Freedom of Choice (Part 2 of 2)

April 22, 2011

Any time I criticize anything about e-books there are people who assume I’m a luddite, that I don’t appreciate the benefits of technology. Actually I don’t know anyone who doesn’t appreciate the benefits of technology. Not taking advantage of ways advances in technology can improve our lives would be like never recording the songs of the Beatles just because we have to buy the White Album again every few years. But I do know people who think that, between Google and Kindles, we can stop printing books on paper and raze libraries to the ground. Amazingly some of these people don’t know their IP from their ISP, and while they get starry-eyed about how many trees will be saved they never think about the petroleum that goes into producing the plastic cases of their computers, not to mention all the component parts and the power sources that keep them running.

It’s not that I’m against technology. I just don’t think we should put all our eggs in one virtual basket. Digital media forms definitely have their advantages. Tablets and other e-book devices are light and easy to carry, and if it hasn’t happened already it won’t be long before you can carry the entire Library of Congress in a device that’s thinner than the Mayberry phonebook. For kids in school this can mean not lugging around ten or twelve pounds of textbooks-although a textbook can survive a drop down the stairs better than a tablet computer. For academic research this is a huge boost because researchers can, with a few clicks, scan through thousands, even millions of pages of data in search of a funny video of a cat. I also used to know a librarian whose sister worked as a researcher for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. People would write in because they’d spotted errors, she’d check them, and, if they were bona fide errors, they’d be corrected in an upcoming edition which could take years. Now corrections can be made in seconds-although so can nistakes. And around the 1830’s people decided that acid-treated paper was the way of the future, not realizing that the acid would make the paper turn yellow and brittle so, ironically, a book published in 1800 will hold up better than one published in 1900. People didn’t really figure this out until the 1980’s, so about a hundred and fifty years’ worth of books are in the process of self-destructing. But in terms of shelf life digital data is still a sprinter while books are marathon runners. If I’d saved a file in a word processing program just fifteen years ago and hadn’t updated it, it would be unreadable now without expensive conversion software, but a book printed five hundred years ago may be fragile but doesn’t require anything more technical than opening the cover.

And owners of digital devices have to deal with everything from battery life to the fact that you never really own an e-book, a lesson some people learned the hard way not too long ago when their digital copies of, of all things, 1984, disappeared from their devices. Libraries also got a lesson in this several years ago after cancelling their print subscriptions and even, in some cases, throwing away old print copies of journals published by a major scientific publisher in favor of a vast electronic archive that contained all the old articles and added new ones. It seemed like a good deal until the publisher decided to delete certain articles. They had good reasons for doing this-they’d discovered the articles were plagiarized or medically unsound. But they never advertised what they were doing. Library patrons who clicked on certain articles in the electronic table of contents got "404 NOT FOUND". It took court action for the publisher to stop the practice.

I also couldn’t help being struck by the fact that the recent revolution in Egypt-which was aided by, and may have been impossible without, the Internet-took place in one of the oldest cultures in the word to use paper. Sheets of Egyptian papyrus have survived thousands of years. The word "paper" even comes from "papyrus". Yeah, that’s Latin, not Egyptian, but who do you think taught the Romans how make paper? When reports of the Egyptian peoples’ internet access being cut off came out it made me think even more how important the internet can be and yet how easily it can be lost. When Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic he may have been thinking of how easily it can do a disappearing act. And then there’s the aesthetic appeal of books. Apparently the revolution Guttenberg started had its naysayers, people who thought movable type diminished the art of bookmaking. And I can understand that point when I watch my wife make her own books which are works of art, especially compared to mass-produced paperbacks, but even the tactile quality of a cheap paperback gives some of us book lovers a thrill we don’t get from a screen. And then there are covers. Some romance readers say they like e-books because they can read their lurid stories without feeling ashamed, but I say that if someone looks down on you for reading a tale of love on the high seas with a lurid cover that’s their problem, not yours. But that’s another story. We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, but when was the last time you were browsing a bookstore and a snazzy title grabbed your attention? The fact that bookstores are disappearing faster than dodos worries me, though-although that’s not entirely the Internet’s fault. As I said, I’m not against technology. If when I was in school I could have written my term papers sitting under a tree with a laptop and given them to my teacher without even standing up I would have. But we have to be realistic about the limits as well as the benefits of any medium. Fortunately life isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure book where we can only advance by choosing one of two mutually exclusive options. Print books and their digital counterparts both have advantages and disadvantages, and we can choose and balance both. The important thing is preserving history because with the knowledge of what’s come before we have a better chance of guessing at what’s a few pages ahead.

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