The issues introduced by the digital revolution are not going away. We were having brunch when one of the men at the table—I forget what led up to this—said that he didn’t read ebooks because he didn’t enjoy the experience of holding the tablet computer in his hands. Since I have published three novels as ebooks, I’m interested in the man’s comments. I don’t think he realized that not reading ebooks meant that, in some cases, he wouldn’t be able to read that particular book at all.
But the problems of one gay writer in Boston are dwarfed by libraries. Two days ago, I read an article on Salon by Amien Essif. “The Internet can’t replace libraries: Why they matter more than ever in the age of Google.” He was reviewing John Palfrey’s book, BiblioTECH: Why libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google. Palfrey is a former professor in the Law School at Harvard, and currently Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at the Law School. The “age of Google” means the age when we are creating 2.5 quintillian bytes of data daily. Almost every single byte of that data is a byte we want to keep. Where is it going to go? How do you archive it?
Palfrey, in BiblioTECH, is concerned about the uses to which our libraries are being put and about the seeming shift from archiving print books to archiving digital objects—how that’s done, how digital information is retrieved, and whether we are storing digital objects correctly to prevent them from being subject to “data rot,” a process in which the stored digital data decays gradually and becomes unreadable, and how digital data coexists with print books in our libraries. According to Palfrey, the people who are doing the most serious R&D about us and our data are private companies. This gives these private companies control over what’s created, what’s published, what’s archived, and what is available to read. Palfrey says, “The risk of a small number of technically savvy, for-profit companies determining the bulk of what we read and how we read it is enormous.”
As I’ve written here before, this amounts to censorship. We have to get large corporations to agree to publish and then archive the books we write. Gay people—and all minorities—have a special interest in making sure that these for-profit companies use their power for the benefit of all US citizens, that is, that our books are published at a rate commensurate with our place in the culture and are available through our libraries and digital distribution systems.
We are in a period of rapid change, and we don’t know what the future is going to look like. Some of us don’t like some of what we know. All this is similar to the period described by Andrew Pettegree in The Book in the Renaissance, about the period from the invention of movable type to its full adoption over the next 150 years in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The move from scribes copying Bibles by hand to Gutenberg’s Great Bible was a period of confusion and cultural anxiety in Europe, and Pettegree gives us a detailed picture of it. It was, I suspect, a confusion and anxiety similar to what we experience today, reflected in the comments of the man at brunch. I suspect that some of us will purchase some ebooks, and some of us will purchase only ebooks, and some will refuse to purchase anything with a glowing screen, and that things will remain fluid for a while. That seems to me to be OK. In the meantime, while things get sorted out, during this period of confusion, those of us who have been rebuffed by American publishing houses have access to our computers and to the capability to create ePUB files, and therefore to readers found on the web. Gay people can know that they are not completely cut off from serious or imaginative or experimental books. It’s not, actually, a bad time to be alive.