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Technology (A Special Report) --- How the E-Book Will Change The Way We Read and Write ---
Author Steven Johnson outlines a future with more books, more distractions -- and the end of
By Steven Johnson
20 April 2009
The Wall Street Journal
Every genuinely revolutionary technology implants some kind of "aha" moment in your memory -- the
moment where you flip a switch and something magical happens, something that tells you in an instant that
the rules have changed forever. I still have vivid memories of many such moments: clicking on my first Web
hyperlink in 1994 and instantly transporting to a page hosted on a server in Australia; using Google Earth to
zoom in from space directly to the satellite image of my house; watching my 14-month-old master the
page-flipping gesture on the iPhone's touch interface.
The latest such moment came courtesy of the Kindle, Amazon.com Inc.'s e-book reader. A few weeks after I
bought the device, I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Austin, Texas, dutifully working my way through an
e-book about business and technology, when I was hit with a sudden desire to read a novel. After a few taps
on the Kindle, I was browsing the Amazon store, and within a minute or two I'd bought and downloaded
Zadie Smith's novel "On Beauty." By the time the check arrived, I'd finished the first chapter.
I knew then that the book's migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for
pixels, but would likely change the way we read,
and sell books in profound ways. It will make it easier
for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them. It will expand the universe of
books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give
writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of
the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.
There is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution. The question is: Will we recognize the
book itself when that revolution has run its course?
In our always-connected, everything-linked world, we sometimes forget that books are the dark matter of the
information universe. While we now possess terabytes of data at our fingertips, we have nonetheless drifted
further and further away from mankind's most valuable archive of knowledge: the tens of millions of books
that have been published since Gutenberg's day.
That's because the modern infosphere is both organized and navigated through hyperlinked pages of digital
text, with the most-linked pages rising to the top of Google Inc.'s all-powerful search-results page. This has
led us toward some traditional forms of information, such as newspapers and magazines, as well as toward
new forms, such as blogs and Wikipedia. But because books have largely been excluded from Google's