Thursday, July 8, 2010

Digital Schmidgital

Heard a disturbing story on NPR this morning about how Stanford's engineering school is reducing the paper titles in its library by 85% in order to move to digital and online resources. This is a trend that hi-tech corporations like Apple, Google, Sony, etc. have been pushing--as much as broadcast corporations in the 1950s pushed that other hot technology, television, with the idea that we won't need any other media choices but one...the one they coincidentally happen to be invested in.  Books? Who needs books any more when you have an iPad or a Kindle or whatever? Print is dead (which I think Marshall McLuhan might have said over fifty years ago, but I might be mistaken; he also said "I don't necessarily believe everything I say.").

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.


  1. Very well put, Mr. Berry. I am not as avid a reader as my wife, but I do like books and can see the tactile part of a book as important. For years, my wife, Therese, has extolled the virtues a good book in the same way as you have. I am an artist. There was a time when I finished a storyboard on actual paper with actual mediums, I still would have to take a slide of it or risk never ever seeing any evidence that I ever created that piece. While most commercial art is performed on computer and there is no doubt of many advantages, I still feel the need to "feel". And, so it is with print. We can coexist... and we don't need to feel like we are less "green" because of it!

  2. As much as I love the new "all digital" world, there's nothing like grabing a nice book, cuddling up next to the fire and having a good read. Thanks for the great post! You tell 'em!

  3. And now, right on cue, David Brooks in the NYT wrote a piece about some new studies that show that kids who have actual books in the home do statistically better in school than kids who just use digital media. Something about books enhancing the ability to process better...can't remember, I didn't read it all that carefully--it was online.

  4. I think you left out the most important thing, which is that Steve Jobs, Janet Napolitano or those creepy Google guys have no control over what I can or can't read and they can't monitor my readings in their secret databases and send someone over to check in on me when when my reading selections indicate subversive proclivities (although it could be too late after this post). They also can't delete books or paragraphs on my shelves that are not in-line with approved viewpoints.

  5. Yes, that is true, NSTGJ. I did forget that most important thing. But remember what former Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear." That should reassure you.