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Seth Shostak Headshot

Burn the Bookcases!

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My new office has four high-and-wide bookcases, which is to say that these chipboard extravaganzas take up half my available wall space. They're stuffed with a thousand science tomes, technical reports, and a potpourri of notebooks. They're also the first things seen by anyone who inadvertently sashays into my quarters.

I assume visitors will be impressed by this pulpwood paean to erudition, and will treat me accordingly. But frankly, I'm not sure I'm impressed.

Yes, there's a lot of information in this stack of literae scriptae, but most of it will never be looked at again, and the rest is largely cryptic: books with tidbits of knowledge I might someday need, but won't know are there. More likely than not, I'll just do a Google search.

So I'm thinking, maybe I should just scan it all, write it to a hard disk, and then toss the texts. At the least, I'd do the boss a favor by sparing him the expense of endlessly heating and cooling all that cellulose. And by turning this mini-library into a virtual Kindle, maybe I'd have real access to its contents.

Mind you, I'm reluctant, even in principle. Books are a special case. Unlike that short report I just sent to the printer, they have both cachet and cost. Throwing out a book is like throwing out perfectly good food.

That's an issue of personal inhibition. But what's really tripping me up are the practical constraints. Few of these publications are yet available electronically. Of course, I could scan them myself, but at a minute a page, I'd be busy with this project for more than a year, every working minute of every working day. That might prove tedious, not to mention as boring as pine.

Even if I could hire some highly-trained weasels to do the scanning, I wouldn't have the disk space to hold all those image files. I figure it would take 10 or 20 terabytes, or if you prefer, a boxful of thumb drives.

But that number, while beyond what our IT department is willing to give me, isn't actually that far beyond. An order of magnitude or so. And since the price of digital storage drops by half every five hundred days, in a few years it would be economically possible to encode all this pulp as bits and bytes. Maybe I should put an appeal for weasels on craigslist.

Still, the really mind-blowing alternative to books-as-wallpaper is something a bit farther down the pike: practical storage at the atomic level. A month ago, IBM researchers demonstrated techniques for interacting with single iron atoms using a scanning tunneling microscope. If they can exploit this type of technology for computer memory, then DRAM chips would shrink in size by a factor of a million. The next step would be to develop 3-D memory -- data cubes rather than data chips. That would garner a further scale reduction.

Consider this: if you could store merely one bit per iron atom, then a chunk of memory the size of a sand grain could hold five million terabytes, even assuming that 90% of the atoms in that grain are part of the read/write infrastructure, rather than actual memory bits. That's 100 thousand times the book collection of the Library of Congress. It's also (more than) equal to all the words ever uttered by humans, in case having space for a complete archive of our species' chit-chat is something you've always wanted.

There are some people who think we'll soon have the capability to take such a "data-grain" - perhaps embedded in the scalp -- and interface it to our consciousness. If so, then you can really impress folks at the water cooler by spiking your conversation with facts and bon mots drawn from the entire human experience. Google on legs.

I'm not quite so optimistic that such an interface to our brains is near to hand, but the more realistic possibility of squeezing all the wood pulp crowding my office into the smallest of hand-held devices has given me a new perspective.

In particular, we may be the last generation to festoon our offices with paper, sewn and glued up into one-pound data packets called books.

Sell chipboard short.

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