GoogleBooks and Adobe Fever – A Luddite’s Lament.

I used to think I was a reasonably creative professional, until I attended the Cre8 conference, an annual gathering that is devoted to all things Adobe. The Acrobat version, as opposed to the southwest version. It was held in one of the resort hotels at Disneyworld Orlando, and sponsored by the Aquent Graphics Institute – A Woburn, Mass based company which offers training, consulting and support for anyone who wants to better create better web or marketing documents. Dreamweaver? Bring it on. Pagemaker? No problem. Unless you’re me. I cannot be helped. Of this I am now clear.

The conference material was exhaustive, and in many cases, pretty specific stuff. Topics ranged from the very technical, like manipulating user interfaces to the more over-arching, like how to efficiently PDF your business into the modern era. Better living through software, that sort of thing.

The conference made a compelling case that the possibilities offered by a digital age are more than worth any hassles associated with selling your supervisor on a new workflow process, or worrying about document security. Hey, they must be on to something – the keynote lunchtime speaker was none other than former vice president Al Gore. That’s one pricey lunch. But worth it - – he delivered his signature global warming slideshow with the sort of passion that almost made you believe that it his first time giving it.

The first session I attended was called Paper to PDF: How Alice In Wonderland Gets Found on GoogleBooks. I figured it was a good way to start, since I’d heard of books. But if you haven’t heard of Google Book Search, check it out – since it will let you search the contents of books, any book, with a varying degree of access, depending upon the permission of the publisher or copyright holder. (If the book is out of copyright, you can digitally thumb through the entire book as often as you like, saving a PDF version if you wish. Whoa.) It’s heady stuff for a reporter, researcher, bibliophile and of course, publisher, regardless of your concerns about copyright issues.. "We’ll solve the digital rights management issues in the future," said Michael Jahn, the presenter and bona fide PDF guru. "But we’re not going to solve them without using the digital services we have." Or in other words, not without the next, best versions of the very technologies that created the problems in the first place.

Part of the presentation involved scanning old texts – books made before PDF -and turning them into readable, searchable PDF files. The example Jahn used was a worn text from a previous century, with speckled pages, poor registration, and other marks from a now ancient way of publishing. Through the miracle of software, speckles disappeared, skewed text stood straight, contrast issues were solved, and any unwanted marks were magically erased. It was really amazing.

And then the Luddite thing hit me. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad about the information that may be lost when you pluck an object out of the era that created it, and then systematically remove the subtle elements that give it its identity in time. I like being reminded that someone labored to make an object with challenging technology that now seems hopelessly clunky. Perhaps they made it by hand. What does that tell me? Would I feel differently if I could tell that a book has passed through the hands of an unknown number of souls - some of whom have left a record of their musings in the margins? A less than perfect copy of a book would probably make for a less efficient research tool, granted - but aren’t our imperfections often among the most interesting, and most authentic, things about us?

Right. Or maybe I’m just feeling my age.

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  • rwanon

    OMG- speaking of "hopelessly clunky," could anything be moreso than Acrobat? It would seem, in the example noted, that Acrobat would bring little (if anything) to the party. XML or some other subset of SGML might be more appropriate, unless there was a need to reproduce the document in a fetching, san-serif font or somesuch. I await the day when fat-client, proprietary relics ". . . from a now ancient way of publishing" like Acrobat have been tossed in the dustbin. Acrobat is soooo last century.

  • Salam

    It's not a binary EITHER/OR thing at all; rather, it's BOTH. Old books have many attributes, including the ones cited. A fundamental attribute is, of course, CONTENT. Would it be preferable to restrict the information content of pre-digital publications to just those surviving hard copies that are in the hands of correspondingly few owners? The original books are not replaced by pdf (or whatever) copies. They are still available to be handled and sniffed and savored for their physicality and marginalia by those who crave that experience. At the same time, their information -- which is the reason the books were ever created and published in the first place -- is rendered accessible to the many.