Trek Class: Why Are There Books In The 24th Century?

Trek Class: Why Are There Books In The 24th Century?

“Trek Class” is a course at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies titled “Star Trek and the Information Age.” The course examines episodes of Star Trek series as a method of introducing concepts related to technology, society and leadership in our world. This post was written by Meghan Dornbrock, the Trek Class “First Officer.” Meghan is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Library and Information Science and serves as the teaching assistant for the class.

Early in each semester of Trek Class we watch the TNG episode “The Measure of a Man,” which centers on the android crewmember Data. One of Star Trek’s many courtroom episodes, this one calls into question the very nature of Data’s being, as well as his right to choose. Is he a man, or is he a machine? Does he have the rights equal to those of his shipmates, or is he the property of Starfleet, which they are free to dismantle and duplicate at any time?

This episode brings up a lot of excellent, and often heated, discussions about human rights and “disposable people.” We also look at what we think constitutes sentience/sapience in technology, and what the correct decision might be if (or when) we find ourselves with our own Data. Although the trial only concluded that Data is not property and “has the right to choose”, as a class we argue the implications of the decisions that weren’t made.

But we focus on something else in this episode: Books. Picard has quite a few, as seen throughout the series. In this episode, Data is given a book as a gift by Worf at his going-away party. Data also packs a book given to him by Captain Picard, which is later used as evidence in his trial. Hard-cover, antique-looking books show up throughout the Star Trek series, but not with the frequency that they appear around Picard, and more importantly, Data.

As an android, Data has the capacity to store hundreds of thousands of texts within his positronic brain, and he has proven time and again that he has perfect recall. Even his less-gifted crewmates don’t have a need for printed books, with a resource like the ship’s computer at their disposal. Even the PADDs, close relatives to our own iPads and e-readers, can store text more efficiently than a single-bound tome.

The question then is “Why?” Why does anyone, let alone Data, still have books in the 24th century? With each new tablet and digital reading device that hits the market, journalists and bloggers decry the end of books. When Amazon’s lending service for the Kindle came out in April, or more recently the news of its subscription service for e-books, it was called a “war on libraries.” If books and libraries are gasping their last breath today, then surely in 400 years they’ll be obsolete?

Eli Neiburger, the Associate Director for IT and Production at the Ann Arbor District Library, might disagree. During his lecture as part of a 2010 webinar on e-books and libraries, Neiburger immediately makes a distinction between technology that is obsolete and technology that is outmoded.

“Outmoded is different from being obsolete. The codex isn’t worthless… it doesn’t offer no value, but it is outmoded, meaning that it has been replaced by an increasingly convenient format that usually becomes less expensive.” -- Neiburger, “Ebook: Libraries at the Tipping Point” September 29, 2010

Neiburger goes on to explain that the e-book format hasn’t quite reached this perfect storm of convenience and affordability, though this can be blamed on publishing companies fighting the digital format every step of the way, and even libraries fighting to avoid spending on yet another version of content they already carry. (Although, as technology leaders, many libraries offer e-readers on loan, so there is some level of acceptance happening out there.)

A lot can, and has, been said on the stances that should be taken by publishers and libraries to better facilitate the e-book format. But as Neiburger points out, this new format isn’t just another version of the same information, but a distinct shift away from “content that is ownable and shareable.” This approach to media fits in well with the Roddenberry future, where there is no currency and humanity works to better itself. Copyright disputes have long since been an issue, unless perhaps you’re a hologram.

So, why are there still printed books?

As an outmoded technology, and not one that is obsolete, printed books serve many emotional purposes. For some, they’re a thing to be collected. For others, they serve as trophies, as proof of an accomplishment that they can see at a glance. Some people enjoy the tactile sensations of a book over a device. Mostly, they’re a connection to something beyond ourselves.

Neiburger cites other similar outmoded technologies, like vinyl records and candles. They’re markers of special occasions, of loved ones, of all types of memories. In class we discussed the significance of a physical gift as opposed to a digital gift, and most agreed that a digital gift could never truly hold the amount of meaning that a tangible gift could. Being able to pass an item from parent to child or friend to friend also increases the sentimental value of an item.

The fact that Data has the ability to perceive the emotional weight associated with the gift of a book plays a big part in the rest of our discussions on his humanity and his sentience. The idea that printed books aren’t going anywhere by the 24th century, for people and for androids, is a testament to their power as artifacts, and a sign that our emotional lives are alive and well. Libraries and publishers may change and adapt their roles over the next 400 years, but the desire for books will remain.

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Anthony Rotolo is a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool), where he specializes in social media. A new semester of Trek Class began meeting on August 30, and you can join the class discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #TrekClass.