Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Friday, October 24, 2008

Books, books, books!

Books are a very old technology which is still going strong. And why shouldn’t it? Today on Radio New Zealand National I take a look at books and their relationship with the Internet. Read on for my notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3.
Q: So, books seem rather old compared to the Internet. Are you going to tell us that the Internet will make books unnecessary?

A: Not in the short term. The book is a technology which is well evolved to suit us. It’s cheap to make, and very flexible. It can do text and pictures. It’s reasonably portable, and it’s hard to copy.

Q: And you can read in the bath.

A: Well, quite. Let’s just go back to the origins of the printed book. At first printing was just a way of automating the production of the works which had been laboriously hand copied before. But it started having a much wider impact – translations of the bible into the vernacular, for instance, which is partly what allowed the reformation to get going. To quote a medieval clergyman: This Master John Wickliffe hath translated the gospel … and laid more open to the laity, and even to women who can read.

So books and printing have a lot to answer for.

But the novel as a form is much more recent, and they could only ever have happened in an era of mass marketing books.

Q: The Internet is a way of distributing books.

A: It is indeed. Amazon is the canonical example – coupling a search engine with a book sales function was a brilliant move. It made it so easy to find what you are looking for. Then, adding functions like “if you like that, you’ll like this as well” has propelled it much further. And now, of course, Amazon sells a lot of other things besides books.

And now most big book chains have similar web sites, including Whitcoulls in New Zealand. I’d really encourage the independent booksellers out there to get their stock online where Google will pick it up – if I go searching for whatever my favourite title of the moment is, I’m likely to buy it from whatever New Zealand site shows it up, rather than bother to telephone shops. Think about it, guys.

Q: What about alternatives to books?

A: There are quite a lot of electronic alternatives. As an experiment I read Wuthering Heights on a smart phone while pounding away on an exercise bike, for instance.

Q: How did you find that?

A: I thought it was rather a silly novel by someone who needed to get out more!

But seriously, there are lots of machines that can fulfill many of the functions of books. Most smartphones. There’s Sony’s E-Book reader, and there’s Amazon’s Kindle. They are all pocket, or slightly larger, electronic devices which give you an image of the pages of a book as you turn them. And apparently the way to avoid dropping them in the bath is to use a ziplock bag.


Amazon, the original online bookshop, and a New Zealand independent bookshop with its stock online.

Abebooks, an online second hand bookshop.

And Bookhabit, a New Zealand based website which provides unpublished authors with an opportunity for people to get t know them.

posted by colin at 12:11 am  


  1. In your radio segment, you mention the National Library indexing NZ-based web sites and ignoring their robots.txt, and how this is annoying some people.

    It may be worth mentioning the court decision referenced here

    which says that putting content online is giving an implicit licence for search engines to index and copy.

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 25 October 2008 @ 11:27 am

  2. However, by spreading tracks across two discs instead of one, the Now! ,

    Comment by Roy60 — 23 October 2009 @ 11:32 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress