Thursday, July 8, 2010
So what's wrong with getting rid of paper books? They weigh a lot. They take up space. It's a pain to find what you need in them. Only one person can check them out of the library at a time. They become obsolete almost immediately (especially in science and engineering).
The Internet should be to information technology what the printing press was five hundred years ago, or the invention of writing five thousand years ago. There were reactionary complaints about those technological revolutions, too. I recall, for instance, reading a rant of a 4th millennium Egyptian Luddite (yes, I'm that old) that these kids these days have become so lazy; they don't have to memorize wisdom any more, they just have to look it up when they need it thanks to this new-fangled invention of writing...on paper, no less! Feh! It will be the end of civilization, mark my words, sonny!
Of course, that guy's a mummy now, walking the earth eating souls and spewing locusts out of his mouth...oh, wait, that was a movie (shot digitally).
At the risk of sounding like a five-thousand year-old mummy, I want to make the case for paper books. And paper magazines. And paper newspapers. And the case is choice. I don't like the fact that the only way I can read something is by reading it off of a screen. I love the Internet and digital media, don't get me wrong. But I love books, too. I like having the choice of curling up with a book or a magazine and not a laptop or a pad of any brand. And gauging by the deteriorating WiFi performance of the world lately, a book is far more reliable. A book never needs to be booted up, doesn't crash, doesn't shut down when the battery drains, doesn't require power at all, in fact, doesn't get viruses, and doesn't burn your stomach when you doze off in your hammock.
With books, if you're doing research, you can spread the relevant volumes open on your desk...a "virtual screen" (irony intended) several feet wide. You don't get a headache or eye-strain reading a book. And books don't interrupt your concentration with annoying pop-up characters that chirp, "You seem to be reading a book! Need help?"
Another cool thing about a physical book is that you have tactile feedback of progress while you're reading it. It's so good to feel the heft of the left-hand side of an open book, contemplating with satisfaction how much you've accomplished...or feeling the thickness on the right-hand side of how much more you have to enjoy. With a digital book you really have no idea (except for some abstract, disconnected little bar) where you are in the book. It may be about to end, or it may stretch on to the end of time. And we all know that the little progress bars on computers lie.
I'm old enough to remember the transition from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray. And old enough to remember the transition from vinyl LPs to CDs to MP3. I still have hundreds of old LPs in my Mummy's Tomb, in fact, waiting for some future archaeologist to unearth. But I've also noticed that there's lately and illogically been a resurgence of vinyl. A whole new generation are rediscovering it. Aficionados assert that the quality of sound from an LP is far better than from the digital "compromise" of MP3. Whatever. As long as they bring them pleasure and they have a choice.
Just as TV did not make movies go away, and radio did not make newspapers go away, and writing did not make wisdom go away, digital media won't make anything before it go away. It will just add to the choices. Unless those choices are taken away from us.
So there, Stanford.