Digital Reading

I have plenty of windmills to tilt at without looking for trouble. Trouble, in this case, being defined as things I have a marginal interest in but not any particular knowledge about.  I realize for some readers that describes this blog .

Pure Analog

Today’s subject is the technology of reading. I have a vested interest in reading. Very little of what moves me to write has its origin outside the written word. So we turn to a trifecta of blog posts from Megan McArdle, Ned Resnikoff and Nicholas Carr on the subject of the emerging digital technology of reading. (More specifically, what seems to have set off  the discussion is wondering whether public libraries should continue to support printed books.)

Each  post is worth reading although the time-pressed may just want to read Resnikoff. Essentially the discussion is about the merits of e-readers. Carr notes recent reports of the failure of e-readers in schools. Resnikoff claims format neutrality with a fondness for print. McArdle argues that consumer choice will ultimately determine the fate of print.

That’s the condensed version. I have more than a little sympathy for the pro-print school but I clearly read in all media. We own an iPad and I’ve even played with the Sony eReader. (Sony has a presence here in town and wisely planted a sample reader in the library.) So I have some digital experience and yet  my mode of choice is still print.

Studies, personal preference and market-defined outcomes aside, though, I think reading and writing are too important to leave to technology discussions. Things that existed before you were born were once technology. Writing is 7000-year old technology. Paper is 5000 years old. Printing with movable type is 500 years old. That may make them old-fashioned or outdated. Or it might mean they have been optimized.

Carr does a superb job of outlining the merits of books but he misses one that everyone who takes up this subject misses. Those optimized technologies will work without benefit of modern power sources. Sure, the result might be the scarce, expensive books McArdle believes an e-reader dominated market would provide. But you could do it because we already have.

Inconveniently, the internet runs on electricity. In the US 46% of electricity comes from burning coal and another 20% from natural gas.  Commit to e-readers and online delivery and no matter what your environmental beliefs the burning of those things increases. Batteries need charging; servers run 24/7. The sun does not shine around the clock, every river can’t be dammed and wind doesn’t always blow. Facts are often inconvenient things, especially when they call to our attention that our infatuation with technology is at root emotional. Rationally, for all the reasons outlined by Carr, there is no real need to improve or supplant the book.

Carr rightly points out that any digital platform locks you into one framework dictated by the engineering. For those more interested in the subject–including how the technological imperative to improve has increased costs and arguably lost material–I recommend Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold. Unless you are a committed technologist you’ll think differently about all improving technologies.

I have a larger concern, rooted in anthropology and a sense of equity. Written language is the development that allowed for transmission of our shared cultural heritage.  Let’s suppose digital does dominate. What should we make of a culture that willfully creates a significant barrier to entry? Because that’s what needing a $100+ appliance in order to read is.

Elites are always adopting things that make things better for everyone. Yet somehow it’s always most rewarding for the elites.


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