)

    There’s already kind of a digital divide: I see techies with their lives indexed by Google and driven by “karma” (ha!) who look down on those of us who aren’t and don’t. Guitar Hero has 10x more hits than Yo-Yo Ma, so somebody looking for music online will get a very distorted view of the world simply because of the digital nature of the medium.

    At least while libraries and museums are here, we can reasonably point out that there’s a continuum of transmission media. When it’s “in teh Goog” or “just something people talk about”, I fear you’re not just making the archives easier to search; you’re pushing everybody towards easily-reproducible digital pop hits and hence away from our real-life culture.

  • Books may have a great future as ornamental objects, as I explained here:

    Daily question: Is this the future of the Printed Book?

  • Books may have a great future as ornamental objects, as I explained here:

    Daily question: Is this the future of the Printed Book?

  • Great post. I always knew a day would come along and someone would justify with reason my intuition that the old and molding books I have lying around my house are deserving of the space they occupy and the hassle that caring for them entails.

    Google is not all knowing.
    Knowledge is older than computers.

    You wanna get really knowledgeable about something
    that precedes this digital age?
    Get of your arse and look for a book about it!


  • Great article but could have been expanded to newspapers. The Google archive project includes a numbers of past issues allowing great insight into society at the time they were written. What if all the newspapers had their archives available to everone in a digital format. With newspapers closing all over the world can we save that history before it gets lost ?

  • John Dougherty

    There is an implicit belief in your post and in the subsequent comments that realizing Bezos’ ambition would be a good thing. I’m not so sure. There is a lot to be said for forgetting. It may be as necessary to cultural evolution as remembering.

    An analogy may be useful. People generally assume that expanding longevity is good. We may soon be in a world where death is indefinitely delayed for many and comes when it does as the result of accident or bad luck. But would that be good? Imagine there being a large proportion of active people who’s attitudes about race were formed in the pre-Civil War period. Systems of belief may change more because the people that hold them die off than because people are persuaded to change them. People generally form their musical taste when they are teenagers. Imagine if musical taste stayed largely frozen because each musical formation persisted for centuries.

    We are always selecting what thoughts, attitudes and cultural artifacts to bring forward. Forgetting the unimportant, atavistic, and mistaken is part of that process. Some books survive, some do not. The ones that do need to attract a new audience in each generation.

    If Bezos achieves his ambition it will disable part of the machinery of history. All the old stuff will be around and easily available forever. Nothing will ever retreat into dim recollection. Certainly people with an interest in history, cultural anthropology, archeology, and paleontology would argue that much can be gained by taking a modern look at ancient sources. As of now this requires effort and scholarship. Those barriers may be useful.

    We are about to disturb and partially disable part of the machinery of cultural evolution. I don’t think we can help it. It will happen. But as we do this, we should consider what we are losing as well as what we are gaining.

  • bowerbird

    there’s yet another wrinkle…

    the digital stuff, created recently, that is _not_ accessible
    because it is intentionally withheld from the web by its
    “owners” who believe that’s the best way to make money.

    by trying to protect their pocketbooks, these “owners”
    are relegating their copyrighted material to invisibility.