[Humanist] 22.662 a billion e-books, and what might happen with them

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Apr 1 07:26:02 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 662.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>                       (128)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen
                with them?

  [2]   From:    "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>                        (80)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen
                with them?

  [3]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                      (31)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen
                with them?

  [4]   From:    Hope Greenberg <hope.greenberg at uvm.edu>                   (55)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen
                with them?

        Date: Mon, 30 Mar 2009 23:46:26 -0700 (PDT)
        From: "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen with them?
        In-Reply-To: <20090331052755.230BB307C3 at woodward.joyent.us>

Naysayers Unite!

I was not terribly satisfied with my last message, and as a result
I have worked on what I hope is a much improved reply to naysayers
who have commented on my previous messages:  more on topic, a more
cogently labeled set of premises and conclusions, citing my study,
albeit some time ago, in classes on Human Perception at U Illinois
and Dartmouth, etc.  I hope it is worth your while to read.


Recently there have been a few comment calling my predictions of a
billion eBook library "beyond silly," "sheer banality," "failure,"
"bumpersticker," "cliche," and the like, also pointing comments of
this nature towards my claim that the increased literacy/education
created by eBooks will improve humanity by 10% or even 1%.

Here are some refutations to those claims that will be obvious for
anyone who has studied, or will now take a look at, subjects in an
area that applies to these issues.

Let's start with that last comment above.

No one, not even the greatest detractors, seems willing to say the
well read person is no better off than the person who reads little
or nothing in the way of materials that might improve one.

The bugaboo comes with the idea of quantizing such improvements on
the order of any percentage at all, even improvements of 1% - 10%.

Premise #1:

However, as those who have actually studied Human Perception know,
it takes at least a 10% change in something for us to notice it.


One item must be at least 10% heavier than another or most of this
population won't notice, unless it is right on the edge of what we
can pick up and/or carry with us.

One mode of transportation must be at least 10% faster before most
of us notice it is any faster.

Most of us would have to put 10% more salt in our food to notice a
taste of greater saltiness.

These characters you are reading would have to be 10% larger for a
general perception that they are in fact larger.

Lightbulbs have to be at least 10% brighter before most notice it.

If you talk with a person who is 10% smarter than you it is hardly
something you would notice.

If you mix colors with 10% more black or white, the shades/pastels
don't look all that much different to most people.

If you use reading glasses, changing to a pair 10% stronger is not
a generally noticeable characteristic.

Etc., Etc., Etc.


Therefore, in the same vein, anyone who says that being well read,
in whatever area or areas of reading, improves a person, must have
noticed an improvement of at least 10%.

This alone should be enough to shut down such specious arguments.

Conclusion #2:

A 70 year reading span in which the improvement is compounded at a
mere 1% rate would double the improvement over that span of years.

Conclusion #3:

The same span of 70 years at 10% improvement per year yields:

   x    in   Years

    x2  in     7
    x4  in    14
    x8  in    21
   x16  in    28
   x32  in    35
   x64  in    42
  x128  in    49
  x256  in    56
  x512  in    63
x1024  in    70

However, my example also included changes of 1%, which, compounded
over 70 years of reading, would create an improvement of 100% of a
human lifetime of average length for first world readers.

Even at a 1% per year improvement rate, nothing to sneeze at.

Let's face it, among the people in this discussion the lifespan of
total years expected in their lives is at least 85 years.


Premise #2

Because they have already passed through childhood, most have gone
well into or beyond middle age, and each year you survive ads bits
to the expected lifespan.  Just ask your life insurance agent, who
has all this down in easy to read actuarial tables.

I just tried out one of the life expectancy calculators, entered a
50 year old male, 10 pounds overweight, average height, and left a
complete default of other entries at whatever their defaults were:

93 years was the answer.

That's 15 years over the average, and much of it simply surviving,
for the first 50 years, yields greater than average lifespan.

So, my 85 year estimate doesn't sound so bad now.

Women live even longer.

Conclusion #4

So 70 years of reading, at least for this group, is hardly the big
exception some of the naysayers would like it to appear.

Indeed, increasing the reading level where standards of living are
not so high would create even more improvement per year than in an
exemplary location where reading was much more commonplace.

Premise #3

The median age of this group is about 50 years old.

The Evidence:

Premise #4

First let's start with the entire United States median age of ~33.

Premise #5

Then let's add on that the youngest members finished high school.

Premise #6

They finished high school when they were at least 17 years old.

Conclusion $5

Add 17 years to the median nation age of ~33 and you get age 50.

Obviously there were several concerns that could be added, but by
and large they pretty much cancel each other out.  Those with not
a shred of high school tend not to live as long as those who have
some high school, those who graduate live even long, those with a
partial college education live even longer, etc.

However, by and large the national figures are acceptable and the
variations are minimal.

Final Conclusion

So, the only argument left to the naysayers about reading levels,
and their improving or not improving the human condition, is that
there is no perceptible improvement from reading.

Certainly NOT the 10% levels required for human perception to see
and take note of the difference.

However, even a 1% level would double that standard of living for
anyone who read for 70 years.  Would that not be worthwhile?

Of course, there is always the alternative of even killing us off
before we reach 70 years of reading to create argumentation.

However, it seems all to obvious that any of us reading here, and
any person now growing up in the world of eBooks, will have great
opportunities to have 70 years of reading experience and thus for
the resulting opportunity of improving the human condition.

After all, improving the human condition IS the goal, is it not?

Hoping to be thanking you soon for your time and attention,

Michael S. Hart
Project Gutenberg
Inventor of ebooks

        Date: Tue, 31 Mar 2009 00:14:44 -0700 (PDT)
        From: "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen with them?
        In-Reply-To: <20090331052755.230BB307C3 at woodward.joyent.us>


>        Date: Tue, 31 Mar 2009 06:23:38 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        >        In-Reply-To: <20090330055853.433B331767 at woodward.joyent.us>
> However many books there might be in digital form, the question 
> that strikes me as important is the one Greg Crane, I think it 
> was, has asked: what to do with them? Or perhaps one should ask, 
> how can we know?

How can we know anything, for that matter?

No, I am not going to go down that pathway and presume I cannot 

I have to do the best I can with what I have, and direct 
perceptions, as mentioned in my previous message concerning study of 
Human Perception is what I have to work with, including my direct 
perception of your words-- ideas--concepts, no matter how distorted 
by our semantic differentials-- I do the best I can, which is, and 
must be, good enough for me.

Whether it is good enough for others, is up to their own discretion.

> If it were the case that reality is strictly cumulative -- that 
> knowing the behaviour of an atom, say, or a neuron, one could 
> determine not just a cow, say, or even its behaviour, then the 
> question would be an easy one, easily solvable by 
> social-scientific methods. One could simply observe what n people 
> do with their collections of digital books, then do the maths. But 
> we know that physical reality doesn't operate like that. We know 
> that at certain levels of complexity new things start happening, 
> new behaviours are emergent, and we can observe this all up and 
> down the Great Chain of Being. So, I'd guess, we should start 
> looking for new behaviours with the amounts of digital written 
> stuff we have. So, what's new?

I'm sorry, but the previous paragraph delves too far into what I 
regard in general terms as "reductio ad adsurdum," though I realize 
I have not always used the most strict definition as applied by 

However, to say that something on the order of The Heisenberg 
Principle prevents us from coming to workable conclusions about our 
own existence and measuring it in our own idea of "standard of 
living" in terms of an ability to read and using that ability to 
expand one's horizons for the nominal period of 70 years, well, 
Willard, my apologies, but it sounds, again my apologies to our 
host. . .preposterous.

I am simply not going to start any discussion or argument with the 
kind of statement that says we can't know anything about ourselves.

"Complexity" be damned, we can still perceive the outcome in terms 
that are good enough to catch a baseball in rapid motion, without 
consciously doing the calculus required for a mathematician to tell 
us where/when.

Yes, things may be uncertain, but not in the unknowable sense of 
atoms a la Heisenberg, and the direct examples of how much reading 
we do from the members of this group put the lie to any statement 
that our reading is not directly perceived as improving our standard 
of living.

My previous message continues that thought to various conclusions.

> And since we're supposedly intelligent beings who can change 
> things (and muck them up), we're part and parcel of the emergent 
> happenings, yes? This means, among other things, experimenting.

True. . .and, after all, even for the most experienced outfielder 
there is still a certain amount of "experimenting" in catching the 
baseballs, they STILL adjust to the situation as it is happening.

Now, if the world could just adjust to eBooks as well as that. . . .

However, I do realize, particularly in my 38th year in the eBooks' 
fields, that the world changes slowly, and human nature even more 

However, I am confident, as I was on July 4, 1971, that eBooks will 
change the world as much as did The Gutenberg Press, and I have 
written much more on this topic elsewhere, but would gladly 
summarize here, if desires.


> Comments?

As above.

> Yours, WM

Thanks for the conversation, even though I have no idea where it 
came in, or where it will go out, as per Heisenberg's comments.

And thank you for this discussion group!

And for allowing me to be a part of it!

Michael S. Hart
Project Gutenberg
Inventor of ebooks

        Date: Tue, 31 Mar 2009 09:52:52 -0400
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen with them?
        In-Reply-To: <20090331052755.230BB307C3 at woodward.joyent.us>

The point, Michael, was not the numbers themselves, but how ridiculous
it is to quantify human development in terms of spilled ink, whether
that ink is spilled electronically or in print.  I don't see what
Godwin has to do with anything in this discussion.  I'm not asking you
to make my points for me, but to demonstrate understanding before

No, it's not about money -- that's silly.  I have no monetary interest
associated with these ideas.  I was the self-educated type long before
I started going to college and always read more on my own than I was
ever assigned.

Relegating Shakespeare and Milton's epic poetry to "fiction" as if
that were diametrically opposed to "fact" in some meaningful
sense...do you really mean what you say here?   If it can't be
quantified it's not a fact, and if it's not a fact it's not so very
important?  Why the praise for Jacqueline Susanne, then?

Yes, I am very discriminating.  I'd make a great state censor.  Just
like Milton.  I wonder how much that position pays these days?

I want to emphasize that I was not being facetious in my praise and
appreciation for you and your development of Project Gutenberg (all of
which would pass muster with me as state censor.  If it's an elected
position, your vote is safe with me).  As a formerly self-educated
type and as someone with limited access to good libraries, I
understand the value of online texts and appreciate the service you
have provided.  I've benefited from it for years. Thank you.

I very much appreciate the listmember who preferred researching using
electronic archives.  I know the feeling.  I've also learned there's
no substitute for browsing shelves and looking through tables of
contents and indexes.  I don't see this as an either/or but a
both/and.  I feel like I need to do both to really know what's out

Jim R

        Date: Tue, 31 Mar 2009 11:07:43 -0400
        From: Hope Greenberg <hope.greenberg at uvm.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.660 a billion e-books; what might happen with them?
        In-Reply-To: <20090331052755.230BB307C3 at woodward.joyent.us>

Willard asked:

So, I'd guess, we should start looking for new behaviours with the amounts of digital written stuff we have. So, what's new?

Which is better: more books online or fewer books online? That question 
is less interesting to me than the one Willard asks. History is rife 
with examples of events that altered our perception of the world around 
us, that moved societies and cultures in new directions. These examples 
occur in context with other events, however, so while we can look back 
and say "yes, at this point this event contributed to this result," 
predicting the future still remains an exercise in creativity and 
fantasy. Thus, if we do not know how a specific event will shape, or be 
shaped by, concurrent events, nor how these threads will manifest 
themselves in the tapestry of the future, can we at least tease out some 
of them? Looking for new behaviours seems to be a way to do that.

So, what is new? One of the joys of interacting with people born after 
1990, or with those who have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the 
online world for many years regardless of their age, is the opportunity 
to observe how their interaction with that world is shaping their 
perception of information, its acquisition and use. ('d like, here, to 
broaden the conversation from online books, even online texts, to online 
information.) Getting information or building information, when we 
consider the traditional scholarly approach, involved hard work, much 
thought, much time, a willingness to follow specific paths, endure 
established trials, and an immense effort to learn. I will never forget 
the first time I realised that, while Professor X did indeed carry 
around a wealth of information on his given topic, his greater skill was 
the ease with which he could summon up the correct reference volume or 
bibliographic volume related to his subject to find answers. Amassing 
that infrastructure consumed enough time to be considered the basis for 
his, and many others', definition of scholarship. Much of that process, 
that work, is now perceived as the work of a few minutes effort by 
someone with decent Boolean search skills.

One of the major changes, then, is the idea that "it's all online" (or 
if it isn't it will be soon). We noticed this when all references on 
student papers began coming from online sources. But that is only one 
small sliver. There is joy and relief in knowing that if I have a 
question regarding some minutiae related to a film I can probably 
satisfy my curiosity at IMDB. Or if something comes up in conversation 
or in the media about a topic I can probably get a cursory answer or at 
least some leads at Wikipedia. Regardless of one's belief in the 
fallibility or infallibility of either source, or the arguments that 
swirl around the comprehensiveness of such sources, their limitations, 
the fact that they are shaped by current ideas of what's important and 
that much information is being lost because it is not being put online 
(or will be lost because it is being put online but not managed), 
notions of information literacy, or information silos, etc. etc., the 
fact remains that for many people information is now something that is 
easily accessible, not something that requires a lifetime to obtain. Or 
as my teenage daughter asks, in all sincerity, "how did people manage 
before the web?" A million books, a billion books, read deeply or 
cursorily--the difference in number hardly matters when we are 
approaching and amount that equates in people's mind to "everything."

How does that kind of perception change the world? Ah, that is back to 
predicting the future. But I put it out here as one of core ideas that 
has, and will, change behaviors.

hope.greenberg at uvm.edu, U of Vermont

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