What Are We Giving Up With E-Text?

Engineering is about tradeoffs, and each technology has its advantages and drawbacks. Whenever we leave one technology behind and adopt a new one, we’re sacrificing something. We may be making a terrific trade, getting a hundred times as much cool stuff as give up — but we’re still giving up something, and we should be aware of what it is.

We’re currently moving away from paper printing, replacing physical books with e‑books and text readers. We need to look at what we’re giving up in the process.

Lev Grossman recently wrote an article for the New York Times‘s Sunday Book Review, “From Scroll to Screen”. In it, he points out how our current book format, the codex (multiple pages bound in a rectangular shape between two covers) took over from the scroll (a single long sheet of paper wrapped around a rod or roller). He cites easy random access as the codex’s chief benefit, and an absolutely critical one.

We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet’s underbrush as they click from link to link. But e‑books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e‑book.

Not to use too much of Grossman’s text, but another section near the end of his essay points out a critical aspect of the sacrifice we’re making as we move toward e‑books:

[I]f we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience.

Except that’s not the only sacrifice involved. That’s simply the technological, UX sacrifice — but we’re also making a societal sacrifice, and it’s one that may be even worse. We’re sacrificing a huge number of readers, many of whom become writers and boosters of text as a mode of communication.

Recently, Seanan McGuire wrote “Across the Digital Divide”, in which she talks about what it’s like to be poor, and about how the current (official, U.S. government) measures of poverty are based on what was available in 1955. Noting that computers and e‑book readers didn’t exist then, and so aren’t even noticed in modern-day poverty measurements, she then unleashes her main point:

[E]very time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to “Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier,” what I hear, however unintentionally, is “Poor people don’t deserve to read.”

She notes that this isn’t due to malice; it’s just hard for those of us with lots of money and bandwidth to see across the divide that (at least) 1 in 5 Americans are still on the downside of. But she also points out that seemingly-simple “remedies” like a low-cost e-reader program for poor kids, or even giving them away free, will not solve the problem. That doesn’t address concerns ranging from bandwidth to theft.

As an aside: The statement “print is dead”, in 2011, is as foolishly wrong as “we have a Moon colony” would be. We might get a Moon colony some day. And print is certainly going through some decline, but it’s still too soon to say whether it will ever fade away completely. (We’re still waiting for the “Network Computer” to take over, for Java to render all other programming languages obsolete, and for decent AI, too.)

Even if we assume that print is about to die, that it is inevitable and the most we can do is make our peace with the oncoming new technology, there are still things we can and must do to ensure that it doesn’t impoverish our society by taking literate expression with it. As McGuire says:

We need paper books to endure. Every one of us, if we can log onto this site and look at this entry, is a “have” from the perspective of a kid living in an apartment with cockroaches in the walls and junkies in the unit beneath them. A lot of the time, the arguments about the coming ebook revolution forget that the “have nots” also exist, and that we need to take care of them. (emphasis in original)

Jennifer Brozek’s “Poverty and Books” covers a lot of the same territory, describing how she got her love of reading and words from library books and second- and third-hand books. Note that Ms. Brozek is now an award-winning author and editor, and like Ms. McGuire, is a rising talent in the genre fiction scene. If we ignore their advice, we risk throwing away 20% — or more — of the next generation of excellent writers.

That’s not a price I want to pay.

Finally, Dreamwidth user Elf points out that the social contract being promoted by e‑book publishers is essentially and profoundly selfish. In “The Selfishness of Ebooks”, she tells a tale that she tags as “potentially triggery for bibliophiles”, which turned out to be a good warning in my (bibliophilic) opinion. Her tale involves something you can mouse over to read, but don’t say you haven’t been warned – stripped of the gruesome details, it involves someone who would habitually destroy books while reading them, obliterating each page as soon as he’d read it. Elf sees a parallel with e‑book publishers’ attempts to ensure that we never, ever share our books with others — we might as well destroy them completely once we’re done with them.

Read it. Read it again if you want. Download & read it later, on a different device. But don’t pass it on. As soon as you’re done with it — forever-and-truly done, never going to read that book again (and really, how many times am I going to re-read Harlequin romances)… destroy it. Delete that file, blank that space on the memory card. (emphasis in original)

Elf’s basic point, and it’s one I can’t find any flaw in, is: “Books are social. Ebooks are selfish.”

In the online version of Little Brother, in the section called, “The Copyright Thing”, Cory Doctorow writes: “I recently saw Neil Gaiman give a talk at which someone asked him how he felt about piracy of his books. He said, “Hands up in the audience if you discovered your favorite writer for free — because someone loaned you a copy, or because someone gave it to you? Now, hands up if you found your favorite writer by walking into a store and plunking down cash.” Overwhelmingly, the audience said that they’d discovered their favorite writers for free, on a loan or as a gift.” Again, books are social: We don’t just read them, we also want to share them with others.

E‑books and readers have many wonderful features, from easily-enlargeable text for people with poor eyesight to a lightweight form factor that makes it so people with weak wrists or arthritis can absorb the latest Neal Stephenson tome without struggling with a door-stopping hardback edition. Oh, and of course it’s easier to Ctrl‑F the thing to find text you’re specifically looking for.

But what are we giving up? And, more importantly, is there any reason why we have to give it up? Or are we just getting herded along by circumstances, and forgetting to actually look at where we’re going, and exert some decision-making willpower of our own?

We have the power to decide what kind of future we want. But we have to stop and think long enough to use it. McGuire and Elf have been doing some thinking, and the points they make are important ones.

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