5/1/10 at 9:12 AM
On April 26th, New Babbage received the news that an institution called the New Babbage Athenaeum had been opened in a building owned by the Steamweaver Trust. The announcement stated that the purpose of the Athenaeum is to translate the contents of books into data stored on punch cards, and then burn the books. Several residents of New Babbage expressed a great deal of consternation at this, and so this reporter worked to secure an interview with Mr. Lafayette Steamweaver, head of the Steamweaver Company, to gain firsthand information about the purpose and goals of the Athenaeum. An interview was granted the evening of the 30th.
Mr. Steamweaver explained that the Athenaeum is a sort of "transfer station" for books. The Steamweaver Company had been accumulating books for years, from collections and defunct libraries around the Steamlands. Several years ago, a researcher (whose name escaped Mr. Steamweaver) proposed a way of translating the printed page into tiny slices of information (which he called "nibbles"). The information on the pages is translated into information on punch cards, which are, Mr. Steamweaver assured, made of non-flammable camphorated polyvinyl. The punch cards can store information with much greater density, allowing an entire book to be stored on just a few cards. Mr. Steamweaver emphasized the portability of such storage. "Women, especially, are often capable of carrying only a small tome at a time," he said. "Carrying an entire dictionary, or an encyclopedia would be impossible, unless those works were reduced to the size of a few calling cards."
The cards can then be read again by passing them over a reader comprised of several needles. The pattern is run through a series of calculations handled by a large computational Engine, housed in the Athenaeum. The Engine translates the pattern back into text, which is printed on disposable ticker-tape by a device on the main floor. Mr. Steamweaver expressed a great deal of pride in the Engine, which he said is "one of the largest sextuple-core analytical engines ever constructed, capable of over sixty calculations every second." The ticker-tape-style reader is currently only available in the Athenaeum, though Mr. Steamweaver revealed that the company has plans to make the readers available for sale, as well as fees for copies of the works in this library, and "we are finalizing a technique for sending the patterns of reduced works through the aether, using this new 'Morse' code, so anyone anywhere can purchase a Steamweaver-patented reader, and pull any work ever written out of the aether, at any time."
"Think of it," he continued. "A single book can only be owned by one person, and only sold one at a time. Once we have the reduced version, we can sell copies ad infinitum--and it doesn't cost us anything to do so!"
The goal of the company is to eventually translate everything ever written. Once a book is translated, it is burned, as there is "no use keeping them around--no money in it." The Steamweaver Company is looking for a private disposal company to remove the ash created by the "reduced" books, and encourages anyone with books in their libraries to donate them to the cause. The company will pay for the books by the pound.
The Steamweaver Company plans to be the sole keeper of the punch card copies, and, as Mr. Steamweaver said, "we're working as hard as we can to become the exclusive holders of as many titles as possible." He believe that, "once the value of this technique catches on," all other forms of prose publishing, including magazines and newspapers, will be replaced by the punch cards and readers, and "eventually all writers would need to use our technique to publish anything."
Mr. Steamweaver discussed more of the Company's long-term plans for access and control. "Once we control the process, of course, we won't let substandard publications pass into the public," he stated. "We'll be able to enforce quality standards, and restrict content." When asked who would define substandard, he replied, "Well, I'm sure that all right-minded people know substandard works when they see them. And those who don't should certainly not be in charge of publishing." They would also establish rules for approving requests to access certain texts. "We certainly can't distribute copies to just anyone who asks." He spoke of envisioning a time when children would read "a steady diet of Steamweaver-provided reading material, according to a reading list approved my management."
For the immediate future, the Athenaeum is open to the public, "to encourage people to marvel at the idea at work, and bid farewell to the antiquated forms we're replacing."
So much, then for the impartial article. Now for the editorial. Please note that all opinions expressed hereafter are solely those of the author.
When I first received word of the opening of the Athenaeum and its purpose, I was shocked speechless. Now understand, I am not against the first part of the process, that of translating book texts to a more storage-friendly medium. I applaud that; it appears to be a wonderful way to help preserve texts for the future.
But to burn the books afterwards? That, to me, is absolute anathema. Books are the emblem of the democratization of knowledge and learning. A person can buy any book, or, if they cannot afford it, receive it on loan from a library, and read it anytime, anywhere. Books, despite what Mr. Steamweaver says, are very portable, except for the largest tomes. (Women are "capable of carrying only a small tome at a time," indeed!) Books will, for the most part, stand up to the rigors of travel. Once purchased, they can be kept for years, and read many times, or passed to others as gifts.
My immediate concerns, apart from the destruction of the books themselves, focused on the accessibility and dissemination of the information once it was converted to punch card form. In the course of the interview with Mr. Steamweaver, I discovered that he was living down to all of my fears, and more!
The plans of the Steamweaver Company, as revealed by Mr. Steamweaver's own words, are to become the sole owners and disseminators of all published works and information. They alone will determine what works are stored, where and to whom those works are released, and what content will be "approved." While they say they will translate everything ever written, will they really be able to resist the temptation of allowing a work of which they do not approve to disappear, simply by refusing to translate it? And all of this will be done only for a price.
Readers, this is not democracy. This would be a dictatorship of information, with only a select few determining what we can and cannot read, write, and publish. Already, many books, perhaps by the hundreds, have been sacrificed to this nightmarish vision. I can only hope that somehow, this is stopped, before a rarity is lost forever to the flames of ignorance.