Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Kindle and the electronic age

The new version of Amazon's Kindle, electronic book reader, has been released and we were debating its virtues and demerits around the dinner table at a friend's house. Well, I can't help it, I am probably a member of the chattering classes.

One of us argued that electronic book readers lead to the death of libraries that, in turn, provide social spaces as well as books, expert advice and inspiration. She further argued that such devices kill imagination and creativity. Finally she argued that they exclude the poor from the information age. Others countered that libraries are already glorified computer centres and that ebooks lead to different types of creativity but creativity nonetheless. I said that we should consider paper books for what they deliver, which is information, entertainment etcetera and that electronic books simply provide the same benefits in a different way, as well as being more compact, cheaper in the long-run and offering extra benefits such as instant gratification via immediate downloads.

But I did not express a niggling reservation. What happens if the electricity is turned off? Now, I know that if that happens we are all stuffed because, just 62 years after the transistor was developed, we depend utterly on computers. I mean utterly. Our food supply chain, our payment systems, our public services (think water, sewage, heat, light, hospitals, transport, fuel etc) would all just stop if all our computers turned off. We would, literally, starve and freeze even before the world economy collapsed if they did not come back on pretty damn quick. So, in those circumstances, it would scarcely matter if the learning of our entire civilization was lost.

Of course none of this will happen. Cyberwarfare by enemy states or terrorists will be kept at bay. But what about a Carrington event? In 1859, Carrington, a British astronomer recorded a solar flare that, if repeated today, would cause at least $2 trillion of damage in the USA alone and leave 130m people without electricity. A 2009 report by the US National Academy of Sciences (which has been taken down from their website since I read it) explains how the extreme electrical activivty would be captured by our electrical grids as if by a huge antenna. The damage could take ten years to repair. The frequency of these events is unknown, possibly only once in a thousand years, possibly less; who knows?

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