This kind of conversation is possible because we’re not currently thinking about how there are millions of people today who will use more than a gallon of fresh water to dispose of a mere cup of their own urine. Or how it will be impossible to feed the world without honeybees (who are all dying, but you know that already). We are, in so many ways, plummeting at maximum velocity toward impact. The idea of a digital platform for books should seem laughable if you’ve ever seen the burning e-waste trash pits of Lagos, or the island of plastic floating in the Pacific. Do we honestly expect that the age of digital books will last even a quarter of the time of the print book? Surely we will choke on our own garbage before we perfect the art.
But that is what makes this arresting. We are making things possible now at the expense of the future. We are nearly maxed out on credit.
The rapid advancement of display technology really is an incredible thing. You already know very much that “technology grows rapidly,” but it is easy to take for granted what our eyes expect. In 2004, the display on a mobile phone was about the size of a Fig Newton, and graphics looked as if they were constructed from Legos. That is, if they were even in color. In 2014, it is possible to procure a portable full color HD display that fits in pants pockets for less than the cost of a mediocre wool area rug. Screens are now the size of a reporter’s notebook and we can debate the merits of various pixel arrangements and color reproductions on pocket-sized displays rather than that they are in color at all. And displays are only getting bigger! Their resolutions are increasing as well. HD has gained widespread diffusion as a standard for graphics, only to see 4K emerge. Blu-ray barely had any time beating out HD DVD.
This is not to be facile and lament that things are changing too quickly, or that this growth is somehow manufacturing interest where there is no need. We are already doomed, so why not look for the good in things? Instead, let’s take a moment to appreciate the quality and detail of images that are becoming more and more accessible. A 75 dollar phone purchased at the grocery store can outperform a television from the 1990s. High resolution digital images are not everywhere, but they certainly are in more places than ever. This breakneck acceleration in display quality has a deep history that stretches back to the 1960s and 1970s. As shown by the career of pioneers like Sutherland and Fuchs, the history of computer graphics is intertwined with the search for optimal display solutions. What we see today is not different. To say that the world is visual is a cliché, but the impulse to increase resolution and quality of images holds such generative potential when we think about the future of books and knowledge systems.
For instance, very high-resolution images and videos allow for more visual detail in digital platforms. And detail is a transformative feature of image reproduction. For instance, the University of Illinois’ Medici allows users to zoom and inspect the image in a way that simulates the changing perspectives brought on by increasing the number of pixels used to represent an object. To understand this image as a collection of specimens is a standard definition perspective. To see that each specimen is visually distinct and interesting is a high-definition perspective. To appreciate every hair on the legs of each insect as part of an impossibly intricate collection, as a miraculous panoply of specialized components (such as we see when fully zoomed in), we require a format beyond HD.
And so there will be more visual information in knowledge systems. Not explicitly in the sense of increased numbers of charts, videos, and pictures, but in a very non-referential way, that of visual richness. As they increase in resolution, images could simulate more than represent. Or even represent more than they currently represent. In textbooks and fiction alike, there is a difference between demonstrating an example and calling that example into presence. Presented by better and better displays, future knowledge systems could be aggregations of simulations, narratives, and representations in a far more graceful and viable way than print or current mobile tech will allow.
This assumes that displays will always be pocketable or handheld. Perhaps they will not. Perhaps they will be part of our eyes one day. Perhaps we will run out of resources for batteries and there will be far less mobile technology in the next 20 years. Or both.