WITH this, its twentieth issue, the Scottish Review of Books takes its first tentative steps in cyberspace. As of now we have a website – scottishreviewofbooks.org – which you may visit at your leisure and on whose contents you may comment as you see fit. While not quite in the one giant leap forward for mankind category it represents a significant moment in the short history of this magazine, one which we hope will bring many new readers irrespective of where they live.
This long overdue innovation is driven by several imperatives, foremost among which is a desire to bridge the gap between issues. Three months – we flatter ourselves – is too long to wait for fresh despatches from the SRB HQ. Henceforth, the dialogue between readers, writers and editors will, we hope, be continuous, to the mutual benefit of all.
Excited though we are by this development we are also keenly aware that the internet is simply a means to an end, another stepping stone in the fascinating and complex history of communication. For ancient folks the first sight of symbols on a cave wall was doubtless cause for the popping of champagne corks. The same surely was the response of the Egyptians when they made papyrus out of grass. Meanwhile, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century was arguably civilisation’s most meaningful, signalling the beginning of an era in which information could be disseminated cheaply, quickly and portably around the globe.
With Gutenberg’s breakthrough the book – whose history long preceded the printing press and moveable type – became the dominant means of human beings informing their fellows of their thoughts. And so it has remained for over five hundred years. In that time the book has been given numerous cosmetic makeovers but in essence it is the same object – pages filled with type and bound together between boards of varying sturdiness – that was produced by Gutenberg’s immediate successors. Few innovations have such durability, which is a testimony to its success.
Today, however, cyberspace and the so-called digital revolution threaten to usurp the book’s primacy at the top of the communication table. In the past rivals to the book have come and gone the way of square wheels and the Sinclair C5. Nothing, it seemed, could better it. It did what it promised it would do. Moreover, it looked good, simultaneously furnishing, enhancing and insulating rooms for generations. The book, you would have confidently bet, was here to stay.
That, as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, may no longer be the case. Bibliophiles may disagree but for the first time books have a serious contender to their supremacy. Google, for example, is digitalising every book it can lay its hands on, making a reality if what was once the pipe dream of a Borgesian library, which contains every book ever written in every language, available in every home on the planet. Nor need location be of any relevance. The time is not too far off when we will be able to read on a screen whichever book takes our fancy whenever we want irrespective of wherever we are.
What once seemed like the fantastic imaginings of Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick is coming to pass at breakneck speed. Nothing, it appears, can stop it. And who would want to? The idea that we can access entire libraries hitherto available only to a select few strikes us as rather wonderful and mind-expanding. As the Industrial Revolution thrust change upon us so too does its digital counterpart. How we adapt to this, how we assimilate and assess the material with which we are constantly bombarded, is a question yet to be resolved.
All of which is by way of championing the case for publications such as this. Irrespective of what form content comes in future it seems to us that intelligent, impartial and informed criticism is a useful and necessary byproduct. More than ever Scots, ten years after devolution, need to be able to look in the mirror and reflect maturely and sophisticatedly on what its artists, academics and others produce. We need to look each other squarely in the eye and articulate without fear or favour what we think. Whether that’s on the printed page or in cyberspace is neither here nor there. For where we’re concerned the one is as vital as the other.