You can’t unplug a book

The first printing presses were used to print bibles … and porn. That’s not a value judgment, just an observation.

The internet was first used to distribute scientific and academic papers … and porn. It seems man hasn’t changed much in the last few centuries.

The printing press and the internet share some other features. Like the impact they had on society: education, communication, freedom. Plenty of people have written about the similarities. Some have written about the differences. But I haven’t seen much conversation about one important difference: Books can’t be turned off.

Why this matters is that writing is something that can be entirely learned by each person who uses it. There is no risk of being unable to use the technology.

I’ll grant that large-scale printing presses are far beyond the reach of individuals, and even whole cultures. But the base concept of printing is so simple that it could be easily duplicated, and scaled up by anyone with basic mechanical aptitude.

Computation is a whole different animal. The utility of “pervasive computing” is explicitly the pervasiveness. The smart chip in my credit card is useless without a reader. Or a computerized register to attach the reader to. Or an internet connection between the register and the VISA system. Or … or … or …

Look at any major urban blackout. Commerce comes to a complete standstill within minutes. You can literally turn the technology off, and society grinds to a halt.

If you smash a printing press, everyone who already had a book still has it. If you burn all the books, people still know how to write.

But disable the networks that allow us to engage in commerce, and suddenly the grocery store shelves go empty. And we don’t have local farms any more to fall back on.

I’m not suggesting that we’re likely to face a protracted breakdown in the current system. But the impact of such a breakdown is certainly on a new scale.