Whether by the measure of the East or the West, the book is an old medium of representation. In China, paper was invented in the year 105, wood block printing in the late sixth century, book binding in about 1000, and moveable type by Bi Sheng in 1041. In Western Europe, the codex, or bound manuscript, emerged in the fourth century, and metal type and the printing press were invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450. Within fifty years of Gutenberg’s creation, print shops were to be found in every major city and town in Europe, and eight million volumes encompassing 23,000 titles had been printed.
The consequence was a new way of representing the world. Contents pages and indexes ordered textual and visual content analytically. A tradition of bibliography and citation arose in which a distinction was made between the author’s voice and ideas and the voice and ideas of other authors. Copyright and intellectual property were invented. And the widely used modern written languages we know today rose to dominance and stabilised, along with their standardised spellings and alphabetically ordered dictionaries, displacing a myriad of small spoken languages and local dialects.
The impact was enormous: modern education and mass literacy; the rationalism of scientific knowledge; the idea that there could be factual knowledge of the social and historical world; the nation state of interchangeable individuals; the persona of the creative individual author. All these are in part consequences of the rise of book culture, and give modern consciousness much of its characteristic shape.
We are today on the cusp of another revolutionary transition, or at least the numbers tell us that we are. Within the two decade following its invention, a significant portion of the world’s population has become connected to the Internet. There was almost no place on earth where it is not possible to connect to the Internet. Billions upon billions of pages have been published.
And so we find ourselves thrust into a new universe of textual media. In one moment, the commentators supply us with utopian promises; in the next, apocalyptic. Leaving behind the linear world of the book, they speak of hypertext and non-linear readings, of formerly passive book readers whose willful navigation choices have turned them into active users of texts; and of the representation of virtual worlds in which the distant is brought so close, instantly and palpably. In moments of gloom, they also speak of a new inequality—the information inequality that is the result of the ‘digital divide’. And they speak of a world of reduced human interaction, as sedentary persons increasingly find themselves tethered to machines.
Do the new electronic media foretell the death of the book? This is one of the key questions addressed by the International Conference on the Book, The International Journal of the Book, and the Books and Publishing Book Imprint and News Blog. To answer this question, we need to reflect on the history and form of the book, as well as the electronic texts which, it is alleged, pose a threat. And our conclusion may well be that, rather than being eclipsed by the new media, the book will thrive as a cultural and commercial artefact.