Destructive Digitization

What is more valuable: a physical object or it’s virtual digitized copy? This is a simple question, but answering it is actually unusually complex. On the surface, a physical object is clearly more valuable because it is made out of real world scarce materials, and is unique and irreplaceable as opposed to a digital copy that can be spliced on demand. On the other hand, from the pure utility perspective a digital copy is infinitely more flexible and useful. If you have a physical book of fairy tales the best you can do is to read it to a group of children. If you have a digital copy, you can make it available to all the children in the world for free so that they can learn from it, search for their favorite quotes, print out the illustrations and etc. Clearly, in the grand scheme of things the digital copy yields more utility and benefit to everyone than a single physical book ever could.

But, would you be willing to destroy a beloved, priceless, antique, first edition book in order to make it into a cheep virtual commodity?

One of the major plot point’s in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End novel is the so called library digitization project. You can think of it as Google Books initiative on crack. It is a massive undertaking that aims to digitize all of the world’s major libraries turning them into a fully searchable virtual archive available online. This would include rare, and unique one of a kind books that were never scanned before. The controversy surrounding the project stems from the rather unorthodox method of digitization.

The creators of the project utilize industrial strength scanners that are the state of the art technology at the moment. They are the most accurate and at the same fastest devices available on the market. The scan fidelity of this machines is incredibly high, which means they can OCR even very old, faded out books with nearly 99% accuracy, and they employ neural network that actually adjust their OCR algorithms as they scan, based on paper type, publisher, age of the book and dozens of other variables becoming more accurate the more you scan. The only downside of this process is that it is completely destructive. The book actually becomes shredded in the process, as the pages are cut up, and scanned piecemeal and then digitally reassembled. You dump bunch of books into the input bin on one end, and you get a bag of confetti on the other.

As you could imagine, this aspect of the project infuriates book lovers all around the world. There are people picketing in front of all the participating libraries and even violent incidents where the operators of the machines are attacked, or the machines themselves are sabotaged. And yet, more and more libraries join in, and more universities sign away their collections of old texts to be ground up. Why? Well, for one they are pragmatic.

Vinge’s near future setting is not that far removed from our own time. Libraries are no longer what they used to be. College students no longer go to libraries to check out books – they go there to find a quiet corner to study, or to use their Wifi/computer lab. Most of the materials they need for their school projects is digitized, so the stacks of books just sit there mostly untouched gathering dust. Local libraries not affiliated with educational institutions are in even worse condition – they get less funding, and fewer book donations every year. The main services they still perform are mostly digital – they provide the local community with free internet, and kindle/nook book rentals. Their book collections just sit there, gathering mold. If this trend continues, these places may have to close their doors in a decade or two… And then, what happens to all the books?

Granted, there re always half-measures: you could have preserved some of the more precious Rainbow’s End books and scan them in using more expensive and non-destructive methods. The problem was, no one offered to do that. There destructive digitization was the only offer on the table. The only viable, available and affordable way to preserve the book collections for eternity.

So this is the quandary: would you rather see your local library ground up, and converted into a searchable, online index that could theoretically be preserved for eternity, or would you rather keep it a regular library knowing full well it may fail and dissolve taking all the knowledge in the next decade or two? Do you defend the scarce, material jewels for their inherent value or do you destroy them for greater good?

I’m asking this question now, because our grand children may actually have to answer the same type of question on a much grander scale: what will they do with Earth. It is very possible that few decades from now we will embark on a grand project in which we will be re-purposing all the matter within our solar system into computronium, building a Matrioshka Brain structure around the sun. Earth is still in preferential high bandwidth area, merely solar minutes away from the energy source and thus it would be a prime target for deconstruction.

And yet, at the same time, how can you grind down the cradle of the humankind into fine dust to build processing nodes? How can you destroy all the physical mementos of our history and our culture? How can you just make all of it disappear? Can a virtual representation of Earth ever be anything other than a pale shadow of the original?

Then again, how can you not do it? How can you preserve Earth if the computronium swarms on the former Mercury / Venus orbits and in between will effectively blot out most of the sun rays turning our planet into an ice ball.

Is it ok to destroy to preserve and distribute? Or should you always try to protect the physical instance, regardless the costs and the risks? This is just something to ponder.

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9 Responses to Destructive Digitization

  1. astine Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’ve done work in digitization projects so I can tell you that destructive digitization is definitely not a purely science fiction concept, at least not for video. The Library of Congress actual has ancient video images stored in a variety of formats that can only be retrieved once due to the degenerate nature of the storage material and there is a serious debate as to whether we actually should do so.

    Very few librarians are actually apposed to the digitization on the grounds that physical copies have some important intrinsic value as it’s pretty clear that it’s the content that counts. Besides, the physical copies will degenerate sooner or later eventually anyway and as soon as you digitize, you can easily make more copies. The debate is actually more one of analog vs digital, as well as one of costs.

    Basically, digital copies can only contain a certain level of fidelity to the original, and the question is, “how long should we wait to digitize something,” so that we can get the best fidelity possible. It’s also cheaper in a lot of ways to store a physical object than a digital copy, because digital copies need copies of themselves, because digital copies are far less resilient individually than physical copies. Even our best digital storage technologies have a lower shelf life than paper so we need to be constantly migrating tapes or hard disk, which gets expensive with large collections.

    You can’t reasonably compress digital copies either because that makes them less durable. You get a situation where 1% bit rot destroys a copy whereas 10% or 50% is survivable with uncompressed, high fidelity copies.

    In the end though, everything’s going digital eventually. It’s the obvious trend and the advantages are too great for it not to happen.

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  2. Eric Daum UNITED STATES Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux says:

    I would say the physical copy is better because it still works when there is no power. When the inevitable happens and our computers are rendered in operable by the nuclear holocaust there will still be books. Books which will educate and entertain the survivors during the long nuclear winter allowing them to rebuild civilization on the other side.

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  3. Peter SWITZERLAND Safari Mac OS says:

    Sidenote:
    Digital stuff is physical, too. As a human, you just need an interpreting device to access the information.

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  4. Morghan UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    The Earth, in my vision of the future, is a park or preserve. No matter how advanced, even post singularity, the Earth should be preserved until the sun finally takes it. Even in the efficiency there must be some nostalgia, and there will always be people who refuse to upload.

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  5. Ron Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    @astine if your concerened about the remaining integrity of a file, after partial corruption, you are doing it wrong.

    I havnt read the book, but surely this would only be an issue with increadibly rare books, would the world care (to much) if a single copy of a popular book, was destroyed?

    And I disagree about the importance of libraries today, at the Uni I attend, people still use physical books. There was large public outcry in the city I live in, when the council (who run the librarys, and finance it off house rates) were planing to introduce a per book charge, which they backtracked on.

    As much as I love the practicallity of ebook readers, I will still love my physical books, for all the warm fuzzy niceties I find in them, which an ebook lacks.

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  6. Ethan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think that while digitizing everything is a cool idea, 1) it isn’t practical, 2) I like to have real, paper books in addition to ebooks, and 3) there will probably be licensing/DRM issues caused by the whole project. I think that it is handy to have a digital copy of something, but, to me the physical copy is much more important. Also, this isn’t a very practical undertaking. We don’t have the technology to do it yet. If we ever get the technology to destructively digitize books, we should hold off, because, undoubtedly, newer, better technology will come along, enabling us to do the same thing, just in a non-destructive manner.

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  7. Jed AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Everyone saying they still like to have paper books
    You might, but chances are, the vast majority of your children’s children will not care. They will be brought up on amazing interactive digital books that come to life as you read them, and maybe more. Possibly add another 1+ generations if you are skeptical it will happen that fast, either way it’s inevitable.

    @Ethan
    In regards to holding off for better methods, what about the possibility of losing some of the physical copies in that time due to degradation or other possibilities.

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  8. Ricardo FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Assuming there is only one hard copy of an old rare book, given the choice to preserve it or digitize it, the choice should be made on its utility value which is, I think, the digitization of the copy.

    @Eric Daum and @Morghan If the point is to preserve it, once you digitize you can make as many hard copies as you want and store them in separate locations, while keeping the digital copy available to everybody.

    @Jed, totally agree! This attachment we have with paper books will fade with time.

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  9. Dead tree storage medium? How quaint…

    The physical book was never the memento of mankind, it was the written word it contained. I find it amusing so many people cling to a 2000 year old invention but have no qualms replacing their cellphone every 2 years.

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