Get Off My Lawn!

After reading this Slashdot article (to be fair: just the summary, didn’t bother to RTFA yet) I remembered several occasions where people (ages ~20 to ~60) told me how a physical book was much better than an e-book. I think that whole ordeal is just another example for “Things I can’t accept because they weren’t there when I was a kid and still had an open mind”.

Now I don’t want this to sound too harsh – It’s completely normal. As a small child, your mind is ready to accept almost anything as reality, since you are still getting used to it. Soon you’ll be developing concepts and comparing them to the real world. During puberty your brain gets rewired again and after that you’re pretty much stuck with your views and your model of the world around you. You’re pretty sure you know how the world works, how it should work and how it could work (if you were in charge) and it doesn’t matter if you lived 20 or 80 years, if you spent all your life in some little one-horse-town or traveled the world, or if you have any education (of course there are exceptions). Maybe you don’t know some specific information, but that’s what specialists are for. You know the stuff that matters, you have most of the information that is worth having.

Now change comes along. It’s not inherently good or bad – but there is a chance that you have some experience that indicates that it’s mostly good (if you had a bad childhood) or bad (if you had a good childhood).  You can’t really stop change, not matter how conservative you are. Sure, you can postpone it if you have the power to do that. But it will come at great cost to your peers, and when time catches up to you all hell might break loose.

A thousand years ago, this worked fine. There wasn’t much technology, and I guess there were some generations that did not experience any great innovation at all. Sometimes there was a war that brought forth some new way to kill people or destroy things. Or some agricultural or architectural innovation that had some greater effect on a limited (but soon expanding) population. Nowadays, innovation is everywhere. It even arrives at an ever-increasing rate. You simply can’t stop adapting at some point and let the next generation deal with it – because they are already almost as overwhelmed as you are. We are riding on a train that keeps accelerating. We can’t stop it or even stop it from going even faster. But we can try to keep it from going off tracks. “Yes, it’s gotten faster again. Just don’t panic and try not to kill each other.”

Now while I seem to be predicting either the Singularity or World War III, you might be asking yourselves what that has still to do with e-books. I’ll come to that, but first let’s look at what separates an electronic reader with a virtual book from a physical book.

Physical book:

  • Durable, good paper can survive centuries if stored under acceptable conditions. Burns easily however, the information can degrade with pages missing or if some liquid is spilled on it.
  • Easy on the eyes, provided that the paper and ink make a good contrast and that the font is big enough for your needs.
  • Once you bought it, (usually) nobody is going to take it away from you.
  • Not compatible with modern technology.
  • Can be bought anywhere. You’ll get it immediately at a store and shipping is reasonably fast.
  • You can borrow it from a library, thereby getting a “flat-rate for reading” when buying a library card.
  • Copying and digitizing is hard, but far from impossible.
  • Borrowing and reselling is easy (because copying is hard/expensive)

E-Book:

  • Readers will soon be able to store an entire library while being smaller than most physical books
  • Relies on electricity. When the battery runs out of power, your reading session’s over.
  • If it breaks, all your books are gone unless you take special precautions.
  • You can find any word or sentence within milliseconds and even treat your library like a personal database.
  • Information can be erased, but does not degrade.
  • The presentation (like font-size) depends entirely on your reader. Modern readers have a crisp display and can even read the text to you (useful for the vision-impaired or while multitasking – you could do a right-brain activity like painting simultaneously)
  • Compatible to modern technology
  • Can be copied without additional cost, legally or illegally (notice how I don’t make a clear distinction between pros and cons?  It’s not that point I’m trying to make anyway)
  • Quick access to free books
  • No technology exists that adequately replaces the concept of “borrowing” or “reselling” (copying is too easy).
  • DRM-Technologies exist but have severe issues and probably always will.
  • More privacy – nobody sees the cover of your book (big selling point for women btw. Go ahead, google it 😉 )
  • Readers are still pretty expensive

Those are the facts I was able to find on the subject. The importance of each point differs from person to person. I’d probably switch to ebooks if I could get all my physical books as e-books without having to buy them again. Also the price of the reader is a huge issue. But if I read several books per month, I’d already have one. For now I’m sticking with Gutenberg’s paradigm.

But, to reiterate: those are facts. Logical reasons for you to either prefer physical- or e-books. Or to remain undecided, who knows.

The following however, are emotional, closed-minded reasons of no intrinsic value, or “Technophobic Bullshit-Reasons” for short.

  • “I’m staring at a computer-screen all day, I don’t want to keep doing that while reading.”
    First of all, computer-screens were hard to look at back when they were shrieking, flickering monstrosities with bad resolution. If you still find it hard to look at a monitor, you’ll probably need a new one. Also, e-book-screens use another completely different technology. Nothing flickers, you can see everything even in bright sunlight and only page-turns consume electricity. Resolution increases with each generation.
  • “I want to feel the pages between my fingers.”
    I don’t think that your paper-fetish has anything to do with reading. If you want to read, then it’s not a reason for not reading an e-book. If you want to caress a book, you can still buy one and get a room.
  • “I want to read a book that’s actually there. Not a virtual one.”
    Now THAT’s what I have been getting at with the philosophical stuff an the start of this post.

Now, as a computer scientist I might be biased toward the view that information is the more fundamental concept in this universe (more so than matter). But you cannot deny that when you touch something with your hands, all you get is information sent down your nerves and into your brain for further processing (and by deny I mean present good evidence toward the contrary). This has nothing to do with philosophy or religion, just cold biological facts. The same goes for all of your senses. Given the right equipment, that information (frequency-coded in a number of action potentials) could be replicated. Attach some electronics to the nerves in your hand and it would be possible to give you the impression that you are holding a marble (or any tangible object). Even more advanced electronics will some day be able to do the same thing to your optic nerve and show you an actual image of you holding the marble. People in the future will be facing a lot tougher “what is real”-questions than we are today. Believing only what you can see and touch was a great principle back when that behavior provided a small but at least consistent concept of the real world. Nowadays you have to be more alert and more careful.

But what is real?
Well, at at least in the case of e-books vs. physical books (p-books?) we can say: The information is real. No matter how it is stored or presented, it remains the same. Your views on technology won’t change that – but neither will progress! If you know what’s actually important (the information), you will find a way to deal with the problems (storage and presentation). Just don’t jump off that train. It might be already going too fast for that.

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