6.19.2008

Paper Trail


If the flood efforts were any reflection of cultural priorities, the locals here proclaimed a tie between byte-based and paper-based knowledge: thousands simultaneously bulwarked the university's electronic brain in the Lindquest Center and fire-brigaded books from the UI Main Library's basement. (Good show, IC!)

It seems like forever that I've been hearing the bound, printed book is sure to die and be surpassed by e-books and blogs and other electronic media. The reasons offered are legion: Ease of delivery, business margins, print-on-demand savings, democracy of publishing, environmental concerns. . . . . So, why hasn't it happened yet? I used to think that the world of book buyers and bibliophiles - despite loving the feel of a book in the hands - were just waiting for the right delivery device. Now, some say the wait is over with the Kindle. So, again, the drum of doom begins to beat.

Does this changing of the guard have to happen? There was a fascinating article on Slate recently about the mechanics and efficiencies of online reading. It cited two types of reading: a kind of salience-only, short-attention-span reading that skims and selectively reads a website, a news story, or white paper for the usable information; and then "pleasure reading," which scientists call "ludic reading," isolationist, self-detaching, and spellcast (i.e., relatively effortless). At the end of the article, when the author is being his most ludic, he adds:
We'll do more and more reading on screens, but they won't replace paper—never mind what your friend with a Kindle tells you. Rather, paper seems to be the new Prozac. A balm for the distracted mind. It's contained, offline, tactile. William Powers writes about this elegantly in his essay "Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal." He describes the white stuff as "a still point, an anchor for the consciousness."
I recommend the Powers' essay. It's long, but quick, and heartening, and balanced in key ways that, say, McLuhan never was. Wouldn't it be nice to think that books may actually stick around?

2 comments:

Grendel said...

That Powers article is fascinating, and well worth the time it took. I read it online, and even though it's way too long to read online, I kept going and keenly felt the limitations of screen as I read about them. The nervousness of reading online, as he puts it. Thanks for that link.

Three paragraphs stood out for me, and I paste them here without further comment:

In this case “container” has a different meaning from the one discussed above in relation to media theory. Here it refers to the subjects’ sense that a magazine holds information rather than projecting it outward. It’s the same reason we say we saw something “in” a magazine, but “on” television. To discover the contents of a magazine, you have to go inside and look around. But you stay outside a television, sitting and watching as it displays its wares.

Paper’s slogan could be, “Just this one thing.” Precisely by being finite, it imposes order on the vastness of the information universe. Anything printed on paper is a selection, a standalone packet of ideas pulled out of the macrocosm – not just information but implicitly someone’s idea of knowledge. In a relentlessly networked world, the fact that a physical library cannot contain everything becomes an advantage. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid write in their book The Social Life of Information, “it has become increasingly clear that libraries are less ‘collections,’ than useful selections that gain usefulness from what they exclude as much as what they hold.”

E-books have not taken off for a number of reasons. Most have used LCD displays, the same technology behind today’s computer and cellphone screens. Unlike paper, which reflects light, LCDs emit light, which makes them hard on the eyes and therefore the mind. “One of the main jobs of the brain is to decide what not to pay attention to,” explains James L. McQuivey, a technology analyst who follows e-books and e-paper for Forrester Research in Boston. “One of the problems with direct light is it’s constantly asking for attention, and your brain gets tricked by it into constantly focusing, not only visually but emotionally.”

Pete said...

While I do think that e-books will penetrate deeper, I don't buy the idea of the book as obsolete. The very question at the center here-- "we have a more advanced alternative to the book, so why are people still reading the book?" is fallacious in the way of all technological determinism. It assumes that newer and more complex is necessarily preferable for the end user. But it isn't. People still go for walks now that we have cars. I still have several boxes of LPs even though I could just listen to my mp3s. Just last night we soaked a bag of beans even though we could have just used a can.

The biggest push from the e-book, not surprisingly, comes from the supply-siders who would most clearly benefit from a shake up of the distribution models. Like Amazon. And that's often the way it goes with technological change: what's happening on the back end is more determinative than what's happening on the consumer end. Whether book consumers are different from consumers more generally is a legitimate question. Certainly, books are sold differently than cars or kumquats or widgets. There's a peculiar sort of identification going on and that identification itself might be unusually attached to the particular distribution model. Perhaps they resist the usual methods of stimulating tech. demand.

But really, the answer to the question is very simple: e-books are slow to catch on because people who read books like books and continue to the buy them. The E-book isn't solving any real problems for such people. I have never really thought "Gee, I wish was able to carry 297 more books with me on this vacation." There are many instances in which the burden of choice is greater than the benefit. This would seem like one such instance.

Certainly, e-books continue to have their uses. But my bet is that electronic paper and print on demand will be the big things in 2020, with e-books relegated to the purposes for which they are most pragmatic- thick reports, stacked but relatively short documents like college apps, etc. In other words, work stuff that now goes into thick folders or those binding machines at Kinkos. Those binding machines- they have the most to fear from the e-book. Whither our laments for the kinko's spiral binder?