Being Led Astray

6 April 2008

On e-Books and Eugenics

Shock, by Meredith_Farmer, with Creative Commons licence The Internet is a bit like the sea here in the Pearl River Delta: sometimes it washes up curios, little gems of information, but at others it vomits grotesquries upon us. Clicking through the Clustr map in the sidebar on the right today to check visitor locations I noticed an advertisement for a free online book. Having spent time this week watching someone grow increasingly frustrated with actually trying to use Google Adwords, and given my previously mentioned interest in e-books and copyright-free sharing, I decided to take a look.

The link led to the dedicated website for a pamphlet by a retired professor of Russian literature, John Glad. Not entirely interesting you might think. A quick search of Amazon will produce a list of volumes edited and translated by the good professor. He apparently gained a little notoriety in the 1980s by predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union. But his is hardly a household name. Wikipedia has a posted a notice on his biography stating that it “may not meet the general notability guideline” for such entries.

figurines, creator unknown, dowloaded from whatwemaybe.orgSo what’s the fuss? Glad’s pamphlet is entitled “Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century” and the site’s only graphic is a play on the famous monkey to man illustration that often accompanies latter day editions of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Except this is of what appears to be South Americans in a line, the last sitting on a Donkey. Mexicans waiting in a US immigration queue?

Maybe not, but it’s suggestive and pulled me away from what I was already writing about. Eugenics, put mildly, is the selective breeding of humans. Like cattle. The elimination of the weakest genetic strains, to be a little more precise. It might be possible to do that humanely, but who decides? And what ethical right does anyone have to make the choice? Eugenics reached its ‘scientific’ zenith during the First World War and its horrific climax with the Nazis in the Second World War.

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What Future the Book?

15 March 2008

We May Not Have the Eyes to See the Electronic Page

Book of Secrets, by Damgaard, with Creative Commons LicenceAs our expectations shift and shift again, the future of the book changes apace. Pages move to cyberspace, bookmarks tag ephemera, jackets become jpegs. Everything seems to point now at the screen. But are days to come arriving early, or is this just a techno-dream?

Reading through the front matter of Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe in PDF form recently, I was struck by his enthusiasm for changing the way in which books are offered to their readers. Part of his career depends on it, on dragging new readers in with electronic forms of his published work, at no charge. It worked for me, and I’m very thankful for it.

The book, Doctorow writes, is not what it once was: paper is now merely one expression of the form. As increasingly more people read books on screens, “fewer people are reading words off of fewer pages than ever before”.

Now, I’m a little skeptical about this. I’ve lived just long enough to have read the printed book’s epitaph, to have rejoiced at its revival and to have wondered at what next prediction would pronounce its indubitable fate. But I’m with Doctorow on one thing – electronic books have the potential to increase the reading public. And they’re not likely to be accumulated by people who won’t actually read them. Traditional paper books are sometimes little more than middle-class wallpaper, the pretentiousness of something never read.

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