Will we be able to read today’s e-books 20 or more years from now? I’ll show you why it’s absurd to hope so.
This is a picture of the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas printed in 1663, 347 years ago. The book is easily readable, the typeset is a little archaic but not dramatically different from the font you are now reading. I have several other books in my home which are over 300 years old. I estimate these books will be readable for 300-400 more years before they are too fragile to be read.
Completed in 1274 this edition of the Summa was printed in 1663 and is readable 736 years after the book was written. Will that be true for most or even some e-books which never see paper? I would not take that bet.
Also shown is a 5.25″ floppy disk which contains an electronic copy of my PhD thesis written 22 years ago on an MS-DOS machine in Word 2.0 (or something like that). This disk is not readable for several reasons: 1) I cannot find the hardware to read the disk, 2) Microsoft has intentionally obsoleted this old .doc format, and 3) the magnetic bits have begun to degrade. This disk was essentially unreadable 10 years after it was written. Typical computer storage media have a lifetime of about a decade. The primary driver of this limitation is the economic pressure to stop making outdated equipment. The plastic CD/DVD may survive 20 years, but soon most people will buy pads and phones instead of computers, and few people will live in a home which has the hardware to spin and read a plastic disk.
Many bloggers are joyfully touting the end of bookstores, libraries, and paper books. I believe this will be a disaster for our society because the durability of e-books is measured in years. How many times have you accidentally discarded a book? Now how many times have you accidentally deleted a file, in the past month? Files are lost every day in countless mishaps. Can you imagine a world where the only copies of The Lord of the Rings are electronic and could be permanently lost by a simple keystroke? Or how about a world where we have lost the encryption keys so the only way to read “A Tale of Two Cities” is by an illegal brute force decryption? I don’t want to live in that world.
I predict that within 10 years we will be not be able to buy an e-book reader which can read some files purchased for today’s Kindle or Nook. This may sound absurd but note that I’m not necessarily talking about a technical limitation. If Barnes and Noble cannot find a buyer it may disappear. If Amazon is purchased by Microsoft the obsolescence of the e-book format could become embedded into the product cycle. If the EFF and Cory Doctorow succeed in eliminating the DMCA then the current encryption standards could be judged illegal and a producing a reader which decrypts such materials could also become illegal.
The Long Now foundation Rosetta Project is working on a “book” which will be readable in 10,000 years. That book will be printed using atoms because no 21st century electronic file will be readable in 10k years. Anybody who wants to be able to read books 20 years after purchase had better not buy bits, you should buy atoms. And if books printed with atoms disappear from our lives then God help our society because we are doomed.