November 30, 2011

Technology vs. the cretins ….


It’s hard to have a public conversation about books these days without somebody jumping up to pump their fists, go woo woo, and decree that ebooks are going to kick print books’ collective ass into eternity. This is often followed up by some accusatory snarling about “dead trees,” “dinosaurs,” and “gate keepers.” Often enough, said snarler will add on something about print books, which are 100% recyclable, being just awful for the environment because they are chauffeured around the country in trucks, unlike ebook devices, which, true enough, aren’t recyclable at all and feed off ozone-depleting server farms, but which apparently walk themselves directly to your home.

The point, of course, is that it’s not a competition, or at least it shouldn’t be, as both formats are not only viable but pretty magnificent in their own ways. Which is one reason I’ve long thought the mania to position ebooks not as the emergence of a wonderful new technology but rather the death of a vile old technology is not something all that organic so much as something stoked by retailers who’ve bet the server farm on ebooks. And of course publishers have compounded things by not really putting up much of a fight for a more sentient reality, let alone their own business …

But that said, it’s still hard to imagine the level of insecurity that could inspire the kind of flip but vicious anger evident in a certain and unfortunately wide-spread brand of ebook lover.  You know the kind I’m talking about — the person at the panel discussion or in the comments section brimming with disdain and smug superiority, who would keep shouting j’accuse! j’accuse! if they knew what it meant, but who meanwhile expresses rapturous joy over the certain demise of publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores and the fellow humans who work there, and utter, throbbing contempt at anyone who confesses affection for print books. (Think I’m exaggerating? Check out the comments section to Laura Miller‘s friendly column about indie bookstores posted yesterday at Salon.)

To those of us who envision a future where the best technologies coexist and make each other better, it’s depressing at the outset and wearying over time, like watching a child having a temper tantrum take over the culture.

So it was heartening to read Clive Thompson‘s latest commentary in Wired Magazine, in which, with a kind of jolly insouciance, he gives it right back to the cretins:

Will the ebook kill off the print book?”

Every time I hear that question, I think about the “paperless office.” Back in the ’80s, the rise of word processors and email convinced a lot of people that paper would vanish. Why print anything when you could simply squirt documents around electronically?

We all know how that turned out. Paper use exploded; indeed, firms that adopted email used 40 percent more paper. That’s because even in a world of screens, paper offers unique ways to organize and share your thoughts, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper noted in The Myth of the Paperless Office. There’s also this technology truism to consider: When you make something easier to do, people do more of it.

And then things get interesting when he goes on to notice, “print-on-demand and self-publishing boomed by 169 percent—hitting a stunning 2.8 million unique titles.” That’s right, the rise in digital technology has contributed to a historic rise in people making print books.

In fact, he predicts, “This trend will accelerate in 15 or 20 years, when, as some observers predict, your average home printer will be able to spit out paperbacks.”

It reminds me of something I’ve noticed at panel discussions where I’ve been attacked for publishing print books (the attacker never seems to realize I also publish ebooks): On more than one occasion the person eager to call me a dinosaur or tree killer has pitched me their novel on my way out of the auditorium.

All of which resonates with my feeling that there is a deep-seated respect in our culture — still — for the importance of the printed book and, no less important, there is an equally deep-seated affection for it. We shouldn’t let the mindless din of a few, loud and nasty as they are, obscure that, nor bully us into failing to champion great technology — old or new.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.