Data Rot

Our pal Kevin Kim posted an item last week about the shuttering of Barnes & Noble’s Nook operation. (For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about — and it warms my heart that there may in fact be some of you out there — the Nook is Barnes & Noble’s electronic-book gizmo, their version of Amazon’s far more successful Kindle.)

Kevin writes:

When you “buy” a movie on, say, Amazon Prime, as I have done many times, you don’t really own it in the same way that you own a DVD of said movie. What you own is a license to go to Amazon’s site and access the movie. This feels like ownership for only as long as exists, which I suppose is fine if we think of Amazon as “too big to fail,” to misuse a term from almost a decade ago.

But consider Barnes and Noble, a company that, for a while at least, fancied itself Amazon’s rival. In case you missed it, Barnes and Noble is now closing down its international Nook store

… This turn of events has caused me to seriously rethink my current bad habit of buying movies off Amazon Prime and purchasing e-books instead of dead-tree books. Dead trees are actually an amazing storage medium, when you think about it: they can retain data for centuries with very little degradation (the pages might yellow, but the words and images remain clear), and when it comes to books, the only skill you need in order to access data is the ability to read. Despite my current e-bookish spending habits, I’m old-school at heart, so I’m partial to the heft and fragrance of dead-tree books. I may be part of the last generation to feel this way.

This is a topic that I’ve touched on myself from time to time. I love physical books — I have thousands of them — and even though some are very old indeed, they all still work just fine, without batteries or an Internet connection. But I do have a Kindle too, and it has many points to its credit: it’s small, holds hundreds of books, has built-in annotation software, and there is something very satisfying indeed about reading a book, coming to a passage or footnote that refers to some important source I’ve never read, and being able to acquire it on the spot. (Often, in my case, the book I want is so old that it’s out of copyright, and is available completely free of charge.)

But e-books are fragile, ephemeral, and dependent in a way that printed books (I suppose now we need a retronym for these, so I will call them “p-books”) simply are not. Let our politics descend into chaos, let a Carrington-class solar flare melt the electrical grid, let civilization revert to Mad-Max style post-apocalyptic anarchy, let the dead rise from their graves to walk again, tottering and gibbering and ravening for brains — and all of these p-books on my shelves will still deliver their content just as reliably as ever.

The other thing that nags at me, perhaps most of all, is this: e-books can change.

Whenever this topic comes up, I make a point of linking to this prescient post, written years ago by someone named Mark Pilgrim. (There is a particular irony in the fact that since I first linked to it seven years ago, the link has gone dead. I was only able to find a copy, after much searching, at the Internet Archive. Read it while you still can!)

Read Kevin’s post here.


  1. Musey says

    Predictably, I’ve never heard of Barnes and Noble. I still buy books but sadly most book shops here are either closing down or they’re a shadow of their former selves. I’ll be in Cambridge in a few weeks time. It had the most fabulous bookshops so it will be interesting to see if they have all survived.

    As far as I’m aware, none of my offspring have succumbed to the temptation of the kindle. We all still read dead tree books like the luddites that we are.

    Meanwhile, our leather-bound Encyclopedias Britannica (all thirty volumes, purchased when we were very hard-up) are becoming collectors items. So I am told.

    Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    Thanks for the shout-out. A point I’ve made in previous posts, but failed to reiterate in my recent post, is that, yes, information-storage formats other than books are constantly changing. For dead-tree books, data access just means knowing how to read—a perennially valuable skill. But who uses 3.5-inch disks anymore? VHS or Beta? Or those smallish CDs that were in vogue for a few months before they, too, disappeared? How long until suffixes like GIF, TIFF, PNG, and JPEG become archaisms? Meanwhile, books—dead-tree ones—remain books.

    Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:19 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Ah, yes: my own old post on “link rot” is here.

    Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Dedicating Ruckus says

    While in the event of outlandish catastrophe it’s a bit less useful, there is something that’s easy to do for users now, and hedges effectively against more pedestrian possibilities like tech companies going bankrupt. Namely, make sure you have local copies of everything. For ebooks in particular, it’s possible to strip the DRM (if any) and mirror Amazon-bought ebooks in a local library (Calibre is wonderful); most other sources of digital content admit of similar workarounds. (If nothing else, you can buy a copy of some content through a streaming service, to salve your conscience, then get the real version through a torrent, which will go on your hard drive and stay put.)

    In general, much of the problem Kevin refers to can be ameliorated by the use of open software. I don’t buy into the ideology associated with the FSF, but the practical arguments for this are strong; a single point of failure can’t remove your access to software that’s mirrored in source form on thousands of servers, and as long as computers exist, they will always be able to read .txt files. Resiliance of this form is to me the strongest argument for open source and open formats.

    (Of course, if you think in the longest term — as one should — then paper books are still paramount. But it is to me worthwhile as well to ensure that your digital content will last decades, rather than years.)

    Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  5. …, let civilization revert to Mad-Max style post-apocalyptic anarchy, … and all of these p-books on my shelves will still deliver their content just as reliably as ever.

    If post-apocalyptic anarchy comes to pass, my guess is that the content delivered by p-books will be toilet paper.

    Posted March 17, 2016 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  6. Whitewall says

    The right to read sounds like Orwellian mission creep. When I buy a movie or a series of stories on DVD like “Midsomer Murders” collection, I do so to keep them. I am awaiting set 26 of “Midsomer Murders” btw. The same with books. I want to keep them. I don’t do any Kindle or the like because obtaining a book to me is as much about ritual as anything else. There is a Barnes and Noble about 20 minutes from here as well as some small “weird people” book stores. The ritual is for me to go to the store, wander all over it knowing what I want is on a certain shelf, but looking over most of the store anyway. If I can’t find what I want, I have them order it. Then I return to the store, wander all over it and then pick up my newly arrived book. Then being properly fueled, I wander around the store some more. Let me assure everyone, I avoid the “romance novels” section. My bp can’t take much of that.

    Posted March 17, 2016 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  7. Doug says

    If you like your Kindle, you can keep your Kindle.

    Got me a kindle, it is the creepiest thing I have ever owned, not that I own the content. The darn thing is nothing but a customer tracking and data mining device.
    Got to thinking about it, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts they track everything. I can’t imagine all the meta data and personal info they can garner from your use of it.

    Posted March 17, 2016 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  8. Whitewall says

    Bermuda Triangle ahead?

    Posted March 17, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  9. Thanks for that link, Robert. “The Bell Curve” had been on my list of books to be read, but Charles Murray’s open letter will save some time because he summarizes his (and his co-author’s) findings well enough for me. The money quote is:

    If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. [p.311].

    As to the allegations made by the president of Virginia Tech, Tim Sands, which prompted Charles Murray’s rebuttal, I’ll only repeat what I have said in these pages several times before:

    Truth is not assertion, and assertion is not proof.

    Posted March 17, 2016 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  10. Whitewall says

    Henry, that caught my eye because of Malcolm’s entry down the page titled “Truth and Consequences”. Seems Murray’s work and those like him will be coming to the fore quicker than most realize. I like your statement about assertion.

    Posted March 17, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink
  11. Thanx, Robert. I refer to that statement as “TheBigHenry’s Truth Predicate“. Pardon my self-reference in the third person, but that is, indeed, a coinage of my own.

    I figured if Douglas MacArthur could practice illeism, why can’t a mere mortal like me do it, too?

    Posted March 17, 2016 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

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