Eco on the disappearance of the book

Umberto Eco considered a failed prophecy of Marshall McLuhan in light of recent developments in e-publishing in an article published on October 30, 2013 in L’Espresso.
At the start of the Seventies, Marshall
McLuhan announced some profound changes in our ways of thinking and
communication. One of his intuitions was that we were entering into a
global village, and in the universe of the Internet we have certainly
seen the verification of his vision. However, after analyzing the
influence of the printing press on the evolution of the culture and
our individual sensibilities in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan
announced, in Understanding Media and other works, the sunset
of alphabetic linearity and the newly arisen dominance of images. To
hypersimplify this, he anticipated that the masses “will no longer
read anymore, they will watch TV, (or the strobing lights of the
McLuhan died
in 1980, just as we were entering the daily world of the personal
computer. (There appeared models that were more or less toys and
experimental objects at the end of the Seventies, but the mass market
began in 1981 with the IBM PC.) If McLuhan had lived
a few more years, he would
have had to admit that
even in a world apparently
dominated by images,
the personal computer was establishing a
new alphabetical civilization.
It may be true that the preschoolers of today use iPads, but all the
information we receive from the Internet, email, and SMS are based on
our knowledge of the
alphabet. Computers perfect the situation imagined in Hugo’s The
Hunchback of Notre Dame
, in which the
archdeacon Frollo, indicating first a book, and then the cathedral
seen from the window, rich with images and other visual symbols,
says: “this will kill that”. With all its
multimedia links, the computer certainly
possesses the characteristics of being the instrument of the global
village, and it has the capacity to revive again the “that” of
the Gothic cathedral, but it still
fundamentally rests upon neo-gutenbergian

To return to the alphabet, the invention of
the ebook has provided the possibility to read alphabetic texts on
screens instead of paper. And on these screens one can expect to read
yet another series of auguries predicting the disappearance of the
book and of the newspaper, (in part suggested by some declines in
sales.) One of the favorite sports of every unimaginative journalist
over the years is to ask the men of letters how they see the coming
demise of the world of print. It is not enough to argue that the book
remains of fundamental importance to the transmission and
conservation of information, or that we have scientific proof that
books printed 500 years ago have survived wonderfully while we cannot
scientifically demonstrate that the magnetized storage systems
presently in use can survive for more than ten years. (Nor can we
verify this, since computers today cannot read a floppy disk from the

Now, however, there are some
disconcerting occurrences that have caught the attention of
journalists, although we have not yet grasped their significance and
their eventual consequences. In August, Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought
the Washington Post, and while announcing the decline of the daily
newspaper, Warren Buffet recently acquired some 63 local newpapers. As
Federico Rampini observed in Repubblica the other day, Buffet is a giant
of the Old Economy and he is not an innovator, but he has a rare
acuity for discerning investment opportunities. And I suspect
that other sharks of Silicon Valley are also moving against the
Rampini asked if the final blow will
not be Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg purchasing the New York Times.
Even if this doesn’t happen, it is clear that the digital world is
overtaking print. What about commercial calculations, political
speculations, and the desire to preserve the press as a democratic
watchdog? I don’t feel that I have a sufficient grasp on the situation to
interpret these various facts correctly. However, I think it is interesting to
consider the possibility of the reversal of another famous prophecy. Perhaps
Mao had it wrong and one must take the paper tiger seriously.