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.