Inky ghosts at the United Nation's hi-tech book feast

When the United Nations cultural agency invited global experts to explore the next chapter for books, did the view of the future move from analogue to digital clarity? Boyd Tonkin reports from Italy

Sometimes actions really can speak louder than words. If you simply listened to the addresses, the debates and the workshops in the Villa Reale at Monza, outside Milan, during Unesco's global congress on "the book tomorrow" last week, the future of reading would have sounded too close to call. Optimists and pessimists, utopians and doomsayers, champions of the latest digital devices and devotees of old-fashioned print-on-paper: leadership of the argument swung back and forth like a closely contested Italian Grand Prix at the F1 circuit just across the vast park that flanks this 18th-century Habsburg summer palace.

But complicated conferences always have plenty of downtime, after meals, between sessions – especially one like this. It drew together around 200 publishers, librarians, authors, academics, lawyers, technology specialists and media folk from China to Chile, and from Norway to New Zealand, for the United Nations cultural agency's first major moot about "the future of the written word". So I looked at what delegates did during their breaks, under the sumptuous carved ceilings of the resuscitated salons (much of the palace still awaits the restorer's hand).

Laptops and notebooks hummed. Smartphones growled and trilled. The odd e-reader purred. As for the black butcher's block of the ever-glinting tablet – well, someone might have concluded that Apple's Steve Jobs had hired the Villa Reale for an epic iPad commercial. In this strenuously tech-friendly ambience, between the rococo plasterwork, the organisers of Focus 2011 (http://focus2011.org) even posted live tweets on large screens beside each speaker. Events were streamed to student audiences in Monza and Milan. And, over three days, I don't think that I spotted anyone reading a printed book.

On this showing, no one could ever accuse Unesco – most often discussed in Britain for its sometimes-controversial World Heritage Site listings – of living in the past. Riccardo Cavallero, from Italy's Mondadori publishing combine, said that: "I believe that digitisation is to publishing what Copernicus was to astronomy." There was no room for flat-earthers here. No cluster of Renaissance sky-watchers could have wielded their telescopes more proudly.

Yet this march of the machines was something of a deceptive hologram. Like executives in any line of business, this battalion of movers and shakers still had work to do, whatever their GPS location. And for quite a few – whether the emollient guy from Google Book Search or the mine-blinded hero (Tamru Belay) who runs a digital Braille programme in Ethiopia – technical innovation was always the name of their game. In Italy itself, the e-reading market has developed slowly so far. After the sessions ended, I travelled into a rain-soaked Milan and took a couple of short rides on the Metro. Guess what? The crowds, macs (of the waterproof sort) and umbrellas notwithstanding, the Milanese were reading physical books. I stood facing one four-seater bench. Three passengers out of four had a volume on the go.

Around and just off the great square of the Duomo, you will find splendid bookshops owned by the titans of Italian publishing: Mondadori, Feltrinelli, Rizzoli. All seemed quite keen last week on the new translation on Patricia Cornwell's Port Mortuary; in Italian, Autopsia Virtuale. At Monza, it sometimes felt as if we had conducted a virtual autopsy on the printed word. But outside this fully wired bubble, the corpse was showing distinct signs of life.

In fairness, a strong consensus at the conference argued that we are looking towards a long stretch of co-habitation. Unesco's Francesco Bandarin affirmed, unsurprisingly, that "The e-book and the printed book are bound to live together for a very long time." True, no doubt. But in this multi-media ménage, who will wear the trousers, and call the shots? Here plenty of uncertainty still reigns.

"New modes of communication don't displace old ones," according to Robert Darnton, historian of the book and director of the Harvard University library. "Manuscript publishing actually increased after Gutenberg." For him, our information environment has become "richer and more complex. That is what we're experiencing in this crucial era of transition towards a dominant digital ecology."

So: even Professor Darnton, a level-headed sceptic who calmly debunked the death-of-the-book hysteria, seems to think of the future printed work as a horse to the digital automobile. People cherish their horses – and often make serious money from them – but tend not to saddle up for work.

Besides, the body – if not soul – of one partner in this couple will change. Several specialists emphasised that the era of the e-book as a humble mimic of its printed elder sister will soon end. "Enhancement" of various kinds will allow a new artistic platform to evolve. For Bruno Racine, president of France's Bibliothèque Nationale, "the electronic book of tomorrow will be very different from a simple facsimile of the printed text".

It's very early days, everybody warned: no one, however far-sighted, has any clear view of the landscape of digital publishing in five years' time, let alone a decade hence. Today's wonder widget may be tomorrow's quaint curio. So beware, you techno-innocents who fancy emptying those groaning shelves in order to cram whole libraries onto a proprietary device. You may find yourself a short distance down the road in the literary equivalent of Betamax or mini-disc hell, your beloved books illegible and inaccessible. "Technologies come and go, and they don't even know who Michelangelo is," sardonically commented the Canadian writer – and President of International PEN – John Ralston Saul, adding for some bemused listeners: "That's an English poetry joke" (from Eliot's "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock", of course).

This grasp of the breakneck pace of change softened the rhetorical tone. Frankly, I expected more Google- and Amazon-bashing, above all from the European public-sector notables. In spite of a few routine digs, we heard relatively little. Those almighty corporations look less than invincible to well-informed insiders these days, with Google's mass digitisation project now stalled in the US courts.

Geoffrey Nunberg, professor in the School of Information at Berkeley, California, and previously a leading Silicon Valley research scientist, even had sympathy to spare for Google and the flaws of its digital library. For Nunberg, Google has fallen into all the early blunderer's mistakes. More circumspect virtual librarians will learn from them: "You don't have any clear idea about how to do something right until you see it done wrong." The gaffe-prone metadata which Google uses to classify material counts as a total "trainwreck", with (according to the company's own scientists) a 28 per cent rate of error. "You see a manual for internet browsers attributed to Sigmund Freud," noted Nunberg; or, perhaps, 265 works ascribed to Umberto Eco prior to 1944 - when the Milan-domiciled polymath turned 12.

As the arguments between hi-tech hopes and fears see-sawed, most players looked for the chance to seek a truce between private and public interests, community and marketplace. Not everyone was feeling so mellow, though. "We must reject e-books until they respect our freedom," ran the flyer handed out by Richard Stallman, pioneer of the anti-corporate free software movement and legendary founder of the GNU Project for open-access computing. Stallman points to the surveillance that Amazon, above all, exerts over the electronic books that its customers license but never truly own to do with as they please. To him, digital rights management – the sort of remote control that allowed Amazon to delete users' copies of (of all books) Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four after a dispute – should even rank as a "felony".

On the highest principles, Stallman fervently believes in the free and open sharing of content and creativity. That idea had plenty of support, as session after session pointed to the flaws in inherited copyright law and considered the alternatives, whether "copyleft" (Stallman's model) or the "Creative Commons" licences that allow authors both to distribute material without the usual restrictions but also to retain control over how it's used.

"Is copyright still the best legal framework to remunerate literary and artistic creation?" asked Milagros del Corral, former head of Spain's National Library and a prime mover behind the Monza event. "Copyright has a long history of adapting to new technology. Will it manage to do so now?"

It should, and fast, many delegates maintained. Some called for a "Berne 2.0" convention to update the international protocols on authors' rights first agreed in 1886. For Hala Essalmawi, a lawyer from the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, "Berne was a reply to a question put 120 years ago. We need a different one today."

Which left, for me, one large question that the conference seemed curiously reluctant to address. In the open-source digital future, with e-reading cheap (or even free), who will fund the writer? When I pointed out that the case for post-copyright access came mostly from people who drew safe salaries from institutions – publishers, universities, libraries – rather than from professional authors, the tenured technocracy descended on me from a height. Jean-Claude Guédon, from the University of Montreal, scoffed that bestsellers such as Danielle Steel were not the issue here, and that few writers in any case had ever paid their way. I wasn't talking about the Steels, Pattersons and Rowlings, of course, who will flourish whatever the delivery platform for their work, but about the thousands of creative minds – from textbook writers to literary novelists – who still rely on fair revenues for much, if not all, of their family income.

Others had noticed this apparent bias against freelance authorship. John Ralston Saul said that "there's a handful of independent writers here gathering in dark corners, glancing at the rest of you and wondering what it is you intend to do with us". Had we all met in Monza for a performance of a hi-tech Hamlet without the prince?

Thankfully, no. Many readers will have a soft spot for Il Postino, Michael Radford's gem of a film about the exiled Chilean poet Neruda teaching literature, and love, to the young man who delivers his mail. Fewer, in Britain, will know the novel by Chilean author Antonio Skármeta – Ardiente Paciencia – from which it derives. It was the genial, avuncular Skármeta, "a romantic and relentless admirer of the paper book", who had the last word in a closing address. Remembering how he used to finish the plots of Chilean radio soap operas for his Croatian migrant granny, he brought us down – or up – to the unchanging arts of the story, and the honour its tellers still deserve.

Skármeta recalled that the postman in his novel had purloined Neruda's verses to speed his love affair and then defended the theft by saying that "poetry doesn't belong to the authors – it belongs to the users". T-shirt manufacturers had in turn stolen that sentiment as a slogan. These days, its true author reminded us, his line has apparently become the corporate policy of digital-media giants. "We could never have imagined that this innocent joke could become part and parcel of a predatory policy by content providers." Inky spectre at the electronic feast, or messenger from the stubborn paper-bound reality beyond the Villa Reale's long gravel drive, Skármeta won the warmest ovation of the week.

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