After Umberto Eco, even Franco Debenedetti gets ebooks wrong

In August 2010 Umberto Eco, a great Italian intellectual and novelist wrote something very true about traditional paper books: don’t you dare to hope to get rid of all paper books just because e-books are now available. Unfortunately, Eco gave a really dumb proof for his assertion:

"the real reason why paper books will have a very long life is that we have the proof that books printed more than five hundred years ago still survive in excellent shape, but we have no proof at all of the duration of electronic physical media... In just thirty years floppy disks have been replaced by hard drives, hard drives by DVDs, DVDs by USB keys and no current computer is able to read a floppy from the 80's, so we can't even know if its content would have lasted **ten** years, never mind centuries "

This statement is plain dumb. There is no doubt that digital content of any kind can become unreadable after just a few years, but the real reason has nothing to do with what Eco is talking about, that it the physical objects in which we store those sequences of bits that constitute the digital documents we usually call files. The real reason is that we, as a society, are still so immature and ignorant to tolerate secret file formats.

As a matter of fact, there are millions and millions of floppy disks from the 90’s (not 80’s!) that are still perfectly readable by current computers if you just bother to buy a cheap external floppy disk drive. And once you’ve put those floppies in the drives, nobody stops you from copying all their content straight inside a USB key, without any intermediate step, and then dumping away the floppies without losing any file. The real problem is that it is often useless to do such a transfer because there is no more modern software that can decode and read those files. Because the content of those files was encoded putting its bits in sequences according to rules (the file format) that are secrets or simply forgotten.

It doesn’t matter where the file (ie the bit sequence) was written. If you don’t have the key (that is the file format) to decode it, the file is unreadable even if it was created yesterday and your computer can still read and copy and display all of its bits.

So files are one thing (bit sequences copiable without errors from one physical media to another), the physical media that contains them is another, completely separate and independent thing. That’s why Eco’s reason for why e-books won’t replace paper is completely wrong. More on this below.

A few months after Eco’s error, another Italian intellectual made the same mistake. On page 74 of the Nov. 24th, 2010 issue of the italian edition of Vanity Fair, Franco Debenedetti explained readers “Why the press will never die” with the very same, equally dumb assertions:

  • the idea that digital archival is “eternal” is a myth without any basis at all in reality: the computers sold today don’t read anymore the floppy disks of ten years ago
  • whereas I had an occasion to hold a book made in the 12th century in my hand, and I was able to read its content without any difficulty

The second argument blissfully ignores the fact that if that 12th century book should burn or rot all its content, unless somebody has taken lots of time to manually scan or copy it, would be lost forever. Whereas avoiding the same risks with one or one million files is extremely simple and infinitely less expensive than making and preserving copies of paper books: you only need to make several copies of those files in different places and physical media (e.g. one copy online, one on DVD, one on USB key…) and check every few years that those media are still working.

Debenedetti’s first assertion is worst than the second because it makes a huge confusion between software, hardware and file formats. It’s like if he had written that the Bible or the Odissey aren’t eternal because today nobody makes anymore the same type of parchment on which the original editions were written, the same edition that we read without problems today because they were copied on different media millions of times. Ebooks are just files. Ebooks or any other file can be much more eternal than any material object (as long as you know the rules to decode it, see below) just because it is only an immaterial sequence of bits that can be copied for millennia, automatically and without any degradation, from one physical media to another.

Secret or forgotten file formats are a huge cultural and economical problem (lots of proofs are in this non technical seminar on file formats), but they have absolutely nothing to do with hardware or the fact that, on average, paper books last much longer than DVDs.

We can and should forgive Umberto Eco, who has an excellent education in so many other fields, writes wonderfully and isn’t an expert working in ICT anyway. I do still like him! But somebody who (quoting from his own biography) was CEO or top manager of one of the biggest Italian ICT companies for fourteen years is a bit less forgivable. Especially if you consider that he has lots of first hand experience not only with ICT but even with printed publishing, since he’s also in the board of CIR, the company that, through Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso controls big Italian paper magazines and newspapers like Espresso and Repubblica. Uh?!? No, wait a moment…