Ebooks aren’t just from the future anymore. Though ereaders and formats will continue to evolve, they’re clearly here to stay. That much we can say for sure, and have clearly known for some time. As we rapidly catch up with our future, though, it’s interesting to think about who knew what, when.
For example, here’s pioneering American composer and polymath John Cage on electronic publishing in 1965:
We can't be satisfied with distribution now because it won't be very good. For instance, my book (Silence), published in the United States, is very difficult to get outside the United States, and that won't be solved, because all of the publishing problems of books, and objects, and things in quantity are still those of the previous culture. Yet with the number of people who work now -- the number of composers, the number of authors, and so on -- has vastly increased over the 19th century; but the number of publishers has not increased. The result is that you have traffic problems, so you have the kind of problems that all large cities encounter with automobile traffic. And I hear, where I go now, that in the future we may expect that private traffic in large cities will be forbidden. It may then equally be forbidden to produce a book that would require people to distribute it, but it will not be forbidden, certainly, to send information by electronic media throughout the world. (Via the blog of the John Cage Trust.)
And here’s 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney on electronic publishing in 2011 (CBS isn't too embed friendly, so take a look on YouTube):
A little funny, no? That bit of John Cage above probably seemed straight from The Jetsons back in 1965, and Andy Rooney last night had perhaps a touch of The Flintstones. On the one hand, there’s nothing too surprising here. John Cage was always way ahead of his time, and Andy Rooney is often an easy target.
On the other hand, though, these comments juxtaposed do tell us a bit about this transition to digital. You can look at the ereaders all around you and then read John Cage’s thoughts on electronic distribution and start to think that things were always going to happen exactly this way. But somewhere in those Andy Rooney minutes is the recognition that there’s a lot left to shake out about business models in electronic publishing, and about what ebook dominance could ultimately mean for authors, publishers, and readers. We’re past the point where it makes much sense to scoff at electronic publishing, but accepting that fact doesn’t mean we know where we’re headed. And, sadly, John Cage isn’t around to tell us.