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Wednesday 5 January 2011

Book Value

Dark Age Done

The printed book has a strong claim to be the most important invention humanity has ever made. To be able to clearly record information for posterity, to hand it down from generation to generation, and to disseminate that information widely and quickly provides the modern world with advantages that are hard to understate: a replay of the Dark Ages is unimaginable.

The economic importance of the book is also hard to understate, as the evidence of economic growth in the pre-industrialised world demonstrates. Yet we're now in the midst of a revolution in the printed world which is changing our society, our behaviours, our economy and our future. Book value is changing, by the day.

Ewe No

Written texts have been around for nearly 5,000 years. The Instructions of Šuruppak, an ancient Sumerian script, dates back to around 3,000 BC and contains lots of useful advice from the eponymous Šuruppak to his son. Apparently you shouldn’t have sex with a slave girl because she’ll chew you up. Nor should you abuse a ewe. There are, of course, places where this still counts as practical advice. The nature of basic economics doesn’t seem to have changed much in five millennia either, as Šuruppak points out that “you should not drive away a debtor: he will be hostile to you”.

However, most books were for the privileged for the majority of history. Before the advent of the printing press the Christian Bible wasn’t available even to priests and was written in Latin, a language only understood by an educated elite. As ever, information was power and the established Catholic Church was able to control the teaching of the faith through its monopoly on access to, and interpretation of, the scriptures.


This first came to a head in the fourteenth century when the English Lollards, led by John Wycliffe, started to argue that the Bible was the true word of God, not the interpretation of it provided by the establishment. Their translation of the Bible into English was an extension of this process, to make God's word available to the masses. The Church was slightly miffed by this turn of events and, in retaliation, had Wycliffe's body dug up and destroyed and one of his followers, Jan Hus, burnt at the stake for heresy.

Just over a hundred years later, on October 31st 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg and kicked off the Protestant Reformation: for the Church it was the Lollards all over again. This time, though, Luther had an advantage that his predecessors did not. Whilst Hus and Wycliffe believed that they had God on their side, Luther had God – and Gutenberg.

The Mainz Chance

Johann Gutenberg’s development of the printing press in Mainz in the 1450’s was the catalyst for a whole raft of changes but like many entrepreneurs his creativity wasn’t matched by his business sense. Firstly, he wasted time and energy on a vanity project – the Gutenberg Bible – and, secondly, he lost control of his invention to businessmen more canny and doubtless more ruthless. Yet the printing press was to be the catalyst behind a whole host of changes, from the Reformation to the Renaissance and the scientific revolution that flowered beyond this. The ability to create and distribute large numbers of faithful copies of texts was literally revolutionary (sic).

The spread of the new technology was an indicator and a driver of economic progress. In Ideas, Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press Jeremiah Dittmar traces the geographic spread of the press. As he states:
“I find that between 1500 and 1600, cities where printing presses were established in the late 1400s grew at least 60 percent faster than similar cities which were not early adopters. Between 1500 and 1800, print cities grew at least 25% faster”.
The Book Begets Behaviour

The spread of printing allowed more rapid diffusion of ideas and practical techniques – mathematics texts, many focussing on commercial arithmetic, and business books like Pacioli’s Summa were amongst the first widely published texts. As we saw In The Beginning Were The Accountants the development of the press spurred the creation of modern accounting and the first recognisably modern corporations.

Meanwhile an industry in school textbooks also arose quickly, indicative of and a driver behind the spread of literacy across the population. Numeracy, literacy and business knowledge in turn drove behaviour and behaviour drove commercial development, propelling early adopter cities to greater economic growth. The explosion of economic growth driven by the dissimilation of new ideas and heresies through the medium of the printing press is hard to understand now, but it isn’t too hard to see why many scholars think that its invention is one the most important things that we’ve ever managed to do. Nor is it surprising that the established Church was only the first to try and suppress it. We’ve seen books burned within living memory.

Wagged by the Long-Tail

Not only has the printing press been a driver of growth, it’s also been a bulwark of civilisation, witnessed by the censorship that it’s attracted down the years. With transferrable knowledge in book form available for generations yet to come a repeat of the end of Greek civilisation or another onset of the Dark Ages, when knowledge was lost and economies stagnated for centuries, is almost unthinkable.

Yet the wheel turns and the digital revolution has now made the presses obsolete. As is self-evident, any idiot can self-publish these days on the web and the advent of e-books is allowing even this journal to push itself beyond its natural limits. With digital publishing and reader capability the reality of the long-tail is upon us. Chris Anderson, in his Wired article on this phenomena, spelled it out:
“What's really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you've got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles”.
Before digital publishing everything had to be transported and stored physically placing limits on what could be supplied. The inexorable laws of supply and demand weren’t so much inexorable as invisible. Digitisation removes these restrictions but, as ever there was, introduces a new set: being able to publish is one thing, getting read is another.

Digital Preservation

There’s another issue with the wholesale digitisation of print: one thing about a physical book is that the software needed to read it doesn’t become obsolete. My old record and cassette collections may be gathering dust in the attic, but my library of books is as accessible as ever. The issue of digital preservation in a world where digital publishing is the primary source of information is likely to become increasingly important. As Brad Regan recalls in The Digital Ice Age:
“In 1986, for example, the British Broadcasting Corp. compiled a modern, interactive version of William the Conqueror's Domesday Book, a survey of life in medieval England. More than a million people submitted photographs, written descriptions and video clips for this new "book." It was stored on laser discs — considered indestructible at the time — so future generations of students and scholars could learn about life in the 20th century.

But 15 years later, British officials found the information on the discs was practically inaccessible — not because the discs were corrupted, but because they were no longer compatible with modern computer systems. By contrast, the original Domesday Book, written on parchment in 1086, is still in readable condition in England's National Archives in Kew."
We progress, but physical book value is probably safe for a while yet.

Related articles: An Age of Miracles and Wonders, Moats, Unbundled, In The Beginning Were The Accountants

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