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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