There has been a lot of discussion lately on the Mythopoeic Society’s Yahoo group about digital books and e-readers. I am hardly in a position to comment on the relative merits of the different e-reader devices, since I have avoided the whole technology like a knuckle-dragging luddite. I could comment on some of the theoretical benefits of electronic texts, of which there are many, but for what it’s worth, I thought I might take a few moments to share some of my reasons for resisting this whole movement toward electronic books, just to be a countervailing voice. Normally when I do this, there is a technophilic rush to contradict or explain away each point of my argument, and I don’t mind if some of you champions of e-readers do that here and now, but I’m not really making these points to start a debate; rather, just to explain where I am coming from. Having said that, I welcome your comments.
Who owns my books?
When I buy a physical book, it is mine. Not just “mine” in some transitory way, but literally mine (without irony-quotes), for all time, to do with as I like. I can read it a hundred times, lend it, give it away, burn it, use it as a paperweight, keep open a window, whatever. Electronic books are only “mine” as long as the hardware doesn’t malfunction, the terms of agreement do not change, I don’t violate a warranty or license agreement, etc.
Imagine if those of us who have copies of the Ace “pirate” edition of The Lord of the Rings woke up one morning to find that somebody had come into our homes while we slept, removed these books from our bookshelves, and perhaps left a few dollars in their place. This is essentially what happened in 2009 when Amazon removed “unauthorized” copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles around the world. If that is not ironic — Big Brother reaching down from the cloud and taking something you thought was yours — I don’t know what is. There was a good deal of blowback, and Amazon claims they would not do the same thing in the future — I know that all techologies go through growing pains — but I do not want a retailer ever having access to my books. Why should they? What possible justification is there?
Speaking of 1984, it is not too hard to imagine a cloud-based analog to the memory holes whereby information can be made to disappear. It’s not so hard to imagine a horrifying Orwellian scenario here. It’s bad enough that U.S. intelligence agencies want to be able to examine your library borrowing history; how long until they demand warrants to sneak around in your e-reader too? I won’t digress to paint any further paranoid pictures — though I could — but the bottom line is that I do not want third parties having a back-door into controlling what I can and can’t read on a reader. For all sorts of reasons. What if publishers want to “correct” their texts in real time, updating people’s electronic copies silently and without permission. To allude to another recent development, what if the powers that be eventually decided to reach into people’s e-readers and change nigger to slave in copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? With e-readers, there is no reliable fixity of the text. I have a big problem with the very idea!
Once books are mine, whether “unauthorized” or not, I consider them mine. Just because Amazon promises they won’t reach out to a Kindle and remove something doesn’t mean you should believe them. The fact that they can is a problem. Technology wants to be used, or abused; if it’s there, it will be. And with the proliferation of e-book readers, you’d have to secure promises — and trust them — from all the different vendors. Why should this be necessary? I might warm up to e-books if I could believe they were really mine and that once I had purchased them, no one could touch them without literally breaking into my house. And one closing note on the point of ownership. Right now, we buy our books, for once and always; but as more and more people move to e-readers, how long until the model changes, and we are no longer buying books once, but merely renting them or paying a licensing fee each time we want to read them again? Publishers must be salivating at the very idea. I hear that the music industry — the pioneers of digital formats and players — have designs along this very line.
Format wars and the problems of technology
A book is a book — or should be. To read it, you only need eyes (or fingers, if the book is printed in braille). Yes, electronic texts have some advantages over print ones, of which perhaps the biggest is the ability to do powerful searches. But until these vendors can agree on a standard format, instead of fighting over their own proprietary ones — none of which add anything to the “technology” of reading — I am prepared to sit this out and wait. I read PDFs on my computer, and they are very useful. But that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go.
I don’t want to have to worry that the electronic books I might buy will only “work” on this device or that device. If I have purchased a big library of books for a Kindle, then decide I’d rather have a Nook, do I have to buy all those books again? Is it possible to transfer a digital library from one reader to another? I hope it is, but I’d be surprised if the vendors were cooperating. Maybe there are techniques or workarounds to get a digital book from one device to another. Is it easy, quick, painless? Probably not. Certainly not easier than handing a copy of physical book to a friend. And these techniques work only so long as the vendors don’t change their formats and device specifications. People will always find ways around limitations or attempted sandboxing, but if you deal in real books, it’s a moot point. And as avidly as people are trying to hack formats and devices to bypass their digital rights management and other limitations, the various hardware and software vendors are working just as furiously to circumvent that circumvention. It’s a vicious cycle which does nothing but compound the problems of format and technology.
And what about technology? The “technology” of the physical book is millennia old. Even printing with movable type is more than five centuries old (in Europe; movable type was invented in China four centuries earlier still). The “bugs” in the book — scribal error, palimpsests, material durability, legible typefaces, and sometimes even real bugs eating holes in the paper — these have basically been worked out. Computers are only a couple of generations old, and handheld digital devices of the e-reader variety have been around less than a decade. Even setting aside the generally quite poor standards of software development — and believe me, I have had an inside view of this for fifteen years now — one can’t expect anything but bugs. It’s going to be decades before the e-readers are as reliable as, say, an analog television used to be. (I have to say “used to be” because the analog television is now a living fossil, quickly going the way of the rotary dial telephone.)
A few other issues
Since I don’t use e-readers, I can’t answer this, but how long until you start seeing unavoidable commercials when you want to read a book? I have a blu-ray player, and not only do I have to update the firmware constantly even to watch many newer movies (which drives me absolutely up a wall), but the many-tentacled film industry and its technology partners have colluded to force me to watch commercials or movie trailers before I can enjoy the movie. Have you guys noticed this? You usually can’t go straight to the blu-ray menu anymore, and you usually can’t skip a trailer either (sometimes you can fast-forward, sometimes not). We don’t have car and beer commercials at the beginning of ours discs yet, but it can only be a matter of time — and with the firmware model, they can add this into all our existing players any time they like. How long until something like this happens with e-books? Why wouldn’t they force you to see an ad for other books from the same publisher, or whatever, if they could? They have total remote control over your device, don’t they?
I used to think it was impossible to lend electronic books — one of their biggest disadvantages, I always said. Apparently, some of the e-readers (and now libraries) do support book lending, in a limited fashion. That’s an improvement, but traditional books retain a big advantage here. And you still can’t give away or sell a digital book, can you?
If you can read, it’s pretty easy to figure out what to do with a book. But looking at an e-reader, or a compact disc, or a DVD, or a flash drive, how do you know this “is” (or “contains”) a book? Which is more intuitive, this or this? Imagine a couple of people opening a time capsule two hundred years from now. One takes out a physical book, the other a flash drive containing an entire library of important works. Who will be reading first? It’s easy for us to think, oh, all these formats and technologies will still be readily available and comprehensible to our descendents in the centuries and millennia to come. For this, the eight-track tape is a cautionary example; an even more compelling one is the piano roll.
Some might say it’s silly to worry about whether people will be able to read our e-books and use our e-readers centuries from now; people can use them and read them today, and that’s all that should matter. That’s a dangerously myopic view. If e-books actually make physical books so costly that publishers stop producing them, and then e-readers eventually die off too, literacy itself could be threatened. I doubt this will happen in my lifetime, in spite of the rabid trendmongering you hear these days to that effect. But a few generations, or a century from now, could we see a return to the Dark Ages when only the clerics and aristocracy could even read at all?
Books are also generally more durable than digital media. Tapes, discs, magnetic and optical storage technologies all erode over time — rather like those thermal paper receipts that fade into oblivion in a surprisingly short time. Books erode too, but much, much more slowly. We have books that are many centuries old, even ones that haven’t been particularly well taken care of — even ones that have been snatched out of a fire! It’s hard to see how a string of a billion 1’s and 0’s could survive as long. Of course, under today’s patterns of data proliferation, dozens or hundreds or thousands of copies are made, remade, saved, resaved, backed up and restored, over and over — but all that upkeep and maintenance just to preserve those streams of data? A single book, well taken care of, has the potential to outlast all of it.
What about electricity? All you need to read a physical book is a little light — fortunately, we still have the Sun, and luckily, nobody has figured out a way to charge licensing fees for using it. To read an e-book, you need electricity. Your e-reader can store a little of this, but in a protracted power failure, your entire library might as well have vanished in a puff of smoke. If you were stuck on a desert island, which would you rather have, a single physical book or your entire library on an e-reader? And setting aside the possibility of power outages, I just don’t like the fact that e-readers mean consuming more. With e-readers, it is no longer enough to use just a very little of the energy we convert from eating and drinking; now we have to consume electricity too. How much doesn’t really matter, it’s more than physical books require, and there is only so much electricity to go around. I think we should be trying to consume less energy, not more, especially since we are stuck (for the present) burning through a finite supply of fossil fuels. Some people argue that printing books means killing trees. But using e-readers comes to much the same thing, because it takes fossil-fuel energy to manufacture and power them. At least you can recycle the paper in unwanted books; the energy spent on digital “books” is unrecoverably gone forever.
There are many benefits to electronic texts, without a doubt. I use them myself all the time. But I prefer physical books, and I have physical copies of 99% of everything I have in electronic format. I never read an electronic book when I have the option of reading a print copy. And until most of the problems and limitations I have discussed above are addressed, I don’t imagine I ever will.