August 1998

The Cultural Currency of the Book

By Kevin Hunt

In Being Digital, first published in 1995, Nicholas Negroponte described how "bits" are beginning to replace atoms as the basic commodity of human interaction. In other words, the words we write and speak increasingly take the form of bits and are transmitted to others over various electronic networks. The results of this digitization, as Negroponte details at length in the book, promise to be revolutionary, changing how we work, play, and live.

In the three years since Negroponte wrote Being Digital, the Web has indeed begun to transform the way some of us work, play, and live (though perhaps not in the ways that Negroponte imagined). Yet despite the advantages and revolutionary effects of the Web as a digital medium, the primary means of communicating grand ideas, opinions, or experiences continues to be via the atoms that make up a book. Whenever anyone wants to showcase the fruits of their mental labors, or make a detailed, extensive argument, or present their side of a story, they turn to book publishers. And when anyone wants to read about the details of someone else's ideas or stories, they go to their favorite bookstore.

The question is, why? Given the Web's potential as a medium for communicating and expressing ideas and experiences in ways that blow away the limitations of print, why aren't we bypassing Border's or, and instead going directly to URLs for books online, to "book webs," if you will? Think of the possibilities. Imagine going to a book web detailing the experiences Jon Krakauer describes in Into Thin Air, the bestseller about the deadly climbing debacle on Mount Everest in 1996. Why aren't we clamoring to visit an Into Thin Air book web, complete with a VRML climb up Everest, 3-D models of the lethal Everest weather patterns, color photos and film clips of the 1996 expeditions, and of course, the searchable text of his book (and perhaps even his, complete, unedited travel diaries, as well). And why aren't publishers beginning to develop sites such as this?

I first thought about this question when I read David Hudson's Rewired: A Brief (and Opinionated) Net History (reviewed in the December 1997 issue of CMC Magazine). As the title suggests, Hudson presents his own ideas on how the Internet has been developed, and the direction it's heading in, and in the process takes issue with some of the ideas others have presented about the Net. What I found interesting about Hudson's book, aside from many of the excellent points he makes about the past and future of the Net, is the fact that he chose to convey these points in a book. In presenting his case, Hudson primarily builds upon, reformulates, and supports his arguments based on discussions and ideas that were originally presented in digital form -- in email and newsgroup communiques and in articles published in e-zines and at other web sites. And all these digital sources are cited at the end of each section within the book.

Given that Hudson's book is about the effects of digital communication, and given that it draws upon primarily digital sources, why didn't the book take the form of a website, especially since most readers of the book are very Web-literate and are familiar with many of the electronic discussions that Hudson cites in his book? After all, it would have made the citation process, via hyperlinks, easier and more immediate, allowing readers to go to various online sources to get the full details of the various viewpoints Hudson presents or critiques.

The basic answer is, of course, one of economics. Nobody -- neither authors nor publishers -- would make any money by publishing their works online. If we've learned anything from the economics of the Web so far, it's that, except in a few cases, few people will pay to visit websites. And of course, with the exception of books such as Hudson's, still fewer of the potential readership of an author's work even have Web access at this point. The bottom line is that the big numbers, both in terms of sales and in terms of the market for readers, still favor books.

Another answer is that the technology has not evolved to the point where reading online makes for an optimal experience. Reading text on a screen still strains the eyes. And computers are not yet as portable as books are. As the oft-repeated line goes: you can't curl up in bed with your computer just yet.

But even if publishing book webs were profitable, and even if the technology were developed to the point where reading from your computer in bed is comfortable, would you favor bits over atoms as the information commodity of choice? My feeling is that for people raised in a print culture, books still carry a certain amount of cultural capital that digital technology will not erase anytime soon. Books still carry an authority and sense of permanence that websites do not. Would Gerry Spence's book, O.J.: The Last Word -- on the O.J. Simpson case -- convey the same sense of finality if it were a website? Given that effective websites are interactive and dynamic, requiring fresh content if they are to remain relevant and well-visited, my sense is that it wouldn't.

In addition to the permanence and authority that books convey to those of us brought up in a print culture, books tend to have a standard structure that we expect, a structure that is conducive to developing a detailed, linear argument or for building and sustaining a coherent narrative. The hypertextual nature of the Web tends to break free of this structure, as chunks of information can be linked together for quick access from a variety of entry points (though if you've followed this essay this far, you know this isn't always the case). The result is that the experience of going to a website is far different from reading a book. A visit to a website has the potential to be unique for each reader, no two paths through the content the same. And this is one of the reasons that books will remain relevant for awhile. Part of the allure of books is the role they play in our culture as social currency: we like to talk about books. In Interface Culture, author Steven Johnson reasons that this is the reason interactive fiction has not become popular. Each reader emerges with a different reading experience, rendering discussions of interactive books impossible.

In the end, the experience of reading books and using the Web are profoundly different, and so the revolutionary effects of digital media will not come about merely by translating the atoms of books into bits for online consumption. Although something like the book webs I imagine will evolve at some point -- perhaps initially as a way of marketing printed books, as is already happening now -- books will remain for quite some time, because they're artifacts that embody the way those of us brought up in a print culture work, play, and live.

Kevin Hunt ( is the book review editor for CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Hunt. All Rights Reserved.

Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact